Leading an organisation through turbulent times is incredibly difficult. And if the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have taught us anything, it’s that a business leader’s agility – that is, their ability to lead through sudden and unexpected change – can determine an organisation’s future success or failure.
The agile leaders of today now know that agility is the key to leading their businesses into an uncertain future. They’re flexible, collaborative, focused, open-minded and open to new ways of doing things, which allows an organisation within a changing business landscape to re-evaluate its long-term goals and meet its short-term needs quickly and effectively.
But agility isn’t a leadership characteristic to be applied only amid pandemic-size chaos. Sure, we’ve learned some lessons recently on the importance of agility in business – for business leaders to think strategically, inspire confidence and resilience in teams, and be able and willing to pivot quickly to adapt to change. The success of true leadership will be tested by how business leaders apply these lessons moving forward.
The decades-old acronym VUCA, meaning volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, was used to describe these changing times, and depicts events and situations that are difficult to understand, thus making it hard to predict the outcomes of any actions taken.
The importance of agility in leadership was on the rise long before the pandemic came along.
The indisputable connection between VUCA and the rise in agility as an essential leadership quality was also recognised by Bill Joiner, President of ChangeWise and author of Leadership Agility: Five Levels of Mastery for Anticipating and Initiating Change. "Two deep, long-term trends – accelerating change and growing interdependence – have made agility a global imperative," he states in an essay published in 2013 by Duke Corporate Education’s global educator network.
"In an increasingly unpredictable world, one thing we can confidently predict is that the pace of change will be faster next year and even faster the year after … Agile leadership, then, is not just another tool for a manager’s toolkit. It is a core capacity, a ‘metacompetency’, if you will, that affects how leaders deploy all their other competencies."
Agility for Leaders
According to Chuck Mollar, author of The Rise of the Agile Leader: Can You Make the Shift?, organisations around the world that are grappling with change and attempting to develop more business agility may not achieve the desired outcome if they don’t focus specifically on their leadership.
"Many companies are attempting agile transformation, but without a shift in traditional leadership mindsets, abilities and development, they will not succeed," he explains in his book. "To navigate change and achieve success, you need to become an agile leader. Today’s leaders need to be agile in order to develop and drive agile teams, organisations, culture and results."
"Many companies are attempting agile transformation, but without a shift in traditional leadership mindsets, abilities and development, they will not succeed." – Chuck Mollar
The American Management Association (AMA) also determines that "no team can achieve true agility without a strong and agile leader to guide them" and that in the current global climate, "every leader must recognise, understand and develop the characteristics of agile leaders". The AMA defines these key characteristics to be: focused; a strategic thinker; bold; inspirational; consistent; resilient; dynamic; flexible; and communicative.
Steering Through Disruption
Developing an agile business, capable of weathering the inevitable storms ahead, starts at the very top. It’s the leaders who set the ‘agility agenda’ – hire the right people, nurture a proactive culture and constitute practices and behaviours to ensure agility permeates and is cohesive throughout their organisations.
Accenture’s ‘2020 Business Agility Report’ recognised that a "business agility revolution" was well underway and outlined in its findings that leadership style was the biggest challenge to business agility adoption faced by most organisations. The analysis revealed challenges included a lack of vision and insufficient sponsorship for business agility by management.
The Nine Principles of Agile Leadership
An influential 2017 white paper written by the Agile Business Consortium Culture and Leadership Working Group identifies nine defining principles of agile leadership essential for an organisation to effect true "agile business change". Organised under the three key competencies of communication, commitment and collaboration, these principles provide a clear and comprehensive guide to the essential requirements for leadership agility.
Principle 1: Actions speak louder than words
Agile leadership is not only about driving and promoting change, it is also about being the change.
Principle 2: Improved quality of thinking leads to improved outcomes
One of the main complaints in many organisations is that there isn’t enough time.
Principle 3: Organisations improve through effective feedback
Feedback is a critical ingredient of continuous improvement and without it, little or no learning would take place in the organisation.
Principle 4: People require meaning and purpose to make work fulfilling
Agile leaders focus on building and sharing a common understanding and purpose.
Principle 5: Emotion is a foundation to enhanced creativity and innovation
Innovation happens best when we reduce our fears and ego defensiveness, thereby freeing our minds to imagine, create, connect and explore the new and unknown with others in a non-competitive way.
Principle 6: Leadership lives everywhere in the organisation
Agile leadership needs to live and breathe at all levels of an organisation, rather than being something that is found only at the pinnacle.
Principle 7: Leaders devolve appropriate power and authority
Employee empowerment is a philosophy and a set of leadership practices that deliver real benefits for an organisation.
Principle 8: Collaborative communities achieve more than individuals
Collaboration is an important aspect of organisational life and is an essential ingredient for enhanced performance, creativity and innovation.
Principle 9: Great ideas can come from anywhere in the organisation
People who are close to a problem usually have the best ideas about how to solve it.