What Does It Take To Be An Agile Leader?

Have you ever had a leader who continually finds ways to succeed as the world around them constantly changes? What is it about these leaders that gives them the this ability to navigate success through all of these distractions, changes and uncertainty?

In observing these leaders, there are a number of traits that they display that gives them this ability to succeed. Agile leaders stand apart from others by displaying these six key qualities:

1. They have awareness of the internal and external environment in which they operate, and can anticipate and recognize when changes in that environment will impact them.

Core to agility is the ability to react to changes in your environment. In order to be able to react, you need to be able to recognize the opportunity or need for change, and the appropriate actions to take. Agile leaders have great awareness, both within the organization and the external market and environment in which they operate. Internal awareness is critical to not only being able to navigate changes within the organization, but how to leverage and build support in what you are trying to achieve. 

External awareness is equally important. Agile leaders need to be aware of not only current events, but be constantly staying abreast of future trends in the market. Whether it is changes in the competitive landscape, changing consumer preferences, or technology that will potentially disrupt your industry, agile leaders always need to be on the lookout and ready to adapt. 

2. They take a longer term outlook and create a connection between where they are today and where the organization wants to be in the future.

Agility is not about constantly looking and acting with a short term focus. One of the common misconceptions around corporate agility is that it results in constant changes and pivots and becomes disruptive to the company operations and performance. Contrary to this belief, agile approaches improve longer term performance as they not only ensure the ongoing relevance and viability of your strategy, they build focus and accountability around delivery of the activities necessary to ensure your long-term success. It is this ability for agile leaders to maintain focus on both short term and long term priorities and maintain alignment between these business horizons that sets them apart from other leaders. 

3. They have the ability to maintain effectiveness even when dealing with change and ambiguity.

The agile leader has the ability to see through all of the distractions and continue to focus on what is important. They act calmly and rationally and see dealing with disruption and change as part of their role and the normal business environment in which they operate.

Agile leaders also help their team and those around them stay focussed during these times. In staying calm and composed, their style and behaviour helps the people around them feel more secure and assured during periods of uncertainty and change. They continue to reinforce the longer journey so that their is continuity of purpose, at the same time shielding their teams from the distractions allowing them to remain focussed on key activities that will drive success. 

4. They are prepared to adapt their strategy as needed based on evolving or changing circumstances.

Why does uncertainty paralyze some leaders while others find ways to navigate uncertainty and continue to move forward? Agile leadership doesn’t come naturally. When faced with uncertainty or change, the human mind works counter to what we want from an agile leader. Uncertainty creates fear and anxiety in the human mind and our tendency is to avoid change and accept the status quo even where it is apparent that this may not be the best approach. We also tend to hang on to bad strategies longer than we should. It's similar to the loss averse investor. We can't come to take the loss so hang on in the hope that one day our investment will come back into the money despite there being other better opportunities. Same applies to leadership. Sometimes we just need to make the hard decision and move on from a bad position, or the even harder decision of moving from a good position to an even better position. 

These behavioural biases also impact our cognitive decision making abilities. Agile leaders have the ability to overcome these natural tendencies by being able to rationalize what needs to be done rather than letting pure emotion cloud our judgement. The agile leader is analytical, they base decisions on data and information to make informed and properly calculated decisions, and it's the outcome of this rigour and process that acts as the trigger to change strategy and direction as needed.

5. They have the confidence and support to make decisions, and to take accountability even in uncertain situations.

Some leaders consider the safe bet is to do nothing, to avoid any decision that could potentially adversely impact them. That might protect them in the short term, but longer term if the decision was necessary and in the best interest of the company, then it will be detrimental to those leaders and the success of the company. Agile leaders have a strong belief in doing what's right and the confidence that if you make the tough decision in good faith and in the interest of the organisation, it will be positively viewed. Agile leaders also don't simply expect support for change, they actively build support for change through explaining the rationale and necessity, the benefit of change, and path forward. In doing so, they are prepared to be accountable for their decisions, in good times and bad. 

6. They are able to communicate and engage their teams in a shared vision, which provides purpose and direction to employees even in challenging or uncertain times.

Through ambiguity and change, agile leaders maintain within their team a shared vision, and clarity of their teams purpose and connection with what they want to achieve. Even when that vision may be transitioning, they are open and transparent and maintain trust in the manager/employee relationship. Today's NeuroScience shows that the human mind tends to place greater emphasis on the negatives, so the agile leader is constantly working to create and maintain a positive mindset and energy within the team. 

They also understand that in order to be an agile leader, you need to have an agile team around you that is equally capable to react and pivot when required. Through their communication, behaviours, and actions, they influence the behaviours and mindset of their teams and cascade to their team many of the qualities that make them successful as an agile leader.


In applying these qualities and traits to how agile leaders progress the organization's agenda and purpose through change, we have observed that there are four key steps in the agile process they they have mastered. The first step is this awareness and opportunity for positive change. They leverage their institutional and external awareness to recognize opportunities, both present and future, to move the organization forward. The agile leader then articulately builds and communicates the vision of what this opportunity presents for the organization, and builds engagement for change within their team and other key stakeholders. As expert executioners, they then proceed to plan and deliver on their promises and commitments. 

As we can see, the agile leader is not simply a one-dimensional leader. There are many things that the agile leader needs to master in order to be effective as an agile leader. Given that agile leadership does not come naturally to most leaders, it is something that will need to be constantly developed within your leadership ranks. 


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