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Agile Leadership

How agility will drive leadership success in a post-pandemic era.

The pandemic has exposed the powerful impact of agile leadership. Research suggests that agile leaders and teams were more successful at adapting to the pandemic early on and were more likely to find ways to keep growing throughout the crisis. There are now predictions that agile leaders and teams will also realize greater success post-pandemic.

Defining agility

On a physical level, agility is about whole-body movement—the ability to fluctuate your velocity or direction in response to stimuli (e.g., a fast-moving ball). It is about strength, power, and technique, as well as cognitive processes, such as visual-scanning and anticipation. If you’re physically agile, you can move, see, and do many things simultaneously. Leadership agility isn’t all that different.

Agile leaders can quickly respond to stimuli of all kinds. They also possess strength, power, and technique. In the case of agile leaders, however, strength, power, and technique take a somewhat different form.

Strength to orient, observe, decide, and act

Agile leaders need to be strong, but in this case, strength isn’t about muscle. It's about "OODA"—the strength to orient, observe, decide, and act.

Amid a rapidly evolving situation, the ability to orient yourself, observe what is happening, be decisive, and act is critical. We saw this time and time again throughout the pandemic. Post-pandemic, this strength will remain essential to leadership success.

Power to prioritize, intuit, and process

Leadership agility is also about power—specifically, the power to focus, intuit, and, above all else, process multiple channels of information simultaneously.

First, leaders need the power to prioritize projects and see them through despite everything competing for their attention. This is especially true during times of crisis and rapid change. But it’s not the only power leaders need to succeed.

Intuition—the ability to anticipate problems before they happen—is another key trait. While leaders are often better off relying on data than trusting their gut, there is evidence that even when armed with reams of data, intuition can be valuable. As Dr. Gurpreet Dhaliwal concluded in his 2011 article published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, in a medical setting, “Experimental studies have shown that instructing trainees to use intuition can lead to equal or greater accuracy than analytical reasoning.”

Finally, leaders need the power to process multiple channels of information (i.e., to effectively triage all the information coming their way without getting overwhelmed).

Techniques to fly at different altitudes

In sports, core strength and inherent power are just a start. To rise to the top of one’s game, techniques are also essential. Leadership agility is similar. You might possess an inherent ability to stay focused amid chaos or a powerful intuition, but without the right techniques, these core strengths and powers are compromised.

Consider the importance of cultivating the techniques needed to fly at different altitudes. Among other things, this means knowing when to fly closer to the ground to avoid missing essential details and when to find a comfortable place to cruise at a higher height to take perspective. It also means understanding how to toggle between different altitudes to avoid turbulence.

Doing this well means building the right techniques. Sometimes, it also means bringing in a new co-pilot or crew members.

Lead by example

As a leader, your actions often speak louder than your words. By demonstrating agility—that is, showing what agility looks like and its impact—you’ll serve as a powerful role model for your team and organization.

Long before the pandemic, some leadership experts were already writing about the growing importance of agility. And as Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs observed in their 2017 article on leadership agility, the ability to lead effectively in the face of rapid change and high complexity is no longer simply a C-suite concern. “Because change and complexity now affect managers at all organizational levels,” they write, “this is a competency that’s increasingly needed not just in the executive suite but throughout the company.”

As we move out of the pandemic and into what promises to be a radically disrupted workplace and economy, the need for both leaders and managers to cultivate agility will be more critical than ever.

References

Dhaliwal G. (2011). Going with your gut. Journal of general internal medicine, 26(2), 107–109.

Joiner, B. and Josephs, S. (2007), "Developing agile leaders", Industrial and commercial training, 39 (1), 35-42.

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