The agile leadership paradox

In our series of personal development columns we ask careers and coaching experts for their advice for HR directors on getting ahead in 2019 and beyond

Technology is transforming human behaviour and how we communicate. But it’s also raising questions about who, or what, is in control. In this environment we need to create new ways of working that enable us to respond to unexpected challenges and opportunities with speed and accuracy. In short: we need to be more agile.

Agile leaders are skilled at connecting people to perform better. They are also adept at disrupting the way people think. So being an agile leader means being both an enabler and a disruptor at the same time. This is the agile leadership paradox.

Agile leaders are also connected leaders. They know how to connect with their teams, customers, colleagues, and wider stakeholders. They also know how to connect with societal trends that are shaping a new reality around us – a digitally-accelerating, politically-unstable reality that creates novel opportunities and raises the threat of obsolescence across products, roles and whole sectors. In this new reality agile leaders make choices that define business success or the achievement of their goals on a day-to-day basis.

Agile leaders also need to help others embrace uncertainty and flourish by working in ways we hadn’t even heard of five years ago. For some this may mean incremental change in response to competitive forces. For others it may require wholesale reinvention.

Many organisations are seeking to succeed in an ever-increasing context of disruption; from digital transformation to economic uncertainty and political upheaval. This disruption creates opportunities for major commercial or service delivery advancement. Seizing these opportunities is often fraught with risk, but not seizing them can be riskier still.

So to become an agile leader you need to be both an enabler and a disruptor. But what do enablers and disruptors actually do?

Enablers will:

1. Provide clarity of direction: Talk to people about your organisation’s purpose so that priorities are aligned and there is a shared resolve.

2. Build trust and demonstrate empathy: Engage others by communicating in an authentic way.

3. Empower others: Devolve decision-making responsibility, coach others and develop their capabilities so they can step up.

4. Work together: Collaborate effectively to bring diverse people together and achieve shared goals.

5. Develop learning agility: Encourage people to learn from their mistakes and nurture their skills.

So what do disruptors do?

1. Question the status quo: Cut through bureaucracy and reimagine the operating model to drive efficiency.

2. Be bold and decisive: Be optimistic, confident, and determined to achieve your mission.

3. Develop digital literacy: Understand enough of what is going on digitally to be able to support it effectively, and use advances in technology to drive innovation and efficiency.

4. Create new ways of thinking: Embrace radical possibilities, bust silos and challenge tribalism.

5. Stay close to customer trends: Understand the ever-evolving customer experience.

By combining the counter-intuitive approaches of the enabler and the disruptor you will be on the path to agile leadership.

Agile leaders obsess about continuous improvement. They are intolerant of inefficiency and balance a keen awareness of customer needs with a desire to minimise the time needed to serve these needs. In an era of big data they practise the critical interpretation of data to see the patterns. This focus on learning, getting better every day, and assimilating new ways of thinking, being and performing lies at the heart of the agile leader’s mindset.

Simon Hayward is CEO of leadership specialist Cirrus and author of The Agile Leader