Agile Leadership – Be the Change you Seek

Apr 2nd, 2019

(Agile Leaders Series, No. 1)

Success today requires the agility and drive to constantly rethink, reinvigorate, react and reinvent

– Bill Gates



This is the first in a series of articles by

Potential Plus International of what it means to be an Agile Leader in the 21st century.


April marks the start of the new financial year in the UK, an intensive time for business planning. Today’s unprecedented environment – disruption, uncertainty, complexity, speed and change – requires every company to be continually responding, reacting and thinking about the future in different ways. As Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, said, ‘When what used to be a tail wind is now a head wind, you have to lean into that and figure out what to do.’

Leaders the world over are asking their teams to be ‘agile’ – to keep pace, to be creative to drive business success. But what does that mean for your own leadership stance? What are you changing about your leadership to engage and encourage this agility in others?

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand Prime Minister, recently showed herself a truly agile leader when she responded swiftly to an unprecedented situation with compassion, intelligence and decisiveness. Her actions not only united a community at a time of national grief but inspired the world.

People will move mountains when you engage their hearts and minds. Truly agile leaders achieve this deeper level of engagement – not only with their teams but with themselves. This internal commitment to change along with our external ability to change is what creates sustainable agility.

Agile Leadership is a broad subject which we will be exploring over the next few months. To begin, here are six practical strategies to stimulate agility in your leadership and organisation:


  1. Connect with your ‘why’

A CEO client wanted to capitalise on a significant growth opportunity for his business and had a clear vision with a strong business rational.  Before taking his plan to his teams, he invested time in a Vision Day with me to connect his business vision to his personal vision, including the impact on and benefits for his family life.  This clarity of purpose sparked a drive within him, triggered new ideas that he had not previously considered and translated into him writing a plan in an exciting and different way. This personal passion and commitment shone through as he prepared to take the plan to his team.


  1. Do the groundwork before initiating change

In their desire to take action, leaders have a tendency to focus on the process of change and not the emotional impact on their people. People change with their emotions before they change with their actions. That’s why it is critical to make time for ‘important conversations’ to enable individuals to process and clarify out-loud their thoughts about the change, where they are in the process and what they want for the future.

In my client’s case, as part of the change process, I held one-to-ones with key team members. These conversations allowed people to express their concerns and increased their awareness about the benefits the changes could bring them, and why in some cases they were resisting the change. People saw they had more choices and control than they had previously thought. Without these conversations, some people would have brought their insecurities and defensiveness with them through the process, hindering change. Instead, people came to the team sessions that followed with a much deeper connection to the project, engaged and motivated to advance.


  1. Be willing to adapt your leadership style

Being directive and decisive are traditional leadership strengths, and historically a key criterion for succeeding as a leader. My client had always created the business plan and presented it to his teams. This year, we organised a two-day event which included him and his team creating the plan together.  This inclusive approach was a very different process for him, but the result was a creative, ambitious plan which the team own, and are passionate to deliver.  


  1. Be curious to innovate

A CEO client of a global manufacturing company, where health and safety rigour was key, was conscious of the continual update of health and safety measures that needed to be adhered to.  He makes a point of seeking out new and innovative leadership practices. In his travels, he recently visited a factory where he noticed a mural of handprints both large and small at the entrance. The handprints belonged to the staff and their children and it transpired that every employee, on arrival, touched the mural and vowed every morning to return safely to their family that night. This simple idea had an emotional engagement and impact far beyond what even the highest quality training and best practice safety processes could achieve alone, and he has brought this idea back to the sites he is responsible for.


  1. Pause to Move Forward

In today’s VUCA environment, (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) leaders cannot have all the answers. Agile leaders embrace what they do not know, and actively seek out and learn from others. By continually creating moments to question and to reflect, you can stay attuned to what is happening in the world, in your industry, what is coming down the line, and respond accordingly. It may sound counter-intuitive in the quest for speed, but it is essential to pause to move forward. Carve out time to ask bold questions – to your teams, across generations and service lines, in and outside your business.  Also, ask your teams what they need from you and when they respond, do it!  For example, during the important conversations in my first client example, the teams asked the CEO to communicate on a more continual basis. During the two-day team event they agreed a process together that would consistently deliver a more transparent, collaborative communication culture.  


  1. Continually Test and Acknowledge

People are motivated when they see progress. When you have initiated change, such as new systems or structures, consistently follow it through to see what is working and what could be adjusted. When the leader of a key team at one of my clients left suddenly, the company had to respond quickly to meet a critical business opportunity. As a temporary measure, while they launched the recruitment process for a replacement senior manager, they decided to restructure and give more responsibility to the junior members of the team and include mentoring. As they did so, they realised that this young team were rising to the challenge, motivated by the opportunity they saw to progress in the organisation and make their mark. As a result, the management team changed their plan, decided not to recruit a senior person in, and is now letting this super-charged team own and drive their initiative; and is rewarding them for their efforts.

Simon Sinek says, “When people are financially invested they want a return.  When people are emotionally invested they want to contribute.” The new hero leaders in the 21st century will be those who continually inspire emotional engagement – in themselves and their teams – for competitive edge.


Next month: Agile Leadership in the age of AI, the second article in the Potential Plus International Agile Leaders series “Agile Leaders in the 21st century”.


Take time out to clarify your next bold step and contact Oona Collins to discuss our bespoke one-to-one Vision Intensive Programme. Sign up to our Leadership Insights & Articles here.



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