How to be a Truly Agile Leader

Truly nimble executives understand that they need to strike the right balance between being faithful to non-negotiable standards and seeking innovative changes.

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Competent yet unwilling to adapt — this is the shortest definition of a rigid employee. Their inflexibility makes them prone to making poor decisions. While no one wants to become set in their ways, many organizational standards promote rigidness. If you answer yes to the below, you might be enforcing these standards:

• Do you believe in managing people solely through rules and standards?

• Are you sure, deep in your heart, that there is one perfect way to carry out work responsibilities?

• Have you already crossed a thin line between checking if people are following the rules and controlling them or being judgmental if they don't?

• Is it virtually impossible to make you change your mind?

If you're closer to saying yes to the above than you'd like to be, it's time to get serious about becoming an agile leader.

On the surface it might sound easy — rigid leaders do what feels comfortable or familiar and are inflexible. So, you need to be 'comfortable with uncomfortable' and open to changes. But be careful. Agility is another overused buzzword that makes it hard to understand how a nimble manager truly works. Moreover, agility is mainly associated with innovation, testing and learning. It might not be as useful in certain roles or industries, such as quality control in the food industry. That's why truly nimble executives understand that they need to strike the right balance between being faithful to non-negotiable standards and seeking innovative changes. Fortunately, there is a set of leadership behaviors that characterizes highly effective, agile leaders.

Most of the problems encountered by modern leaders are complex and create dynamic networks of issues that interact with each other. Therefore, an agile leader stops using cause and effect tactics, and they are good at systemic thinking. Such an approach facilitates understanding of a broad picture and introduces a holistic perspective. Nimble managers and executives observe how the structure relates to behavior and look for options and possible adaptations. They also know that while all the parts of the system can separately act rationally, all these activities together might bring terrible results. That's why they investigate components in relation to each other. If you want to acquire systemic thinking, start off by paying attention to the questions you ask. Be cognizant of underlying structural relationships or patterns of behavior exhibited over time.

To be successful system thinkers, agile leaders use their superpowers: curiosity and learning. It is common that they go beyond their silos and build cross-organizational teams to harvest the benefits of diverse perspectives. Yet it is not enough to say that they are effective learners. Agile leaders are outstanding at it. For them, teams, clients, competitors and organizations outside their industry are the source of knowledge and inspiration. If you want to follow such an approach, start with embracing a beginner's mindset and realize you don't have all the answers. Accept new information and change decisions as new relevant data comes in. Look outside your practice, your company, even your sector. Dedicate time for learning so that it becomes a daily habit.

Since agile leaders are innovators, they need to be really good at communicating what they want to achieve since, in many cases, no one has done it before. In some cases, it's even better to over-communicate. That may sound counterintuitive. Why should you waste time repeating yourself after delivering your message? Because it reinforces important news, helps people navigate the intricate business environment, supports retaining key information and ensures that everyone hears and understands the message. Whenever you introduce changes, explain complex issues, express vision or tend to conflict, overcommunicate to reach clarity.

Nimble managers don't focus on failing forward. They want to fail smart. Instead of experimenting on every idea, agile leaders develop hypotheses and conduct informed trials from them based on a clear system to measure the results. They try to predict obstacles and challenges they may encounter and think about contingency plans to overcome them. Their abundant creativity is closely linked with the idea of de-risking projects — not avoiding risks, but minimizing them.

If you want to fail smart, begin creating options. Agility means you're forward-thinking and innovative, so you're able to have a plan B, C or even Z for your business. By learning how to develop flexible road maps, you increase your chance of finding the best path possible.

Agility is not only visible in the resourcefulness of nimble managers but also in the way they lead people. Agile leaders know how to juggle different leadership styles. When it is necessary, they show a more direct and transactional approach. In crisis mode, for example, a directive leadership style might be useful to make swift decisions to react to an issue. Since agile leaders are comfortable with distributing power, decision-making and leadership in their team, they excel at developing talents through coaching and delegation. If you want to help people grow and empower them, make coaching and delegation a habit. That will give you time to be more strategic and create development opportunities for your people. After all, what makes an agile leader unique compared to a rigid leader are talents they surround themselves with.

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