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The four dimensions of leadership agility

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What makes an effective leader in 2020? Dimitrios Spyridonidis, Associate Professor of Leadership and Innovation, Warwick Business School, reveals the four dimensions of leadership agility.

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Since it emerged in 2001, agile has evolved from the pages of a manifesto for software designers to many facets of business, including strategic leadership.

The idea that a company can examine the external environment, its internal capabilities, customer demands, develop a strategy, then align people with it and implement the strategy just once a year is over.

The market and customer will not be waiting around for the next strategy, they will be moving on without you. This is an ongoing process, which means leaders need to create a resilient organisation in agile terms and create positive energy.

We live in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) environment with intense global competition, fast-paced change and information overload. The VUCA world requires organisations to constantly adapt and renew the products and services they offer.

But how do you make sure your organisation is able to renew itself on an ongoing basis? This is where leadership agility is needed.

The paradox of leadership is that people go to leaders for ideas and answers. The CEO can give answers for present-day problems, but for future problems leaders need to look at them in a different way – they need to move from being an expert to a catalyst.

An expert means: ‘I know what the problem is and I know the answers, let me tell you what to do’. A catalyst, on the other hand, is: ‘I don’t know what the problem is and I don’t know what the answer is, but I can create the right conditions for us as an organisation to find the right solution for the future challenges’.

According to top US management consultant and coach Bill Joiner there are different levels to leadership agility; expert – tactical and problem-solving orientation; achiever – strategic, outcome orientation; catalyst – visionary, facilitative orientation.

Only 10 per cent of leaders are able to operate at the catalyst level, with a good example being Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, who has built a vision around a sustainable future. As a catalyst he brings in the right people and creates a safe environment to develop the ideas for the innovations of the future.

There are four dimensions to leadership agility:

1. Context-Setting Agility

This refers to the leadership’s situational awareness and sense of purpose. An expert would assess a problem by looking inside the organisation, while an achiever would understand its broader organisational context. A catalyst, though, would look at the problem in the broader environment the firm is in.

For instance, Polman wanted to transform Unilever as customer demands about its effect on the environment changed. He changed how the company did business from top to bottom and wanted to influence customer behavior to benefit the environment as well.

That is an example of an agile leader that operates at the catalyst level. The problem of environmental sustainability was set in the context of the society and his vision gave Unilever the sense of purpose to make its policies more environmentally friendly, impacting the organisation, the industry and society.

2. Self Leadership

Experts have very limited self-awareness and what motivates their development is their very stereotypical idea of leadership, such as wanting to be Steve Jobs.

The next level, achiever, has a better sense of their various strengths and weakness, while what motivates their development is some sense of a philosophy with an ideal leader in mind.

The catalyst has a very strong sense of their strengths and weaknesses and they are motivated by an ongoing mission to develop themselves.

3. Stakeholder Agility

This is the ability to identify key stakeholders, understand their point of view and manage their different perspectives. It also refers to their comprehension of the nature of power.

At the expert level there is a very limited ability to take into account different stakeholder perspectives and they believe power comes from authority.

An achiever is more reflective and able to grasp the different stakeholders’ views; they see authority coming with leadership but believe power can be a bit more distributed across the organisation.

For the catalyst, they have a clear picture of the various stakeholder perspectives and see power coming from their vision and its ability to bring people together. Take for example, Indra Nooyi’s vision for PepsiCo. That vision is Performance with Purpose, an initiative for sustainability, and an appeal to the values of a changing culture, the changing customer demands and reducing PepsiCo’s environmental impact while growing its business.

4. Creative Agility

Do you have the skills to solve problems? The capabilities needed to do this are connective awareness and reflective judgement.

An inability to contrast different views and seeing them as black or white is the signal of an expert, who has limited problem-solving skills, using their technical knowledge instead.

A catalyst, on the other hand, understands the many shades of grey surrounding problems and they have an ability to reflect on their judgments.

The achiever, sits in between, being able to recognize some differing views and look back to some extent on judgments.

Once a leader reaches the catalyst level they are able to move back and forth among the three levels depending on what the situation desires. For instance, they might operate as a catalyst, but when facing a crisis they can then use their expert knowledge to tackle it.

But they can also tackle adaptive challenges to disrupt the existing status quo, such as building a strategy for the next 10 years. This is when they need to become a catalyst, as adaptive challenges require experimentation and disruption, new learnings and possibly even a change of culture.

An example is The Atlantic newspaper, which disrupted itself into a digital publication. That required a massive change of how it was organised, its technology and culture – that is when leadership becomes the catalyst, because the organisation doesn’t have the expertise.

Thus, leadership agility is not only about ability, but understanding the situation and picking the appropriate style.

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