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Teaching new content at a leadership development program last summer, I concluded with the statement that leaders need to be more agile, meaning they can’t rely on a one-size-fits-all style of leadership in all situations. I’d heard the term “agile leadership” before and assumed it held precisely this meaning. I was wrong.

What Is Agile Leadership?

Today agile leadership as a leadership style is rooted in concepts of software development. The term “agile” has evolved to refer to an approach to people and team leadership that is focused on improving adaptability in dynamic and complex business environments. But before "agile" became a software development methodology, agility meant quickness.

As someone who coaches and trains leaders, I see the need for increased agility in most client environments — from traditional manufacturing companies to high-tech online retailers. The ability to shift one’s perspective on — and response to — problems and opportunities in an adept and fluid manner is an aspect of leadership agility that tends to be overlooked by much of the current business literature. (An exception to the oversight is Ron Heifetz's beautiful analogy of moving from the dance floor to the balcony.)

Whether you’re dealing with employees, clients, customers, boards, or even technology, quick resourcefulness and the ability to move with ease is essential on a daily basis as a leader. In short, agility is a foundational skill, and it’s one that Insight Experience can help sharpen.

Insight Experience has identified four dimensions on which it is important for leaders to be able to shift their perspective or approach to a situation with agility:

  • Focus: Organization vs. Market.

  • Horizon: Tactics vs. Vision.

  • Orientation: Team vs. Enterprise.

  • Approach: Empathetic vs. Analytical.


Balancing Leadership

When I think about a metaphor for this leadership requirement, I think of sound mixing. On a sound board there are multiple levers set at precise levels to produce different sound qualities. No one specific setting is “correct.” Rather the environment, situation, and desired outcome determine how the levels are set. It’s the same with leadership. A leader needs to consciously choose the perspective from which to view, process, and respond to a challenge or opportunity, depending on the current situation and environment, in order to achieve a particular outcome. The dimensions on which leaders need to determine their approach are like the levers on a sound board or instrument panel.

Agile leadership

While a market orientation is useful for determining evolving customer trends and keeping tabs on the competition, it’s also important to have an awareness of organizational competencies and issues that might contribute to or impede market success. In addition, leaders need to balance their focus between their vision and the tactical measures required to achieve it. And we’ve all seen in recent years ways in which using an analytical approach at the expense of the interpersonal has spelled disaster for more than a few leaders, underscoring the importance of the need for both approaches. Finally, more and more, we hear clients say they want us to help leaders develop an ability to move between a focus on their individual team or business unit and a view toward contributing to the success of the enterprise.

How Do We Talk About and Develop This Kind of Agility?

Because technology and innovation have co-opted the word “agile” and the phrase “agile leadership” to mean something else, the question remains: What should we call the essential leadership skill of nimbly changing one’s perspective on a situation? At Insight Experience, we talk about it in terms of Balancing Leadership in an effort to capture the notion that leaders must always be at the ready to shift their view from market to company, from vision to tactical, from interpersonal to analytical, and/or from enterprise to team — and vice versa, as appropriate.

It’s important that leaders be intentional about how they set these levers, and they need to be agile and skillful at making the shift. This latter part requires effort. Most of us habitually look at things one way: through a lens with which we are already comfortable. Looking through a new lens can be tremendously beneficial — as well as enormously uncomfortable. Leaders need to be adept at managing through their own discomfort and be proactive about their growth. They need to be able to stretch their capabilities along each dimension to be able to move further and further out of their narrow comfort zones.

Successful leaders not only have the ability to move adeptly between the poles of these four dimensions — but have also developed a sense of the optimal place along the spectrum to be on any given dimension at any particular time for the best outcome. Ask most of them how they learned this valuable skill and they’ll tell you it comes from experience. Having self-awareness during the experiences that help build this skill and taking the time to reflect on it and integrate the new learnings into one’s leadership can accelerate its development.

One-on-one coaching and leadership development programs rooted in experiential learning can facilitate the development of the ability to move with agility along these crucial leadership dimensions. Our simulation-based leadership development programs are designed to do this — and more. Schedule a chat with us to see how we can help you, your teams, and your leaders master this fundamental skill.

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