Leadership and management skills

Jack be nimble, Jack be quick- Is Jack therefore an Agile leader?

We discuss four key characteristics of an Agile leader.


Jennie Marshall | 13 December 2016

When I was younger, if someone described you as ‘agile’ it meant you were likely athletic, active, easy-moving and physically or mentally nimble.

Nowadays, like many other words and terms, it can have a different meaning.

When I started working as a team leader alongside Project Manager’s, Agile became known to me and, along with PRINCE2, I learnt that it was a word linked to Project Management methodology.

‘Agile’ – it’s a word that now invokes different images in my head and like many of the leading leadership thinkers out there, I can understand how a leader can increase their effectiveness by being ‘agile’. After all, surely an easy-moving and mentally nimble leader is a good thing, right? So I delved a little more in to what the world was calling ‘Agile Leadership’.

According to Wikipedia, “Agile Leadership is associated with 4 modes of leaders who have the ability (and agility) to operate in any mode and most importantly see from the perspectives of the other modes. It is the ability to think in a number of different ways that gives such leaders their agility”.

Many thinkers (including L Iaococca & C Whitney, and D J Wilkinson) have written about the attributes associated with Agile Leadership, and depending which website you look at, there are currently suggested lists of up to nine attributes, but for what it’s worth here are the key ones that stood out for me:

  1. Creativity
  2. To be a great agile leader I think you need to have a lot of imagination – whilst agile leaders may not always have the ‘next big thing’ idea, they are constantly looking for better ways to run their business and their teams. They need to be able to challenge the ‘status quo’ whilst remaining playful and dedicated to trying new things and ideas – trying ways to be more productive, cost-effective and customer centric. They are more open to the weird and wacky ways of working with the aim of growing their business. Think Richard Branson – who would have thought flying, music, broadband and train travel would fall under one umbrella?

  3. Curiosity
  4. Some leaders you meet just seem to ‘get’ strategy – it’s as though it’s in their DNA – and that’s because they are curious. Agile leaders are naturally and relentlessly inquisitive – they want to know how and why things work and they pride themselves on making wider connections with a view to entertaining new ideas and perspectives. Their growth mind-set really does focus on the ‘yet’ – with their curiosity knowing no limits. It’s not about ‘we haven’t found a new idea to replace the old one’, it’s more about ‘we haven’t found a new idea to replace the old one, yet’. Believe it or not, there is a big difference in these statements!

  5. Courage
  6. How will you ever grow your business if you don’t make brave moves forward. Agile leaders are bold. They are fearless in their pursuit of improvements and will take informed risks whilst not being careless or reckless. The risks they take may seem ‘dangerous’ to some, but you can rest assured that the risks are smart and calculated, because the agile leader will have done their homework. They’ll have gathered all the critical information and intelligence that they can before jumping in – it’s just that you don’t always know they’ve done this. Because they’ve prepared, they will strike at the right time and not hold back. They won’t spend their time worrying about what other people think or even what happens if the risk doesn’t pay off – because they are strong enough to weather any storm and they will happily learn from it too.

  7. Strategic agility
  8. Many leaders I now work with often ask me to explain the qualities and characteristics that differentiate strategic and agile leaders from other excellent leaders. I think it’s a fair question to ask and one that countless people the world over have been studying for years. I’m sure there are plenty of good leaders out there, but many of them seem to lack the strategic thinking and foresight necessary to achieve long-term, sustained growth for their organisations.

Having the strategic agility to implement key objectives and initiatives with speed, ease and precision is one of the leader’s ultimate weapons. Multiply this one leader by a dozen who have the same strategic agility, all working towards the same purpose on the organisations behalf and suddenly the sky is the limit.

That said, strategy does take a lot of work – even small changes and shifts in your organisation’s direction takes great effort. If you’ve ever implemented a competency framework or changed your organisation’s values, reflect on the effort that went in to doing that. Probably a lot!

Some leaders I work with are great at formulating strategy but struggle to follow through and execute in a timely manner as they can lack speed.

The agile leaders don’t panic about time – they are composed and simply take focused action immediately. This is because they are always moving, nimble, alert and aware of what is going on. They see the balance in continuing with the day to day operational tasks whilst understanding that it’s important to take time out to progress strategic priorities. And the really amazing agile leaders encourage everyone on their team to take a part in this. By engaging the team to adopt a growth mind-set, they acknowledge that change will always happen whether we want it or not – the key question is whether that change will be in the desired direction. The agile leader will already be looking for windows of opportunity and they will be ready to strike when the window opens.

Today, many leaders recognise the importance of ‘going through the motions’ of their daily routines and responsibilities but don’t have the energy left to shape the future. Some just simply aren’t interested or curious enough about driving change, which can put their organisation’s long-term success at risk. Their non-strategic leadership means they prefer to maintain a narrow focus which means they only like to focus on one thing at a time.

Agile leaders understand that they need to back away from their daily routine and view the business from a wider perspective and map out a future path.

Agile leaders, although nimble, will not always be able to control what happens – but they do know what they want for themselves, their teams, their organisation and their customers – and they take action in support of achieving the overall goals.

Now doesn’t that sound an exciting prospect?

Develop your leadership skills. We offer a range of Agile training courses to help you successfully implement Agile working practices, including Agile for Teams and Managers

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QA Training | Jennie-marshal

Jennie Marshall

Learning Programme Director (Enterprise and Outsource Services)

Jennie Marshall is an award winning learning professional (Winner of the 2016 Learning Performance Institute, Learning Professional of the Year Bronze Award), who joined QA in 2010 as a Learning Consultant in the Leadership, Management and Business Skills team. She has gone on to progress through various positions to her current role of Learning Programme Director where she now designs, develops and manages the delivery of end to end learning programmes. She is an experienced and dedicated learning professional, with expertise including management, leadership and talent, and training and facilitation developed within a variety of environments. Jennie has a proven track record of delivering blended, multi modal learning programmes using Learning Management System platforms and in a more traditional face to face setting, is at home with small and large audiences. She is a proven developer of people and is accredited in the use of a variety of tools including Strength Deployment Inventory®, Emergenetics®, Hogan®, Prism® and Worldsview™ as well as being an NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) Master Practitioner and Kirkpatrick Certified Professional (Bronze).
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