Leading in an Agile World – Can We Usefully Redefine Leadership?
A colleague of mine recently circulated an email asking several of us to respond to his juxtaposition of leadership and catalyzing, reflecting the notion that the former is passé and the future is ‘catalyzing’ as the key concept. The response was quick and definitive…although “Concepts of leadership are evolving to keep pace with the disruption, transformation, and agility demands of today’s organizations,” as I noted in my last blog, most respondents believe that leaders still need skills grounded in experience while integrating catalyzing skills for existing and future challenges.
This I believe is the core of agility: recognizing, mobilizing, enabling, empowering, and sharing leadership throughout the organization so that the culture reflects a blend of human and digital capacity geared toward innovation and collaboration. Now the challenge comes in several forms: the first is that not all companies are equal, in size, complexity, structure, and business model. Some are client or customer centric and have high brand recognition. Others offer specialty products that require strong R&D components to be competitive; while others are service-providers to emerging niche markets. Mixtures of bricks and mortar and virtual POS and distribution are not uncommon.
So while the structures and operational priorities may be dissimilar, the missions and goals can be reduced to “make money, keep customers happy, stay happy.” This core of profitability and satisfaction are at the center of how leadership, whatever styles are effective, is exercised. Why “styles?” We learned ages ago that leadership defined by functions can range from directing and evangelizing to coaching and coercing, and at least a dozen more characteristics.
Leadership is a shortcut to conflate those traits that enable leaders in whatever context to lean forward, lead from behind, and construct and organizational culture that emphasizes continual innovation, adaptation, and a competitive edge, mirroring Jack Welch, former CEO of GE’s mantra of change leadership.
Michael Hamman and Michale K. Spayd put it this way in their White Paper, “The Agile Leader.” “An organization’s agility is not a function of “‘scaling’ current team-based delivery practices…Simply put, agile leadership entails a move from driving to results to creating environments that generate results.
Agile leadership is no accident. There is a clear methodology for enacting agile leadership.” They use the phrase ‘enterprise agility’ to express their assumption that “At the heart of sustainable enterprise agility is an adaptive, agile leadership.”
To value leadership in both its complexity and its simplicity, it is vital to remember that at the heart of leadership principles are, at least for now, human beings who make assumptions every day about how to succeed in a fluid and competitive environment. Back to Hamman and Spayd, “Fundamentally, it is as much about the interior—of individuals, of organizations—as it is about the exterior. It is as much about developing people as it is about building systems. It is as much about creating an agile culture as it is about adapting structures and processes.”
Catalyzing in this context is about aligning talent, resources, systems, objectives, and expectations to support agility, so that a catalyzing leader is an agile leader dedicated to mobilizing a coherent, consistent spirit of innovation shared by company teams that have transparent, respectful, reliable, and valued communications with their counterparts in- and outside the organization.
One could argue that because of the impact of technology and the yet to be understood tsunami called ‘AI’ that leadership is more difficult in today’s environment. On the other hand, it is also reasonable to point out that leadership in the past did not have the data, modelling options, robust algorithms, and highly developed technologies as learning aides. The uncertainty, complexity, and fluidity of today’s competitive environments, at all levels, demand a differently tuned skill set, which is why sometimes the strong survive, and sometimes they don’t. Change management has to begin within the individual, which is why companies have to seriously invest in driving agility throughout their organization and its processes and relationships.
The difference I believe is enabling the agility of leaders, teams, policies, communications, and the workforce to recognize, embrace, and capture change capabilities in order to survive and thrive. For success, mindsets need to be rewired to accept the inevitability of change and the acquisition of skills required to master its impact. These skill sets must extend beyond their particular silos and empower staff to collaborate across boundaries – and be rewarded for it. As employees recognize and accept agility as a means to mobilize and execute, they then become team members whose communications with others both assume and reflect the cultural values of the organization.
So for me, this is the role of leadership at all levels: to build consensus and collaboration around company strategies and communications that build agility internally and in its external relations.