The leadership consulting industry loves catchphrases. Popular ones include transformational leadership, servant leadership, boundless bravery, coherent confidence, learning agility, grit, and now agile leadership. These are all superfluous words consultants use to keep their work current in the eyes of consumers.
The challenge with all these phrases is the majority are just a repackaging of what we have known for a long time: personality predicts leadership performance. The lens through which personality is viewed – and the buzzwords – can change; but in the end, personality is just that: personality.
This brings us to “Agile Leadership”, which some describe as the ability to effectively balance factors that drive organizational performance (i.e. people, processes, and innovation) at a rapid pace. Sure, information is flowing at faster rates than ever before, and leaders are being asked to integrate all of this into real-time decisions. But does moving quickly, integrating data, and engaging staff really require a different type of leadership? Although the evidence-based answer is still pending, our preliminary findings suggest that the majority of high-potential leaders simply need the organization’s environment to change. Many of these leaders are already fighting what McKinsey describes as the “machine organization.” Specifically, their goal is to introduce a new mindset of collaboration, new technology, less structure, and higher team engagement — but most have to fight against their organization’s old-fashioned ways.
We believe the discussion should not just focus on digitization and the speed of change. Equally important to the debate is the need for strategic self-awareness — the ability to be introspective while listening to outside opinions of oneself. A stronger focus on self-awareness is the underpinning of true agility. The characteristics of great leaders include the ability to understand how they view themselves, and how that aligns or departs from how others view them. Accordingly, leaders like those at ING, Pixar, Alibaba, and Walmart would be appropriately described as having agility.
Three things can occur to help drive leadership agility in organizations. First, recognition that many leaders have the necessary characteristics to survive in the digital world; they just need to be unleashed. Second, that organizations, not so much the people in them, need to change structures to tear down silos. Third, using valid personality measures can facilitate the awareness that current and future leaders need in order to keep the concept of agility top of mind.
The characteristics of agile leaders include the ability to understand how they view themselves, and how that aligns or departs from how others view them
Agile leadership is important, but it is not new. It is just being rediscovered. The emphasis must be put not only on the individual, but also the organization. Some organizations are so stuck in the past that agile leaders waste most of their energy fighting history. So, let us not get so awestruck by a new phrase that we forget the basics of effective leadership — to build and maintain high-performing teams. Industry buzzwords will continue to change, and in 2019 there will undoubtedly be a new catchphrase that enamors organizations. However, what won’t change are the tenets of leadership that translate to organizational success, and those can be measured using valid personality assessments.