Even if you don't come from a software background, you've likely heard of "Agile." It's been around for decades, but was made popular in 2001 with the introduction of the "Agile Manifesto" and it has since spread to teams and organizations of all sizes and industries.
This, however, is not an article about implementing Agile practices into your organization. It is about leading with agility and adopting a "learning-agile" mindset to better navigate the challenges and uncertainties always present in business.
With an agile mindset, business leaders are better able to critically analyze situations and adapt even in the absence of having all of the information. They realize when processes, concepts or business ventures aren't working, and grow from --perhaps even capitalize on-- failures.
They demonstrate flexibility, not bound by rigid rules and processes. Instead, they learn from experiences and empower and inspire their team to problem solve through collaboration.
There has been significant research into what qualities make a "learning-agile" and agile leader, and similarities surfaced across the board. One study in particular, by Oliver Wyman Leadership Development, identified three variables that increase agility capabilities: mental clarity (Head), emotional intelligence (Heart), and commitment to action even in the absence of complete information (Guts).
Head: Clarity in the face of complexity
In business, there will always be uncertainties, changes and challenges. An agile leader will have the mental clarity to discern when and how conditions are shifting.
According to research by Korn/Ferry International, learning-agile leaders have the ability to make sense of unrelated pieces of information and ideas. In other words, they are able to absorb information from their experiences, learn and apply that to solve for unfamiliar situations.
In the Agile Manifesto, one of the key steps is to adjust your understanding based on what you've learned. And this is perhaps one thing that sets great leaders apart from the rest -- learning from and adapting based on this new understanding of a problem, process, situation or even themselves.
Being able to expunge information and learn from it, starts with continual reflection and awareness --of the company, marketplace, customer and employee needs, and even of yourself. It's through this reflection that you're better positioned to identify when change, evolution or innovation are necessary. You're better able to understand the complexities from a broader view and navigate through changes analytically and with greater clarity.
Part of an agile mindset is also the ability to be self-aware, understanding your greatest strengths and weaknesses, and your impact on others. It's the sum of awareness in these areas that enables great leaders to inspire others to believe in a vision and work together to achieve it.
Heart: Connecting and collaborating with others
Agile leaders possess emotional intelligence. They're able to understand and relate to others, and give them the confidence to raise their hands when things aren't working --and more importantly, empower them to find solutions.
In business, we're often moving so quickly there's no time to stop and take assessment of certain processes. And when a process isn't broken or it's simply "the way things have always been done" it's easy to overlook. But when you give those on the frontlines the autonomy to question the way things are done, you're better able to tighten up processes, problem solve and innovate.
Relating back to the original Agile Manifesto, two of the four values listed involve collaboration and feedback: putting individuals and interaction above processes and tools, and customer collaboration above contract negotiation. Actively listening to feedback, better prepares you to see through blind spots, course correct incrementally, deliver results even in new situations, and build stronger relationships with stakeholders.
And when emotional intelligence meets clarity of mind, leaders are better equipped to take risk and effectively lead through the discomfort of change.
Guts: Taking action and risk based on values
Leaders don't always have the luxury of complete information, but it's their commitment to action in spite of this, that matters. They may enjoy the security and structure of systems and processes --as most of us do -- but they have a healthy outlook on experimentation, iteration and innovation.
They lead through the discomfort and unease associated with change and innovation because they know it's the right, and often necessary, thing to do. Yes, innovation, iteration and experimentation can be risky, but they're imperative to remaining competitive in business.
This is not to promote reckless risk taking. Rather, it's confidently leading through change and proactively taking risk based on values and vision.
Agile leaders balance emotional intelligence with cognitive and analytical abilities and strategic risk taking to anticipate and adapt to unpredictabilities in ways that benefit all involved. While very few naturally exhibit these traits, the good news is, they can be learned.