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3 Enablers of Agile Leadership
By Terry Sexton

Is our approach to education, training and development delivering the agile leaders that organizations need now and in the future?

Organizations are facing unprecedented levels of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity (VUCA). First appearing in military circles the acronym VUCA is now more often used to describe the business environment. Organizations need leaders who can trust their own judgment and make the right decisions at the right time. This means that leaders must have the agility necessary to deal with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity if they are to lead their organization to a successful future.

Through our experience of using the Cognitive Process Profile Psychometric we have found that agile leaders have three things in common: –

  • They are able to make space for their intuitive insight
  • They accept failure as an inevitable part of the process
  • They are able to let go of their personality

Are current education, training and development practices designed to develop these qualities in leaders?

Intuitive Insight

When dealing with VUCA it appears that our conscious, rational mind is easily overwhelmed. The more complex and ambiguous the problem, the more we try to analyze and rationalize our way to the answer. Then, just when we’ve admitted defeat and given up trying, a solution pops into our heads as if from nowhere. This is because our intuitive unconscious mind had been working on the problem in the background and had found a solution but our conscious rational mind didn’t allow any space for the intuitive insight to emerge. This is the same process that occurs when we sleep on a problem. Successful decision making in a VUCA environment depends on making space for intuitive insights by: –

  • Suspending the need for detail and tuning into the dynamic patterns of the situation
  • Focusing less on the pragmatic and being more open to the possible
  • Being less concerned with short term solutions and having a greater awareness of long term implications
  • Having less reliance on structure and a greater comfort with chaos

Accept Failure

The issue here is not the failure itself, but the fear of failure. Agile leaders accept both success and failure as data about their understanding, strategies, tactics and actions. This data they interpret and learn from to ensure they increase their chances of success next time. To minimize the risk to the organization agile leaders initially engage in small scale experiments. They accept that failure is an integral and useful part of the experimentation process. Less agile leaders often get constrained by their fear of failure. This can be caused by working in punitive environment, by fragile self esteem, or by their sense of self worth being bolstered by setting and achieving high standards. The consequence of the fear of failure, when working in a VUCA environment, is that people often draw heavily on their memory of what worked in the past. This is the equivalent of driving down an unfamiliar road whilst looking in the rear view mirror. Alternatively, they rely on the thinking processes they were taught at school and become paralyzed, over analyzing and rationalizing the situation. Both of these reactions constrain a leader’s capacity to deal with VUCA. Eventually, their brain gets overwhelmed and goes into survival mode. This is when our ‘cognitive bucket’ shrinks to a narrow range of deliberate thinking. Our brains are naturally wired to take short cuts as a way of saving energy and time. This natural process becomes a very effective survival mechanism when we are in danger. However, in a VUCA world it can derail leaders because all they are able to do is think of old solutions and habits and over use their strengths.

Let Go of Personality

Successful leaders are often characterized as people who have found their own authentic way of leading and have incorporated their leadership skills to the point that they are now using them effortlessly and often without conscious awareness. This high level of ability instils a great deal of trust in their followers and enables them to lead a team that focuses on delivering the business objectives. However, this authenticity is often a constructed identity or persona which they have created and found to generate success. They call this their personality, holding it tightly and protecting it at all costs. All too frequently leaders become slaves to this personality and subsequently become rigid caricatures of themselves. This rigidity constrains their ability to deal with the demands of working in a VUCA environment. To develop greater agility leaders need to be able to transcend the constraints of their personality and contact a deeper place of authenticity. This can be found using the Value Orientations tool.

When we look at the dominant education, training and development practices in the Western world we can see that leaders are still being encouraged to develop the attributes that can lead to rigidity:

  • Memory for past knowledge, facts and details
  • Analytical and rational thinking
  • Right first time attitude
  • High standards for personal achievement
  • Confidence from a constructed identity

Whilst there is nothing wrong with these qualities per se, they do tend to crowd out the leadership qualities required to deal with a VUCA environment. To be successful now and in the future leaders need to make space for intuitive insight, accept failure as part of the process, and transcend the constraints of their personality. Can we change our approach to education, training and development and thus deliver the leaders we need for a successful future? What will the future look like if we don’t?

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” – Albert Einstein

Terry Sexton is a business psychologist and founder of Creative Edge Consulting Ltd. He uses psychology to develop leaders who can thrive in today’s complex and uncertain business environments. When people understand their own habitual patterns of working, and the level of complexity and ambiguity at which they are happiest to work, then they can start their journey to becoming better leaders of their organization. With this knowledge organizations can place the right people in the right roles and give them the right development opportunities avoiding costly mistakes.

Terry works with some of the UK’s most successful organizations. He and his team are respected for their straight talking and practical advice drawn from rigorous psychological and management theories.

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