The idea of living in a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) world is nothing new – but it’s possible that ours is now VUCA on steroids, which makes the concept of leadership agility important and timely. The VUCA acronym has been used for many years to characterize the times we’re in – and, especially, how leaders are uniquely challenged to operate successfully.
While leaders have always needed to grapple with what could disrupt their business – the threats are now unprecedented. COVID-19 leads the list, of course, followed closely by the current economic downturn and the deepening threat of climate change, to name just a few.
In my previous post, I spotlighted resilience as a key characteristic that leaders need to possess – now more than ever before. A companion characteristic is the ability to lead with agility during these uncertain times. The difference is important: resilience is the ability to recover quickly from adversity, whereas leadership agility is the ability to take swift and effective action in a dynamic, uncertain. and ambiguous environment.
What Makes an Agile Leader?
The commonplace definition of agility is the ability to move quickly and easily. Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs, authors of groundbreaking book, Leadership Agility, defined it as the ability to take effective action under complex, rapidly changing conditions. They go on to describe this as focusing on what’s most important amidst the noise, “zooming out” to take a broader perspective, and then focusing back in to take decisive action.
A key point that Joiner and Josephs make is that leadership agility is not a single competency but an interconnected set of capabilities that can develop over time. The Forbes Coaches Council offers some good advice for operating in a more agile way – such as being clear on where you’re going, involving your team to get their ideas, keeping current on new developments in your industry, and learning from other leaders that are different from you.
However, just as is true in sports, some people have more innate agility than others. Here are some of the characteristics we have seen in naturally agile leaders:
- They are comfortable with ambiguity. Agile leaders look for closure but aren’t upset if they don’t get it right away, can make decisions without having complete information, and are comfortable taking risks. By contrast, less-agile leaders have a high need for structure, boundaries, certainty, and being in control. They tend to focus on the task at hand rather than the goal, and often pursue their plans even with the knowledge that things won’t go as expected.
- They suspend judgment. They are inclined to put opinions and assumptions aside, consider possibilities, listen to others, and let new information, views, and contradictory input change their views. At the opposite end are people who are quick to criticize and judge, particularly “expert” leaders who are particularly knowledgeable and experienced, and more often find faults than offer solutions.
- They collaborate in conflict. The Thomas-Kilmann assessment measures different styles for managing conflict, and agile leaders choose the collaborative style. Although they may have a preferred answer at the outset, they try to find a solution that satisfies their concerns as well as tho