Four characteristics agile leaders have in common

In November 2007, Forbes Magazine ran a front page with the headline: "Nokia, one billion customers – can anyone catch the cell phone king?" The magazine cover featured Nokia’s CEO at the time, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, holding one of Nokia’s signature flip phones.

Fast forward 11 years: Nokia has become irrelevant after being battered and bettered by other players in the handset market, particularly Apple and Samsung. Nokia exited the market in 2014, selling its phone business to Microsoft; Microsoft subsequently got rid of the business two years later.

Kodak going bankrupt in the digital age, despite the fact that the company invented the digital camera, is another classic example of what happens when organisations are not agile enough.

When giants fall

The fall of market leaders Nokia and Kodak can largely be attributed to the lack of agility within the organisation.

Historical trends suggest that companies that are agile, innovative, and offering the best insights into what challenges or opportunities are likely to happen next, generally survive and go on to thrive.

Agility from a business perspective means being able to swiftly reposition a company’s resources – human and otherwise – to respond to competition and changing market conditions.

And with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) fast becoming the new normal in modern organisations, agility and adaptability are non-negotiables for business leaders looking to build successful enterprises. The fourth industrial revolution - also referred to as Industry 4.0 - has created a demand for agile organisations, a demand which many current leaders (and their organisations) are frankly ill-equipped to meet without significant changes to their practices.

Research and expert opinion suggest that agile leaders share a number of common traits. 

1. A deep sense of purpose

Agility is about rethinking how we go about our work in a VUCA world. For any business to be successful, it requires flexible and boundary-spanning leaders who are able to spot, and react to, changing conditions before others. 

In an article published by the Harvard Business Review, John Coleman, a leadership trainer, states that if organisational leaders are merely consistent, they risk rigidity.

"In changing environments, they can struggle to adapt and may cling to old habits and practices until those practices become counterproductive, distracting them from the more important new work that needs to be done. Great leaders are agile," says Coleman.

That’s all very well, but how can a leader make the right call when faced with diverse and fast shifting options? In such a situation, having a strong sense of purpose can provide leaders with the compass they need in volatile times.

"The first rule of pivoting is you have to be clear on where your stable foot should be planted," writes Michael Chavez, the CEO of Duke Corporate Education, in Forbes, borrowing a sporting metaphor from his basketball days.

It is only by being clear why you exist and what you want to achieve that you are freed up to try new things. "By increasing clarity, purpose anchors us against the storms of disruption and change."

"Agile leaders are creative thinkers with a deep sense of purpose," agrees David Scott, HR director at RCL Foods, speaking at a recent conference organised by the UCT Graduate School of Business Consulting Club in partnership with TedX Cape Town.

2. They're comfortable with complexity

The reality of business today is that nothing is secure. Every industry is facing up to the implications of profound change and no leader – even a very seasoned one – can be immune to the stress that this induces.

However, leaders do mostly have the skills they need to deal with the challenges ahead, but they need to resist the urge to give into the survival instinct of fight, flight, or fright. They need, in essence, to change their relationship to the fear of change.

"To spot opportunities - and threats - in this environment, we must teach ourselves how to have a more comfortable and creative relationship with uncertainty," write Sam Bourton, Johanne Lavoie, and Tiffany Vogel in McKinsey Quarterly. "That means learning how to relax at the edge of uncertainty, paying attention to subtle clues both in our environment and in how we experience the moment that may inform unconventional action."

The authors advocate that leaders invest in personal and reflective practices to help develop their inner agility. Associate Professor Kosheek Sechurran, acting director of the GSB, agrees that the ability to reflect on what they have experienced can help leaders develop wisdom and agility.

"Mindful leaders are less reactive, and more responsive, they adapt more quickly as situations change, and they are more able to regulate their emotions. They are, critically, far more authentic," he says.

3. They're not afraid to experiment

To achieve agility, says Doc Norton, a member of the Forbes Coaches Council, leaders need to adopt an experimentation mindset where the organisation is experimenting and learning as they go, rather than an implementation mindset where they're running detailed projects that are to be implemented "right" the first time.

"Make outcomes the measure of success rather than outputs. Build for resilience and change the norm so the company gets good at it," says Norton.

Christie Lindor, another member of the Forbes Coaches Council, agrees that agile leadership simply means you value the ability to try new and different things in bite-size chunks, with an emphasis on speed to execution.

"Leaders must create an environment where innovation is recognised and your team has permission to fail in order to achieve breakthrough results," says Lindor.

4. Committed to lifelong learning

According to Agilocity, an agile consultancy, to prevent a worst-case scenario - technological change accompanied by talent shortages, mass unemployment and growing inequality - reskilling and upskilling of today’s workers will be critical.

"While much has been said about the need for reform in basic education, it is simply not possible to weather the current technological revolution by waiting for the next generation’s workforce to become better prepared. Instead it is critical that businesses take an active role in supporting their current workforces through re-training, that individuals take a proactive approach to their own lifelong learning and that governments create the enabling environment, rapidly and creatively, to assist these efforts."

The importance of learning agility cannot be over-emphasised. As various experts in the field of management have said, the ability to learn, be creative, develop, and grow is today’s only sustainable competitive advantage in the cut throat world of business. Inherent to this, and frequently overlooked, is a profound mindset change to ensuring 'unlearning' can successfully happen for all learners. If unlearning is embedded in the learning process, there are opportunities to critically examine whether past understandings or processes are wisdom to be carried forward, or deadweight holding people and organisations back from moving forward.

A new approach to leadership learning and leader development will be necessary going forward if those tall orders are going to be met successfully.

Dr Tim London is a senior lecturer at the Allan Gray Centre for Values Based Leadership at the UCT Graduate School of Business.

SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE UPDATE: Get Fin24's top morning business news and opinions in your inbox.

Brent Crude
All Share
Top 40
Financial 15
Industrial 25
Resource 10
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes morningstar logo
Company Snapshot
Voting Booth
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
I'm not really directly affected
18% - 1969 votes
I am taking a hit, but should be able to recover in the next year
23% - 2580 votes
My finances have been devastated
34% - 3832 votes
It's still too early to know what the full effect will be
25% - 2760 votes