Are Your Company's Leaders Agile Enough?

22 February 2007 Bill Joiner

Organisational change experts stress the need to develop 'agile' companies. However, few companies have developed into organisations that anticipate and respond to rapidly changing conditions. Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs outline the level of agility needed for reliably sustained success in today's turbulent business environment.

Every year, new technologies, markets, and competitors emerge at an ever-increasing pace. Future threats and opportunities are harder to predict, and emerging challenges include increasingly novel elements. This results in an ongoing 'agility gap'.

A major reason for this 'gap' is the need for more agile leaders, not just in the executive suite but throughout the corporation. Yet, while leadership development programs are a priority for most larger companies, very little attention has been given to understanding and developing the specific capacities and skills needed for 'leadership agility'.

Leadership agility is the ability to take effective action in complex, rapidly changing conditions. Based on data collected from more than six hundred managers, distinct stages or levels in the mastery of leadership agility have been identified. We can see how managers at the three levels of agility lead organisational change, lead teams and engage in pivotal conversations.

Note that when you move to a new level you retain the capacities and skills developed at previous levels.

Movement to higher levels of organisational responsibility does not automatically make a manager more agile. For example, we found CEOs at every agility level. What we did find is that mangers become more effective leaders as they become more agile.


View of leadership:

  • Tactical, problem-solving orientation
  • Believes that leaders are respected and followed by others because of their authority and expertise

Agility in pivotal conversations:

  • Style is either to strongly assert opinions or hold back to accommodate others
  • May swing from one style to the other, particularly for different relationships
  • Tends to avoid giving or requesting feedback

Agility in leading teams:

  • More of a supervisor than a manager
  • Creates a group of individuals rather than a team
  • Work with direct reports is primarily one-on-one
  • Too caught up in the details of own work to lead in a strategic manner

Agility in leading organisational change:

  • Organisational initiatives focus primarily on incremental improvements inside unit boundaries with little attention to stakeholders
"Chances are that slightly more than half the managers in your company operate at the Expert level."

Chances are that slightly more than half the managers in your company operate at the Expert level. Experts assume that a leader's power comes from expertise and positional authority, and they are strongly motivated to develop subject-matter expertise. With its tactical orientation and their capacity for analytic problem solving, this agility level is best suited for making incremental improvements to existing strategies.


View of leadership:

  • Strategic, outcome orientation
  • Believes that leaders motivate others by making it challenging and satisfying to contribute to larger objectives

Agility in pivotal conversations:

  • Primarily assertive or accommodative with some ability to compensate with the less preferred style
  • Will accept or even initiate feedback if helpful in achieving desired outcomes

Agility in leading teams:

  • Operates like a fully fledged manager
  • Meetings to discuss important strategic or organisational issues are often orchestrated to gain buy-in to own views

Agility in leading organisational change:

  • Organisational initiatives include analysis of external environment
  • Strategies to gain stakeholder buy-in range from one-way communication to soliciting input

Achievers are highly motivated to accomplish valued outcomes. They realise that a leader's power also comes from motivating others by making it challenging and satisfying to contribute to important results. With their capacity for strategic thinking, Achievers can be quite effective in moderately complex environments where the pace of change requires episodic shifts in corporate strategy.

"Expert and Achiever leaders over-control and under-utilise subordinates."

It is likely that somewhere around 35% of your company's managers are Achievers. Today, most corporations need to help a sizeable percentage of their Expert-level managers develop to this more strategic way of operating.

The predominant combination of Expert and Achiever leadership worked relatively well for most companies until the waning decades of the 20th century, when globalisation ushered in an era of constant change and growing interdependence.

In this new environment, with its increased demand for collaborative problem solving, teamwork, and continuous organisational change, Expert and Achiever leaders over-control and under-utilise subordinates. This discourages people from feeling responsible for anything beyond their assigned area, and inhibits optimal teamwork.


View of leadership:

  • Visionary, facilitative orientation
  • Believes that leaders articulate an innovative, inspiring vision and bring together the right people to transform the vision into reality
  • Leaders empower others and actively facilitate their development

Agility in pivotal conversations:

  • Adept at balancing assertive and accommodative styles as needed in particular situations
  • Likely to articulate and question underlying assumptions
  • Genuinely interested in learning from diverse viewpoints
  • Proactive in seeking and utilising feedback

Agility in leading teams:

  • Intent upon creating a highly participative team
  • Acts as a team leader and facilitator
  • Models and seeks open exchange of views on difficult issues
  • Empowers direct reports
  • Uses team development as a vehicle for leadership development

Agility in leading organisational change:

  • Organisational initiatives often include development of a culture that promotes teamwork, participation and empowerment
  • Proactive engagement with diverse stakeholders reflects a belief that input increases the quality of decisions, not just buy-in
"Movement to higher levels of organisational responsibility does not automatically make a manager more agile."

We believe that a basic requirement for creating a truly agile company is a sizeable cadre of Catalyst-level leaders. Leaders who operate at this level of agility retain the ultimate accountability and authority that comes with any formal leadership role. Yet, while they can still exercise Expert and Achiever power, they lead in a way that emphasises the power of vision and participation.

They are strongly motivated to create a participative culture capable of achieving valued outcomes over the longer term. These leaders, with their openness to change, their willingness to rethink basic assumptions, and their visionary orientation, represent a level of agility capable of sustained success in today's highly complex, constantly changing business environment.

What would it be like if half of today's Experts became Achievers? What would happen if half of the Achievers began to lead like Catalysts? How might this change your company? How would it change the world in which we live?