The Six Thinking Habits of Strategically Agile Leaders

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The word “agile” has become shorthand for the array of principles and methods of the Lean movement. There is Agile leadership, Agile thinking, Agile software development and strategic agility.

With great deference to what is excellent in that work, this article is not about that.

This is a return to the original meaning of the words strategic and agility, and it offers a way to describe the kind of thinking contemporary leaders of complex enterprises must develop if they are to excel in their work. If I were to summarize what is presented here, it is what emerges when you mash together what we know about problem solving with what we are coming to understand about complexity – in other words, problem solving under conditions of high uncertainty and complexity.

Is this a new breed of leader? Have organizational challenges changed so fundamentally that earlier models are insufficient? Perhaps not in every case, but arguably, yes – especially with regard to some of the most important and difficult problems organizations now face. To address these kinds of challenges, there is a new problem category emerging, with names like VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) and Wicked Problems (incomplete understanding, multiple perspectives, high interdependency and big consequences). Similarly, we see increasing reference to Chaos and Complexity theories in describing the unpredictability and interconnectedness of strategic challenges facing organizational leaders.

In industries and enterprises impacted by these factors, predictability and control are fleeting at best, and the need for nimbleness and truly agile leaders is now an existential requirement.

The Strategically Agile Leader Model

A successful leader needs to do many things well, ranging from strategy and course-setting to motivating staff and overseeing day-to-day operations. One thing that unites all of these is problem solving: the style, shape, quality and timeliness with which they frame and deal with challenges.

In solving problems, I have found six characteristics to differentiate the best leaders from the rest of their peers:

  • Flexibility
  • Resourcefulness
  • Confidence
  • Pro-activity
  • Embracing tensions
  • Bias-free thinking

Faced with tough choices, great problem-solving-leaders are able to 1) frame and reframe diagnoses and possible solutions (flexibility), 2) switch methods and approaches with ease (resourcefulness), 3) act fearlessly and inspire others with trust and belief in themselves (confidence) and they are 4) ready when required to step in and deal with brewing situations (proactivity).

Figure 1. SLAM: The Strategic Leadership Agility Model

Embracing Tensions (5) consists of acknowledging, exploring and reckoning with the level of complexity present in a challenge. Rather than forcing problems to fit preconceived ideas, time frames or preferences, exemplary problem solving leaders observe how factors relate to one another and look for meaning and patterns. They think systemically and learn their way through tough challenges.

Bias-free Thinking (6) is the kind of clarity of perception and understanding that comes from pursuing self-awareness, validating assumptions and constantly updating mental models about the real status of affairs. As a result, excellent problem-solving leaders tend to be more balanced, grounded and accurate in their observations and beliefs.

Taken together, these six characteristics increase a leader’s Strategic Agility, readying them to:  notice, respond, challenge, learn, adapt, or, on occasion, to do nothing at all, and still feel confident and secure in that choice. With hi-fidelity information coming in, ongoing tracking, clear reasoning, and a practice that is guided by integrity, they are ideally positioned to act both strategically and with agility.

To be an exceptional leader who inspires and delights, you could do a lot worse than working on these six areas.

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This is an excerpt of a draft article by Alex Lowy, facilitator in the Certificate in Strategic Agility program (starting June 24, 2019). For more information and to register, visit the program web page.

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