In a business landscape where volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (“VUCA”) is a fact of life, we need to be nimble, flexible and adaptable. We need to be agile. The key to becoming agile is to be self-aware in order to innovate or risk becoming archaic. However, being agile is more than just a characteristic. It is a philosophy, a method, a movement.
Agile began as a way to promote innovation in software development and in that world it has a specific meaning. The concept has since spread throughout the business world where its meaning has become broader, more ambiguous and more elusive. That broadness is a good thing. We can all glean some useful wisdom from agile.
In software development, agile is about a short development cycle where small teams quickly generate a product, get it in the hands of customers, incorporate feedback immediately, and start the cycle all over again. Poke around in agile philosophy and you will repeatedly encounter words like scrum and burndown. You will even find a manifesto.
What can agile teach the rest of us?
Constant change is a certainty
We may not all be in a field where our product mutates and morphs as rapidly as it does in software development. It may not be feasible for us to abandon hierarchy and build our companies around self-managing teams. Yet all business leaders deal with change and the need to respond to it promptly. Otherwise, they risk being left behind.
In a marketplace driven by hi-tech and social media, we also deal with constant feedback. We receive feedback from customers and clients, from surveys and sales reports, and from the volatile stock market.
Feedback is seen as gold in the world of agile and business leaders should see it the same way. We should look for feedback in every conversation, every success and every setback. The agile leader embraces feedback in all its manifestations. It is the only way to be alive to change and to keep our ears to the ground.
At its core, being open to feedback is an act of deep listening. Self-awareness is a prerequisite to deep listening.
Business leaders can no longer afford to dismiss self-awareness as something that belongs in self-help books or meditation. It should be seen as an indispensable part of every leader’s toolkit. Self-awareness is at the heart of emotional intelligence, a set of interpersonal skills widely recognized as essential to success in today’s business world.
Before we can manage others, we must first know how to manage ourselves. How do we respond to certain situations or personalities? What are our biases, our shortcomings, our blind spots?
Attaining that kind of self-awareness takes practice and is part of an ongoing process. It does not happen overnight. Authentic leaders must commit to it as a regular practice in the same way that a musician practices scales every day. Self-awareness is a muscle that must be deliberately cultivated and used in order to flourish.
Only when we have a basic level of self-awareness can we achieve the radical openness required for deep listening. Leaders who do so will find themselves immersed in a virtuous cycle of feedback and adaptation and change. That feedback cycle is the lifeblood of agility.
The leader as a coach
As an executive coach, I work with my clients to develop a flexible leadership style. This too is an important element in the agile mindset.
In the 1970s, Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard introduced the concept of Situational Leadership. The basic idea is that some situations demand that leaders do what bosses traditionally do, which is to direct—to tell someone what to do. However, other situations call on us to coach, support, or delegate. These are the four leadership styles Hersey and Blanchard identified.
The idea of situational leadership is part of a long-term evolution of the business leader from boss to coach. When we think of ourselves as a coach whose core mission is to bring out the best in those around us, we avoid getting attached to any one leadership style.
From meeting to meeting, conversation to conversation, we must adapt our leadership style as needed. Sometimes a single meeting might call for multiple approaches. We might need to delegate a key task to a manager and direct them to meet a certain deadline. However, in the course of that conversation, we might also sense they need some coaching in order to succeed at that task.
In order to be agile leaders, we must be alert to the feedback the moment at hand provides us. We must listen deeply to others and to ourselves. Our situational awareness begins with self-awareness.
Change from the inside out
Lasting change proceeds from the inside and moves outward. This applies both to individuals and to organizations.
The agile leader practices self-awareness, models it for others, and sets a tone in which being open and responsive to feedback becomes ingrained in a company’s culture.
We cannot be effective change agents without first coming to grips with our own tendencies, shortcomings, assumptions, and fears. We have to know what makes us tick. The same holds true for organizations. Organizations need to evolve and adapt to changing times. In order to do so, they must attain a certain level of organizational self-awareness.
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Published on Oct. 3, 2018
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