5 Stages of Agile Leadership Development: Identifying Your Current Level

In the face of a complex and rapidly changing market environment, businesses need to become more agile. Agility here encompasses various aspects and perspectives, such as agile goals, agile performance, agile strategy, agile leadership, and agile culture. By addressing multiple dimensions, organizations can ultimately undergo the transformation into agile entities. Regarding agile leadership, the book “Leadership Ladder: The Five Levels of Agile Leadership” provides a comprehensive introduction. The authors of this book are Bill Joiner, a Harvard Ph.D. and internationally recognized thought leader in the field of agile leadership, and Stephen Josephs, a Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts and an expert in leadership research in the field of applied psychology.

01-An Inside-Out Approach to Leadership Development

When discussing leadership today, it’s often approached from an outside-in perspective: identifying the external challenges that leadership faces and then determining the required capabilities to address those challenges.

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As organizations move towards agility, these two abilities become increasingly important. In the process of implementing OKRs (Objectives and Key Results), these abilities are equally crucial. OKRs aim to ignite employees’ intrinsic motivation, and all aspects involved, such as communication, feedback, empowerment, and motivation, are closely tied to a manager’s coaching ability. The stronger the leadership exhibited at the mental and emotional levels, the better the understanding of employee needs and empathy. This enables leaders to identify different types of employees and employ appropriate motivational tactics. The communication and feedback process becomes more enjoyable, and trust with employees is strengthened, leading to positive outcomes.

This book primarily emphasizes the development of skills required for agile leadership in a complex and ever-changing environment. It primarily includes leadership skills needed in three action areas:

  • Crucial Conversations: Direct one-on-one conversations with employees.
  • Team Leadership: Initiatives aimed at improving relationships between teams and their environment.
  • Leading Organizational Change: Initiatives aimed at transforming the organization and its relationships with the environment.

The leadership skills required in these three major action areas align with our OKRs and are crucial for many organizations undergoing transformation.

02 – Four Leadership Agility Types and Their Corresponding Core Competencies

This book introduces a graphical tool called the Leadership Agility Compass. The author’s research suggests that leaders who are most successful in constantly changing organizational environments often exhibit four complementary agility types:

  1. Environmental Agility

It enhances a leader’s ability to understand the environment and propose effective measures, clarifying the skills needed to achieve desired outcomes.

This level of agile leadership depends on two crucial personal abilities: situational awareness and a sense of purpose.

Situational awareness refers to the ability to view any leadership action within a specific macro-environment. It’s like having a zoom lens in your mind, allowing you to step back from current issues and see them from a broader perspective. As situational awareness develops, you gain a deeper understanding of the impact of actions on society and the natural environment.

A sense of purpose enables leaders to genuinely serve the needs of others, even if the results of these actions may only become visible in the distant future, yet remain inspiring.

  1. Stakeholder Agility

It improves a leader’s ability to communicate with stakeholders to gain support for their initiatives.

This agility level depends on two key aspects: stakeholder understanding and power styles.

Stakeholder understanding involves the clear identification of stakeholders in any initiative, understanding their interests and needs, recognizing the relationships between them, and enhancing alignment of interests, especially when there are conflicts. For example, when the finance department aims to control costs and the research and development department requires increased funding, without proper stakeholder understanding, these conflicting interests can hinder progress, which is highly relevant when setting OKR goals.

Power styles primarily manifest as two types: authoritative power and inclusive power. Leaders with higher agility can integrate both styles, using genuine dialogues to garner more support, particularly when interests clash.

  1. Creative Agility

It helps leaders transform problems they encounter into achievements.

In complex, rapidly changing environments, leaders often face “unstructured problems” that cannot be solved by a single discipline or specialized skill. When problems span disciplines, industries, organizations, and cultures, creative agility becomes crucial.

Creative agility depends on two essential talents: systems thinking and reflective judgment.

Systems thinking is a form of systematic thinking that helps leaders accommodate diverse perspectives, establish meaningful connections through comparisons, discover relationships between different viewpoints through alternative rankings and angles, or take a step back to understand relationships from a macro perspective. It also allows leaders to identify connections among seemingly conflicting viewpoints, leading to the generation of new ideas and inventions—all characteristics of creative thinking.

Reflective judgment is the thought process used to determine what is right and select the best course of action.

  1. Self-Leadership Agility

Turning the actions taken into opportunities to grow as the leader envisioned.

Effectively leading others starts with effectively leading oneself.

Self-leadership agility relies on two personal abilities: self-awareness and growth motivation.

Self-awareness is the degree to which you pay attention to and reflect upon your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, including understanding your current strengths and weaknesses as a leader.

Growth motivation is shaped by three key factors: the primary source of professional self-esteem, leadership ideals (ideal leaders in one’s mind), and the emotional tone upon which self-assessment is based.

03 – Five Levels of Leadership Agility

Leaders’ agility is categorized into five levels from low to high: Expert, Achiever, Catalyst, Co-Creator, and Synergist. Here’s a brief overview of these five levels:

  1. Expert Level: Solving Critical Problems

At this level, leaders have a strong problem-solving orientation. They think more independently and analytically. When making leadership decisions, they may tend to be tactical rather than strategic.

At the Expert level, you may not fully recognize how much the motivations and expectations of key stakeholders can impact the effectiveness of your initiatives. When goals and interests clash with relevant stakeholders, there’s often a strong belief in one’s correctness, coupled with a lack of connectivity. Problem-solving is typically done in isolation.

  1. Achiever Level: Achieving Key Outcomes

If you’ve reached the Achiever level, you possess strong reflective abilities. You view the organization as a system operating in a macro and complex environment. You’ve learned to think strategically and are highly motivated by results that may take 2-5 years to achieve. You recognize that the success of leadership initiatives requires the support of relevant stakeholders, and you identify their motivations to gain their support.

  1. Catalyst Level: Striving for Breakthroughs

Leaders at the Catalyst level create new environments where people in the new environment can creatively realize their potential by engaging stakeholders in developing solutions that benefit all.

When you reach this level, you become more adept at handling change and uncertainty and develop a more macro and longer-term perspective on the organizational environment.

At the Catalyst level, you develop the ability to listen to different viewpoints and realize that vastly different perspectives may all have some validity.

  1. Co-Creator Level: Achieving a Common Mission

Leaders at the Co-Creator level focus on building organizations driven by a common mission, preferring to create interdependent, mutually committed, trusted, and closely cooperative relationships among relevant stakeholders whenever possible.

The ability to deeply understand multiple reference frames at this level allows leaders to form a strong sense of interdependence and excel in holistic thinking.

  1. Synergist Level: Unleashing Unexpected Possibilities

Leaders at this level collaborate deeply with others, groups, organizations, and sometimes sense subtle energy dynamics. They focus on the common good and can embrace relevant stakeholders accurately and empathetically.

When working with others to solve unstructured problems, they maintain the complexity of both mind and emotion, resulting in the ability to generate collaborative insights and find ways that benefit all parties in seemingly irreconcilable conflicts.

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