29 Nov 2017


There is no consensus in leadership theory and best practice about what makes the perfect leader. In fact, some strands of research suggest that the ideal style depends on the situation. The best leaders, therefore, are able to flex their styles while always being true to themselves.


“The wind does not break a tree that bends.” This quote, in its many variations, has been attributed to everyone from Bruce Lee to Confucius and sums up the concept of agility beautifully. You cannot prevent your environment from changing. To survive you must be flexible enough to deal with those changes, and to compete you must do so better than the competition.


An agile organisation is one that is able to renew itself and adapt quickly, and so succeed in a rapidly changing or turbulent environment. That doesn’t mean an agile organisation isn’t stable though; in fact, stability is needed for agility. This is the foundation around which other things will change and it is often provided by the leader.


Agility also requires organisations to be dynamic, which means that what teams are working on and how they are doing that work is less predictable. To be successfully dynamic, an organisation needs a leader who has the trust and confidence of his team, and who is able to engage and foster creativity in that team.


It’s difficult to be agile when the business is divided up into distinct groups that rarely interact or collaborate. Jane Asscher, CEO and founding partner at 23red, says, “Agility depends on agile resources and infrastructure. As a result, agile teams and office spaces look different to traditional ones. When our team comes together and forms different groups to collaborate on projects, we zone our working spaces to allow for project collaboration.”


An ‘agile mindset’ is the desire to learn and a willingness to change and it requires individuals to be curious about, and open to, new opportunities and ways to improve. “Agile thinking is a personal quality that helps individuals at every level to accept change, embrace opportunities and adapt better to new circumstances and situations,” says Valerie Nichols, executive consultant at Hemsley Fraser. “This creates a behavioural change that stimulates innovation and learning.”


Agility requires a certain amount of risk taking and experimentation as you look for new ways of doing things and solutions to problems, but this will sometimes result in failure. Leaders therefore need to be brave enough to admit defeat when something is not working well and learn from and move on from failure and disappointment quickly.


Focusing on what has worked in the past may seem sensible and time-efficient, but agile organisations constantly question their approaches. One of the best ways to do this is to bring in fresh eyes to get a different perspective on things. A willingness to seek out and accept positive criticism is a key trait of an agile leader.


An agile leader will always look laterally, says Nicolas Minvielle, marketing professor at Audencia Business School, France. “What is straight ahead is too obvious. For example, benchmarks are a widely accepted management tool, but most firms tend to carry out benchmarks of their competitors. A more rewarding approach would be to benchmark companies in completely different markets or even organisations that are not in business at all. Maybe how the army tackles a given challenge could give a leader valuable pointers.”


Nick Bradley, founder of Mandala Leaders, says being able to embrace and adapt to change demands continual focus, review and alignment of resources. “Good leaders will continually question themselves and seek feedback from others, both within and outside the team. Leaders will have a daily reminder of their overall purpose and then they will listen to new and creative ideas and find a way to align them to that goal. They must have the courage to take a risk, knowing that with constant review, the direction of movement can be flexed. Whilst this is a time-consuming process, the results will almost always be better than not taking that risk in the first place.”