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  • Dr. Aparna Arvind

Bring agility to your leadership

In the face of relentless change and uncertainty, organizations need nimble leaders that foster connectedness, collaboration, preparedness, and swift responsiveness. Leaders are needed at the epicenter of the organization, working relentlessly to break silos and build networks of highly engaged and productive teams.


When one thinks of agile, it seems natural to think about technology services, scrum teams, and processes involved in agile transformation within organizations. This is primarily because the past decade has seen a deliberate effort on the part of organizations across the globe to adopt agile transformations to maintain competitive advantage, improve efficiency, and reduce waste.

Despite all this effort, not all agile transformation efforts translate into organizational success. It is now becoming increasingly apparent that success demands something more than implementing systems and processes that demonstrate agile methodology within a certain domain. Success and transformation within any industry demands agile leadership!

Context is Key

The Oxford American dictionary describes the adjective agile as being “able to move quickly and easily”. It is often used in the context of physical sports, mental fitness, and in business, when referring to the ability to adapt to environmental changes.

So why is this becoming so important in the context of leadership?

Traditional leadership, as we have grown to know it, has often been associated with a firm grounded image akin to an impenetrable fort; one of strength and power, one of resolute non-malleable stance, and one of deep authority. In today’s VUCA world (VUCA meaning volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity), such traditional leadership is turning out to be an organization’s Achilles heel in pivoting towards opportunities, identifying and responding to threats, and fostering purposeful engagement. In fact, one might argue that being agile is no longer an option, but a necessity, given the need for greater flexibility, adaptability, and resilience.

In simple terms, leaders need to cultivate a mindset of agility that works to enable, facilitate, and propagate progress towards overarching goals of any organization. This includes cultivating a deep sense of self-awareness and the disciplined effort to raise one’s awareness of others. Think of it as having the skills to maintain great balance amidst the risk of unexpected turbulence.

Five effective ways to help develop leadership agility

1. Manage your emotions, energy, and priorities

Emotions: Consider an instance where you reacted to a scenario that left you emotionally drained or regretful of how you approached the situation and wished you had just paused for a few moments to reconsider your response. Best-selling author and Positive Intelligence guru Shirzad Chamine relates this to ‘skids and crashes that are avoidable had you stopped to check your tires’. Agility demands that you raise your self-awareness by taking time to pause and reflect on how your emotions show-up as a leader and build on your emotional reasoning. Sporadic blowouts can be draining, and so activating your right brain (or parasympathetic brain) and taking an empathetic approach can prove highly rewarding to averting conflict and regret.

Energy: Make time for wellbeing, both physical and mental. Regular exercise is proven to raise your serotonin levels, lower your blood pressure and improve the quality of your sleep. All these help to elevate mood, bring clearer focus and boost stamina. Balancing your energy also requires you to evaluate what activities might be draining you of valuable energy. What do you need to say ‘no’ to, to help make time for the things that raise your energy levels?

Priorities: Not everything is a priority. If it feels and looks like it is, then you need to revisit your role and responsibility as a leader and assess if you have the right team in place to delegate to and help support your agenda. A calm and clear mind can help to provide insight into key activities that are of highest impact towards fulfilling your organization’s goals. These need to be given priority, and all other tasks that are of low/minimal impact and that can be delegated or discarded, should ideally get shifted off your list.

2. Cultivate versatility in your approach to relationships and situations

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to relationships or situations. Take the time and effort to get to know your team members individually. This can take place during a 1:1 meeting to get a better sense of individual motivators, stressors, and professional growth ambitions. Gaining a deeper understanding of individual team members gives you the ability to tailor your approach to communicating and delegating tasks. Versatility creates room for flexibility and adaptability. You cannot keep your foot on the accelerator all the time, and neither can you keep your foot on the brakes. A smooth ride requires that you recognize when to slow down and deeply observe your surroundings, and when to pick up the pace when the situation demands a swift response.

3. Keep your communication channels open and solicit feedback

The saying “ignorance is bliss” does not apply to leadership. Foster relationships and processes that allow you to be well informed of the reality on the ground. What you don’t know, you can’t fix, avoid, or leverage. As a leader you can never over-communicate, especially when sponsoring change. Ensure you communicate authentically, with clarity and purpose. Equally important is being open to soliciting feedback. This is an extremely useful way to both inform you on your effectiveness as a leader and provide objectivity on how to get better at it.

4. Cultivate a learning environment for yourself and your team

We live in a time where innovation is the key to progress and remaining relevant, and this applies to leadership as well. Leaders need to embrace continuous learning, recognizing that what got them here won’t necessarily translate into continued success in their current role or the one they may progress into. Prioritizing learning activities that include soft skills, public speaking, strategic planning, critical thinking, and fostering engagement and productivity across hybrid teams, are amongst the key areas of focus within leadership development. Leaders must ensure there is growth opportunity and resources provided for employee development to encourage talent retention.

5. Relentlessly build bridges and remove barriers to progress

As a leader there is a lot you can do to make things happen! This comes with the responsibility to solve for or remove stumbling blocks that may be deterring progress. An example would involve being swift with allocating appropriate resources when needed to propel a project forwards or eliminating redundant processes that do not add value. This also involves encouraging creativity and innovation within the work culture by creating an environment of psychological safety that allows challenging assumptions, and that paves the path for healthy conflict that spurs expansive thinking that results in novel ideas.

Looking ahead, the agile leader will have a competitive advantage with leading successful organizations that epitomize high-performing purposeful and engaged individuals. It all starts with intentionality and a clear line of sight on what it takes to drive success and sustenance in this VUCA world.

Additional nuggets

For those interested in learning more about approaches to VUCA, take a look at the Harvard Business Review article that provides a succinct snapshot to strategies in approaching the four VUCA categories.

If you’re curious to evaluate how emotionally agile you are, then take a stab at the quick emotional agility quiz by renowned management thinker and award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David, and gain deeper insights into how your emotions are at play.


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