Michael Papanek

Agile leadership is an approach that helps managers and company leaders implement change with creativity, innovation, unity, and speed. Agile teams are able to address and resolve their conflicts and leverage innovative or “radical” ideas faster and with better impact than other less agile teams.

Over the past few months, agile leadership has taken on greater importance than ever. The speed at which leaders can adapt to uncertainty and make decisions for their business has become mission-critical. The rapid transition to working from home — and the decisions for when and how to return to the office — require efficiency, flexibility, and strong values. Agile leaders handle unforeseen challenges while maintaining the respect and support of their employees, creating a culture of resilience and performance even during the “heat” of change. 

Research reinforces employees’ desire for agile leadership. Gallup found that 71% of employees feel disengaged and that most employees did not leave their organization, but the poor relationship they had with their boss. Google’s 10-year Project Oxygen study discovered the top five attributes their employees wanted from a manager were:

  1. Be a good coach
  2. Empower your team and don’t micromanage
  3. Express interest in team members’ success and personal well-being
  4. Be productive and results-oriented
  5. Be a good communicator and listen to your team

Agile leaders also have teams that reflect the top three attributes of high-performing teams, as recently identified by the Sloan School of Management, the Business school at MIT. They found the best teams can:

  1. See their team’s interactive dynamics, such as how they deal with conflict or disagreements
  2. Discuss their team’s dynamics without drama 
  3. Change their team’s dynamics when they need to

By the end of my course, Agile Leadership, you and your employees will know how to do each of those actions for your own team. In this blog post, I’ll introduce you to the three dimensions of agile leadership.

Agile Leadership and Resilient Teams

Last Updated April 2022

  • 25 lectures
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Building teams and organizations that thrive during change and stay resilient under stress | By Michael Papanek

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The 3 dimensions of agile leadership

Every leader’s success is really a function of a series of relationships on the job: between a leader and their direct reports, between team members, and even with key stakeholders, clients, or customers. These relationships need to be strong, flexible, and fair in order to stay agile during stress and challenge. Let’s look at each quality in more detail. 

1. Strength 

You know you have a strong relationship if it provides value that is hard to replace and meets the critical goals of each party. Weak relationships in business are superficial. They provide only marginal value and are easily replaced. In order to provide real value, a leader must have a certain level of intimacy or closeness with each person that allows that person to share what they really need and want out of the business relationship.

A strong relationship must have synergy, where one plus one equals three. For a relationship to be strong, it must contribute to strategic goals that each person cares about, and the total value created by the relationship should exceed the effort each person puts into it. You know you have a strong business relationship if you would miss it if it ended. 

The first step to s strong relationship is to fully know and understand the other person on a deeper level. I call one key strategy leaders can use to strengthen relationships “KYP,” or “Know Your People.” When we consider our most resilient relationships, we will most likely recall feeling like we understood each other well — we knew each other’s motivations, needs, and concerns. We could trust that the other person had our best interests in mind and that our goals were not in competition, but in alignment.

To be an agile leader, we need to really know and understand each of our people so we can show them we care about them as a complete person, not just as a resource. If we do, they will return the favor with loyalty and hard work.

This was more recently confirmed by the Google Leadership study, which found a key indicator of whether or not an employee stayed with a company was if they felt there was “someone at work (hopefully their boss) who understood them and cared about their future.”

In order to inspire and motivate team members, leaders first need to have a certain level of intimacy or closeness that allows them to understand what others really want out of the business relationship. This knowledge also makes it possible for the leader to be clear about what they want. When working conditions or other assumptions change, clarity on goals — and why those goals matter — becomes even more important than usual.

Shifting to work from home, for example, means leaders must be even more clear about what we mean by productivity in the new environment, what is most important when new tradeoffs must be made, and what vision of the future we are all working toward. Clarity about goals and values will overcome the confusion and chaos some employees might be feeling.

2. Flexibility

The second dimension of agile leadership is flexibility. Relationships that stand the test of time are able to flex when situations change. These flexible leaders and their teams can still function and create value. Flexibility for leaders means sharing power and allowing yourself to be influenced by others’ input so you can build shared solutions. If you want to influence others as a leader, you must be willing to be influenced yourself! 

When you ask a team member if their leader is flexible, they mostly think about how that leader listens and considers others’ input, and how that leader does — or does not — share power when making decisions.

Leaders might not always be able to be flexible about what must be done, but they can try to be flexible about how it is done. Flexibility does not mean having to compromise on what we are accountable for; it means knowing that most complex issues require collaborative, or social, solutions as much as technical or operational ones.

This flexibility does not occur in a vacuum. A deep understanding of goals and outcomes is critical to practicing smart flexibility, so we get both the buy-in we need and the outcomes we require. Often flexibility is best when combined with coaching and effective delegation. 

For example, when people shift to more remote or virtual work, those employees still have needs for affiliation, for feeling like part of a team or a community, along with productivity and performance needs. The casual, “I was walking by” or “I saw you in the coffee line” interactions are lost, so they must be replaced, often with a blend of scheduled team and one-on-one check-ins, chat, text, emails, and phone calls.

This ability to work collaboratively is more than just a buzzword. Collaboration, which literally means to “co-labor” or to work together on the same thing, in the same way, at the same time, is becoming more and more valued by the world’s top organizations. In a study by IBM entitled “Leading Through Connections,” the CEOs they polled said that they are now changing the profile of what they want from their top leaders. While expertise and business and technical knowledge remain highly valuable, the ability to team across the organization and create a collaborative work environment were two of the top five attributes valued by CEOs, with 58% stating that teaming was a critical leadership trait.

3. Fairness

The final dimension of agile leadership is fairness. Think of the leaders you have had in your career and how fair they were. Was the goal of the leader to support and enhance, or was it to compete and win at the expense of others? Was the leader able to openly share their goals and intentions or were they seen as political? 

While there is no cookie-cutter approach to what different people will consider to be fair, comments about fairness from team members should be addressed and can sometimes reflect important issues. At the same time, it is also important to remember that fair does not always mean equal, and sometimes team members need to learn more context to understand what is really fair.

Fairness in decision-making may be the most important aspect of fairness in agile leadership. If a leader’s coworkers believe they base their decisions on self-interest, politics, or other non-business reasons, they will be seen as unfair. If leaders are willing to make the hard decisions, but use a process of input to build buy-in, even those who do not agree will say the decision was fair. If an Agile leader is clear and transparent about their criteria and process, others will support their decisions, even when it was not their first choice.

Next, to be seen as fair, leaders will want to explain the decision-making process itself, so the team knows how to participate. For example, when I was reworking the compensation plan on a sales team, I let the team know the deadline for the decision for the new comp plan and who the final decision-makers would be. My process was to get input, form a proposal, and then the CFO and VP of Sales would make the final decision based on my recommendation. Explaining the decision-making process increases fairness since we all know how, when, and who will make the final call. No mystery, no drama, no politics. 

People in organizations know they will not always get their way, but they do want and deserve a fair hearing. The essence of employee empowerment is a sense of influence over decisions that are important to the employee. If a leader makes decisions about an employee’s work and the employee is not involved, they may feel disrespected. The leader might also make a bad decision because they may not have all the data. This is why it’s important to seek out those with differing opinions and perspectives.

Finally, once the final decision is made, a leader must be able to explain the rationale they used, what their goals were, what options were considered, and which criteria they deemed most important, so everyone can understand why the final decision was made.

During these input conversations, leaders must let their employees and colleagues know they have permission to be truthful and honest. Each person should feel their ideas were heard and respected. In their research on leadership, Google found that this type of environment, where the leader stays centered and listens to all points of view, is key to successful teams.

The most important strategy is to listen and seek understanding of others’ ideas — even if they are controversial. We all have biases and issues that are more sensitive to us. It is when we deal with these most difficult topics that the leader must stay agile, flexible, and open to input. Fairness will, over time, create a sense of psychological safety, where others see this particular leader as reasonable, data-driven, and open to input.

In this blog post, I’ve shared some of the research that supports agile leadership and described its three dimensions: strength, flexibility, and fairness. If you’d like to explore these topics in more detail and practice developing the skills of agile leadership, be sure to check out my Agile Leadership course.

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Page Last Updated: July 2020