Four Obstacles to Leadership Agility

By: Lori West

The leadership development world loves its buzzwords. In an effort to redefine leadership for a modern world, new ideas come to the fore all the time.

One of the most recently identified leadership qualities to spring from the STEM sector is "agility." When you think about agility from a physical perspective, you think of quickness of movement. Successful athletes like football strikers require physical agility to move around the defenders with the ball to score goals. You can see it in action.

When applied to mental processes, it means not just thinking quickly, but drawing conclusions quickly. Possessing intellectual acuity supports leaders to make decisions quickly. Given the rate of change that the world is currently experiencing, this is of vital importance.

However, there is another angle to the agility debate, and it has sprung from the agile approach to technology and engineering project management. Using an agile approach, a team breaks a project down into small pieces of work and then moves toward the end product using an iterative, incremental approach, allowing teams to behave with greater flexibility and interactivity.

What does that really mean? In simple terms, it means releasing a version of a product that’s workable as quickly as possible, then repeating the process with enhancements to the original. There is a flow to product development that feels a little like breathing. You develop, you release, you develop, you release, you develop, you release.

What does it mean for leadership? The agile community has published an Agile Manifesto that brings with it a philosophy. In short, here’s what the community states as its values:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

What do you notice about these values? For me, they prioritize human beings moving together toward the common goal of making things work over following rigid hierarchies, processes and procedures. It flattens out the “us and them” approach of traditional customer/supplier and project manager/project developer relationships, creating a more egalitarian environment in which everyone’s contribution is valued. Assuming all parties commit to and abide by the collaborative values, it can mitigate the more litigious aspects of business, too.

The manifesto might make Agile seem a little idealistic, but the fact is, it works. In my view, it takes into account a more accurate reflection of what life is really like. The one guarantee we have in life is change. If you’re able to cope with change as a fact of reality, you significantly increase your chances of navigating your way adeptly around the future. If, however, you find change unsettling, you will be in for a bumpy, difficult ride.

Has this got you wondering how you can develop agility as a core facet of your leadership? A useful place to start is by looking at what prevents you from operating with an agile mindset. Here are four obstacles to leadership agility for you to consider.

1. Fear, in particular fear of the unknown, is the biggest barrier to change. Examine your relationship to fear. Are you master of your fear, or is fear mastering you? If fear drives your choices, it’s time to take control.

2. Perfectionism is paralyzing, stopping agility in its tracks. When you have a fixed idea of how something should look, you are less able to respond to reality. Letting go of perfectionist tendencies doesn’t mean that you must give up pride in what you do for the sake of speed. Think of it more as doing your best to make the world, or a project, work right now. This requires you to be present in the moment rather than clinging to an ideal that may or may not materialize.

3. Opinions act as filters through which you see the world. While you might believe your opinions matter, the truth is they are simply your view. That doesn’t make your opinions right - or wrong. However, rigidly adhering to opinions hampers your ability to embrace different perspectives. Fixed thinking gets in the way of effective collaboration. The thing to remember about an opinion is this: it’s one view, but it’s not the whole picture.

4. Narcissism shows up as extreme selfishness in people. You’re probably familiar with the type who always wants to take credit for everything. It doesn’t work in a collaborative environment. The flip side of the coin, extreme selflessness, is, however, a lesser known form of narcissism that is equally destructive in a collaborative environment. One is an overvaluing of one's contribution, while the other is an undervaluing of one's contribution. Accepting regular doses of reality helps you recognize that your ideas are valid as a contribution to the whole, while recognizing, too, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This helps you develop a healthy, balanced sense of self-worth, a vital component of any brilliant leader.

Leadership is being redefined for the 21st Century, and so, too, is agility. It’s a quality companies are increasingly demanding from their workforces. Are you consciously developing agility as a leadership approach? If it’s not yet on your radar, get moving! There’s no time like the present to strengthen and flex your agility muscles.


Lori West is the Founder and Managing Director of The Brilliance Trailblazer, Ltd. To find out where you are on the AIP (agility, inclusivity, purposefulness) scale, take the test — click here to register. To find out how you can become a Brilliance™ Trailblazer, click here. To download a free copy of my eBook, Poised for Progress, click here

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