Leading in an agile world – five characteristics of successful leaders

By Amy Finn

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on what people expect from work. People now strive for personal growth, purposeful work, and meaningful relationships with both their co-workers and leaders. And this is calling for a new style of leadership.

In recent years, there’s also been a significant increase in organisations adopting agile ways of working and driving more successful outcomes. Leaders in these organisations operate in fundamentally different ways to more traditional leaders, and there’s much to learn from them in response to today’s environment and expectations.

In our experience, successful agile leaders display several common characteristics:

They have a growth mindset

Agile leaders believe in the human capacity for learning, and that continual learning – for individuals, teams and organisations – is critical to success. They recognise that, to grow, they need to periodically unlearn and re-learn. Across organisations with greater levels of agility, we see a focus on creating cultures of curiosity, cultures that value time spent on learning over maintaining standard ways of doing things. These organisations question, re-think and re-imagine as part of daily life.

For busy organisations, time spent learning can feel like a luxury. But for agile organisations, learning is part of what they do every day. Leaders can set the tone for a growth mindset by sharing interesting articles and encouraging others to do the same, by asking “is there a different, better way”, and by making learning simple, quick and accessible to all.

They create social safety

Agile leaders create an empathetic, human-centred environment where everyone is valued and can contribute. This social safety is vital to learning as it provides the opportunity for everyone to share experiences, creating a group learning environment that improves team performance. In agile organisations, leaders and team members are willing to be honest about their mistakes and make innovative proposals for how things can improve.

Leaders who want to increase the social safety in their team must have a high EQ and empathy. They are responsible for creating a safe space for everyone to candidly share thoughts and ideas, regardless of seniority. This has been particularly crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic, and will be beyond it, as distributed working and asynchronous teams make observable behaviours harder to gauge.

To start creating social safety quickly and easily for your team, schedule regular retrospectives, something that is frequently done in agile organisations but rarely so in others. These simple but powerful sessions provide teams with time to reflect on how they have worked together. They’re an open forum to provide feedback on what worked well, how people are feeling and how the team can continue to improve.

Can old dogs learn ingenious new tricks?

Find out more

They create social capital

Social capital is the value derived through formal and informal relationships. It can improve team performance as it brings people together with a shared identity, purpose and trust. Agile leaders can build strong, trusted relationships across communities, create connectedness and talk to a shared purpose that crosses organisational boundaries.

To build social capital in others, leaders should emphasise the importance of open, transparent sharing of information between teams. They should proactively seek opportunities to bring individuals from different functions or units together to solve shared problems. And they should create informal networks built around shared interests that are open to all.

For example, we worked with one global insurer to create ‘Mission teams’ focused on addressing critical business problems. Teams were drawn from different divisions and as a result had not worked together before. They had pre-existing perceptions about their colleagues, but were asked to come together with a shared purpose. The teams were set brilliantly ambitious goals that drove an exponential growth mindset and adopted agile ways of operating that enabled them to provide open feedback to one another to support growth in team performance. Establishing the teams required leaders to come together to be open about the capability needed, and to release star team members to support the enterprise goal.

They are ego-less

Status, legacy and power-plays can cloud effective decision-making and working relationships. Agile leaders can take decisions dispassionately and for the greater good of the organisation, rather than being motivated by self. They adopt a servant leadership approach, recognising that their role is to enable and liberate the potential of the team to deliver value to customers, and that by separating themselves from the team they become out of touch with colleagues and customers. They’re also generous – regularly and publicly recognising the work of the team and bringing team members into key meetings and discussions to represent their own work.

Because agile leaders are ego-less, they can put their own needs to one side and take judgement calls that support the needs of the organisation. Taking the example of the ‘Missions teams’, this meant deciding where talent would be most effective, regardless of reporting line. It could also mean stopping a project that holds personal value but doesn’t align to corporate expectations. Taking such a selfless approach leads to more projects achieving their outcomes and better allocation of time and resources.

They think entrepreneurially

Agile leaders require the capacity to think big and be bold. Such an entrepreneurial mindset welcomes and promotes change, embraces experimental thinking, and is comfortable with uncertainty and failure. Agile leaders recognise that success relies on how pioneering they, and their organisations, are willing to be. They don’t define themselves by failures, but by what they learn from failures as this enables further innovation.

This ability to learn and iterate requires a leader to take a step back, see a different path and recalibrate to overcome the challenges, hurdles and failures they’re facing. As a result, successful leaders are resilient. They take on challenges where they can’t guarantee success and focus on rapid execution. One of the most notable examples of successful leadership is Bill Gates, who has failed many times, from his first business ‘Traf-O-Data’, to having “Microsoft” rejected by countless investors. Yet he always persevered and found a different way to succeed through failure.

Agile leadership will be essential to long-term success

Radical changes in ways of working due to COVID-19 are calling for a new leadership style. Adopting the characteristics of agile leadership will create more purpose-driven, innovative and connected teams, and unlock greater performance. Successful leaders will be those with a growth mindset, who create social safety and capital, who act without ego and who think entrepreneurially. Ultimately, such leaders will unlock the ingenuity within their organisation.

About the authors

Amy Finn PA people and talent expert

Explore more

Contact the team

We look forward to hearing from you.

Get actionable insight straight to your inbox via our monthly newsletter.