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November 02, 2018 Friday 10:56:24 AM IST



Organizations across the globe are finding it really tough to stay receptive and effective in the face of progressively turbulent financial, technological, sociological and political forces. In this environment, many leaders underline the significance of being ‘agile’.  More than a mere choice, going agile has become an imperative for almost all organizations and professionals to cope up with the fast-paced world. The only feasible ‘choice’ now is to go agile or become out-dated. Inspired by the idea of agile development in the software world, this leadership style demands an individual to be flexible, adaptable and fast in their decision-making. Agile leaders have the unique ability to motivate others, communicate an engaging vision and would continually look for superior ways of working through feedback.

For top management, agile may be easy to understand conceptually, but it can be really hard to do. Leading in an agile setting presents unique challenges. These trials result directly from the practice of agile, and the principles and paradigm of leadership behind it. In the agile environment, leadership is a collective phenomenon, rather than something which resides exclusively with an individual in a role. Here, agile acts as a forcing function for change. More than mere techniques and practices, agile leadership is the ability to look at the organization from the system viewpoint, comprehend system dynamics, be able to get awareness about what’s happening, embrace it, understand it and become an essential part of the system and finally be able to act upon and influence it with coaching, and initiate a change.

Let’s discuss three key principles of agile leadership that will ensure effect true agile business change.

Embrace effective feedback

Instead of considering the reception of feedback as a negative experience, agile leaders audaciously solicit meaningful, valuable and appropriate feedback from peers and other associates. While inviting feedback is essential, agile leaders take time to confirm that they are evidently responding to the recommendations made by their co-workers in order to close the feedback loop. Agile leaders model giving effective feedback that is open, truthful and courteous.

L. David Marquet, Captain at US Navy, once unsuspectingly gave his submarine crew an impossible command during a major submarine strategic training. Because the crew’s preceding leaders hadn’t permitted them to question their seniors, the crew identified it was a mistake but remained silent instead of informing the captain of his error. Fortunately, disaster was avoided, but the situation provoked Marquet to ask, “What occurs in a top-down culture when the leader is wrong? Everyone goes to a dead-end.”

Constructing open discussion may challenge facets of your establishment’s culture, but is a significant factor in learning what is needed. Benefits of a culture of open dialogue go beyond just quality feedback. Younger employees including millennials, appreciate an atmosphere that inspires them to create and share ideas. Open communication shapes skills in having collaborative exchanges about change and exhibits respect for diverse thinking.

 Empower your followers

Agile leaders realize that individuals work best when they are empowered, engaged and energised. This is an indispensable skill of the agile leader as they stabilize the evolving needs and tensions of the organisation. Instead of just an all or nothing concept, agile leaders accept empowerment as a continuum of leadership behaviour that responds to the existing context for change.

In just 16 years, CEO Tony Hsieh has made Zappos, the online shoe-retailer into one of best places to work in the world. Walking into the Zappos head office is like stepping into a circus tent. Telephones ring, voices rise, and laughter bounces around the room. If you closed your eyes, you’d mistake yourself in the midst of a loud family reunion, not at the corporate office of a billion-dollar enterprise.

The Zappos workforce operates in a fiercely proud culture. Employees not only love their work, they care sincerely about others in the community. How did Hsieh do it? By empowering his people to lead. According to him, empowering leaders have discovered that helping people find purpose delivers superior results than forcing subordinates to be loyal followers. Tony Hsieh concentrates on relationships first and business second. In good times and bad, Hsieh’s communications are genuine, hilarious, and informal. He speaks openly and individually to his colleagues. According to Hsieh, if you get the culture right, everything else falls in place.

Walk the talk

More than just driving and encouraging change, agile leadership is about being the change. Those who lead by example and enthusiastically engage in their own growth, inspire others.  As rightly said by Mahatma Gandhi, be the change you want to see in the world.  Agile leaders cultivate themselves to be humble and compassionate by displaying qualities such as compassion, kindness and care for their co-workers.  They work on themselves first before working on others.

Jack Welch of General Electric is a striking example. For taking GE to greater heights, Welch knew he had to turn everything upside down and that's just what he did. He introduced the whole idea of a ‘boundary-less organization’ This means that everyone in the establishment has the freedom to brainstorm and reflect of ideas – instead of waiting for someone up the ladder to think of them first. He wanted his team to turn loose, and he assured the team members to listen to ideas from anyone in the enterprise. And he did.

Everyone from the grassroot-level workers to senior managers got his attention – if they had something important to convey or a new idea that might make the firm better. Welch stayed loyal to his passions and what he knew was right. As a result, GE became an extremely successful firm under his management. His people were always eager to follow his lead, because they knew that he always kept his word.

Last two decades witnessed the shift from static management to strategic management and we are quickly moving towards dynamic management which tries to keep up the speed with the modern, frequently changing, complex world. Organizations need more originality, teamwork, and innovations – simply agility. 

Dr. Manu Melwin Joy

The writer is an Assistant Professor at School of Management Studies, CUSAT

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