To survive in a fast-moving and uncertain business environment, organisations require a particular type of leadership, far removed from the traditional top-down approach, writes John Williams

In his award-winning book ‘Leadership Agility’, Bill Joiner identified five categories of leadership, with around 90 per cent of managers being expert, achiever or catalyst. His research showed that:

Experts accounted for around 45 per cent of managers. Passionate about problem-solving and improving their technical or functional expertise, they are also susceptible to taking a command-and-control approach and are not good at seeking the opinions of others.

Achievers (~35 per cent) are strategic and relatively more collaborative, open to feedback and seeking buy-in from stakeholders when leading change initiatives.

Catalyst leaders (~ten per cent) have a vision, which is not only to achieve strategic objectives but also to build an organisation that can respond well to unexpected new developments, making them the most agile of the three.

While the expert approach can be effective in environments where the pace of change is slow, it is not suited to much of today’s commercial world where changing circumstances require people from all parts of an organisation to contribute insights and expertise.

The growth mindset
One way for leaders to help people to realise their full potential and to be willing to think in an innovative way is to encourage a ‘growth mindset’ among their staff.

The concept of a growth mindset – and how it differs from a fixed mindset – originated with Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor. She highlighted that people with a fixed mindset believe their intelligence and talent are static entities, whereas those with a growth mindset combine a love of learning with the resilience needed to achieve.

Growth mindset people see improvement as a goal, and welcome the guidance and direction that frequent feedback provides. They are likely to be more focused on their tasks and less distracted by the need for comparison to others. For them, setbacks are treated like puzzles to be solved.

In contrast, fixed mindset people find regular retrospectives that review performance and seek to find ways to improve, to be painful and threatening. Indeed, research from the NeuroLeadership Institute has shown that fixed mindset professionals focus on proving their ‘fixed’ ability, comparing themselves to their peers, and looking for acknowledgement of their existing skills. When people experience change with a fixed mindset, they question their ability and are worried about others outperforming them. This anxiety reduces an organisation’s ability to innovate.

Although leaders can’t force people to change their way of thinking, they can encourage a growth mindset by creating the right workplace culture, where constructive openness and ‘straight talk’ is the norm. Their emphasis is on envisioning the future and leading people towards it while allowing them the freedom to get on with the job. Good leaders create an environment where there is scope to experiment, learn and improve.

Project Aristotle
Evidence of the effectiveness of this kind of ‘safe’ environment can be found in the results of Google’s Project Aristotle, which set out to identify what criteria determined which of the company’s teams were high performing.

After looking at 180 teams from across the organisation, the researchers could find nothing to indicate that a mix of specific personality traits, group size, skills or backgrounds made any difference; two teams might have nearly identical makeups and members in common but perform radically differently. What they did find, however, was that a feeling of ‘psychological safety’ within a team was the key to success. Other elements such as making sure teams had clear goals, having dependable colleagues and finding work meaningful were also important, but the standout feature was the presence – or absence – of psychological safety.

In a team with high psychological safety, people feel safe to take risks around their teammates. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.

Agile leadership
Clearly, the actions of an organisation’s leaders are fundamental to establishing this kind of culture and behaviour – but culture cannot be imposed. Senior leaders cannot simply announce a change of culture, this is something that has to be built organically, based on actions not words.

Agile business thinking holds that there are nine principles of agile leadership. These include:

  • Actions speak louder than words
    Agile leadership is about not only driving and promoting change, it is also about being the change.
  • Organisations improve through effective feedback
    Feedback is a critical ingredient of continuous improvement and without it, little or no learning would take place in the organisation.
  • Great ideas can come from anywhere in the organisation
    Agile leaders understand people who are close to a problem usually have the best ideas about how to solve it.
  • People require meaning and purpose to make work fulfilling
    The work of the Agile Leader is to be aware of what is in the hearts and minds of their colleagues, then to unify and align those values into inspired action.
  • Emotion is a foundation to enhanced creativity and innovation
    Innovation happens best when we reduce our fears and ego defensiveness, thereby freeing our minds to imagine, create, connect, and explore the new and unknown with others in a non competitive way. That happens best when people feel psychologically safe and trust each other.

In summary, in a volatile and uncertain world, the role of leaders is to develop a culture in which people can release, nurture and develop their full potential, enabling organisations to respond and adapt with a new level of flexibility.

John Williams
John Williams is Chief Executive of the Agile Business Consortium. The Agile Business Consortium is the leading not-for-profit professional body for promoting and enabling business agility worldwide. It works with partners and alliances to promote agile practices, and to develop, curate and share agile resources with the wider world.

For full details of the Nine Principles of Agile Leadership, visit www.agilebusiness.org and search for ‘leadership’.