Agility: Leadership From A Coach And A Senior Leader’s Perspective

It is essential to develop leadership models moving from the concept of Boss towards the concept of Leader.

As a member of a company, no matter what level you are at, one of the most important questions you must to decide for yourself is:

What do I want to be? A Boss or a Leader?

The answer will be the lighthouse that guides your behaviours. Let’s remember that agility is directed by the behaviours we have: it is how we and others respond to the unexpected.

Let’s delve deep into the differences between a Leader and a Boss:

  1. A boss relies on positional authority given by the company while a leader rarely has to use their authority because they have the respect of the employees.
  2. The hierarchy defines and constrains the influence of a boss while a leader’s influence is independent of the hierarchy and goes much further.
  3. The level of a boss within a hierarchy indicates their salary, while on the other hand, your own leadership behaviour – in terms of the influence you have – does not directly impact your salary.
  4. A boss has positional authority over some set of issues – perhaps all issues. A boss must therefore be a leader, by definition. The question is, are they an effective leader?

The last item above reminds us that no one can be good at all kinds of leadership, because there are many dimensions to leadership. As Peter Drucker said, “You need an inside person, an outside person, and a person of action”.

That’s why leadership cannot come from only one person. Different situations demand different kinds of leadership. It often takes a team – several people who provide different kinds of leadership.

We saw this at Intel: its three founders were each very different, and they all provided key forms of leadership. We also see it at SpaceX: Elon Musk provides one set of leadership traits and Gwynne Shotwell provides another set, and they complement each other.

Move from Boss to Leader

For complex intellectual and creative work, including product development, the “transformational” style of leadership has been shown to be highly effective.

Transformational leadership is actually an amalgam of many leadership styles. A transformational leader relies less on their authority, and more on influence, inspiration, support, ideation, and growth. As a leader you are the mirror in which employees want to see themselves reflected, the person everyone wants to work with, who inspires them: people see their ideal self in a transformational leader. As one of us has written in another article,

“A leader is someone who generates a positive impact on others, who you trust, someone who has the capacity to influence, and who is a mirror in which you want to see yourself reflected”

Relying on influence does not mean abdicating responsibility or authority: it means trusting people appropriately, giving enough space for autonomy and growth, so that they will develop the confidence needed to turn to their leader for support and advice.

Decisiveness in a leader is still important, and transformational leaders are decisive when it helps to move things forward, but not as a way of micromanaging people or taking away their agency about how they do their work.

Transformational leadership is also more about “how” one leads, instead of “what” one does when one leads. Intellectual, creative and uncertain environments require many minds and many hands working to realize goals, and only one mind and two hands (even the best) are not enough. If you are a boss and manage using only your hierarchical power, you will miss your employees’ full potential and will fail.

Behaviours of a Leader in Dynamic Environments

Many companies say that they are “Agile”, but few actually have truly agile environments, in the sense of being able to quickly and correctly pivot when situations change – something that is essential in a business that competes on product features, brand, and/or technology. Why do they think they are “Agile” and are not actually agile in a real sense? The main reason is the styles of leadership that predominate within the company at all levels.

Agility in companies arises from behaviour, not from work process. It manifests as,

  • How people behave when customers give negative feedback on a new product.
  • How people behave when they discover that something that someone else is doing will not work.
  • How people behave when they perceive an opportunity.
  • How people behave when something is wrong, but it is “not their job to fix it”.
  • How people behave when someone has an idea, but the idea is very different from “what we have been doing”.
  • How people behave when they are asked their honest opinion, in a forum in which people with power are present.

If agility arises from behaviour, then how do we change behaviour? Changing behaviour requires leadership.

Transformational Leadership is not focused on generating followers. Rather, it seeks the professional development of people in safe environments where learning from errors is promoted. This is how new leaders are grown. It is a continuing race to raise the abilities of people.

What are the behaviours of Transformational Leadership? It depends on the context, and remember that there is no one style of leadership: transformational leaders adjust to the situation, always using positive and supportive approaches:

With Teams

  • Strongly promotes and generates trusted environments
  • Continuously communicates the vision, the goal and why and for what things are done
  • Acts as an umbrella that stops outside interference so the team can focus on what it does best.
  • Challenges to achieve better results by promoting an environment of innovation

With other leaders in other parts of the organization

  • Strongly promotes and creates environments of trust through integrity and transparency, rather than having ulterior motives
  • Creates a network to achieve organizational goals
  • Makes visible the leadership of other leaders, when that leadership is positive; and is the first follower of them
  • Makes achievements belong to everyone involved by standing out of the limelight and emphasizing the contributions of others

With Individuals

  • Strongly promotes and creates trust – shows genuine interest in people
  • Forms a unique relationship with each individual
  • Promotes people’s agency and boosts people’s self-confidence by making them all feel important and empowered to figure out how to get things done
  • Mentors people, promoting their growth and conversion into new leaders

C-Levels and Middle Management Must be Leaders

In the same way that in chess there are key pieces, in companies C-level and mid-level managers are key pieces. All of them create the culture of the company through the behaviours that they exhibit, the expectations that they set, and the incentives that they create.

In complex intellectual, creative and adaptive environments this is not a choice: we will not obtain the brainpower and creativity of our people unless they are inspired to do their best and feel that their ideas will be received with open mindedness. To achieve that, we need a culture of Transformational Leadership.

People who are in leadership roles, at all levels, must:

  • Walk the talk” – they are the mirror, the example, people see that they do not that they say
  • Support “team/people growth” – grow other leaders
  • Evangelize, explain, persist” – Show the objectives, the goals & Strategy continuously
  • Show that “things are different now” – advocate for change persistently, over time
  • Promote an “innovation culture” to move the mindset, by expressing interest in new ideas and demonstrating that unconventional ideas do not get shot down
  • Set the expectation that people will “try things before being sure
  • Set the expectation that people will reach “out of their lane” to raise issues
  • Set the expectation that people will “solve problems

All these elements and behaviours must be continuously cared for so as not to lose their essence and have a greater chance of success.

Fernando Santaella Lores is Agile Discipline Leader for BBVA Bank in Madrid, Spain.

Cliff Berg is Managing Partner for Agile 2 Academy in Reston VA, USA.

Fernando Santaella Lores and Cliff Berg
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