Three Levels of Leadership Agility

New, in-depth research shows that people move through distinct stages or levels as they become agile leaders. At each new level, managers gain new capacities that make it more natural for them to lead in an agile manner. This article outlines three levels of leadership agility and shows how managers at each level of agility lead projects, lead teams, and engage in pivotal conversations. It ends with a few pointers about ways to assess and develop your own level of leadership agility.

New, in-depth research shows that people move through distinct stages or levels as they become agile leaders. At each new level, managers gain new capacities that make it more natural for them to lead in an agile manner. This article outlines three levels of leadership agility and shows how managers at each level of agility lead projects, lead teams, and engage in pivotal conversations. It ends with a few pointers about ways to assess and develop your own level of leadership agility.

We live in a turbulent global economy that will continue to be shaped by two deep technical and business trends: accelerating change and increasing interdependence. In 2001, implicitly responding to these conditions, a group of seventeen IT professionals convened at Snowbird in Utah. Representing a variety of what were then called "light" software development methodologies (Adaptive Software Development, Crystal, DSDM, Extreme Programming, Feature-Driven Development, Pragmatic Programming, SCRUM, etc.), they created the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. Since then, agile methodologies have gained ever-increasing recognition and momentum, naturally raising the question:

What kind of leadership is best suited for development teams using agile methods?

In our extensively researched book, Leadership Agility (Jossey-Bass, 2007), my co-author Stephen Josephs and I provide several examples of agile IT managers, identifying the specific personal capacities and professional practices that make them agile leaders. Our book was not initially inspired by the agile software movement. Rather, our interest in agility grew out of decades of experience coaching, training, and consulting to leaders in all types of roles.

Leadership Agility was also inspired by our shared interest in stage-development psychology, a little-known field that may not initially seem that relevant to agile software development. But bear with me. Over many decades, research psychologists have mapped the stages by which adults develop, both cognitively and emotionally. These stages don't refer to age-related life eras, such as the mid-life crisis. Instead, at each new stage adults develop a more advanced set of capabilities for responding effectively to change and complexity. In other words, they become more agile.

For years, as Stephen and I used this perspective to guide our work with leaders, we noticed that managers who functioned at more advanced stages of personal development found it easier to adopt more agile and effective leadership practices. We also knew that research studies had found significant correlations between managers' developmental stages and various aspects of leadership effectiveness.

Levels of Leadership Agility
At about the time the Agile Manifesto was created, we launched a project to systematically research the relationship between five stages of adult development and leadership effectiveness. We discovered that, as managers grow through these stages, they develop five corresponding levels of leadership agility.

Figure 1 provides snapshot profiles of the first three levels: Expert, Achiever, and Catalyst. This article focuses on these levels partly because of space constraints, but also because the key leadership development challenge in today's businesses is to help Experts become Achievers and help Achievers become Catalysts. This chart shows how managers at each level conduct themselves in three "action arenas": leading projects, leading teams, and engaging in pivotal conversations. Note that each level of agility includes and goes beyond the skills and capacities developed at previous levels. Based on data collected from over 600 managers, percentages refer to research based estimates of the managers currently capable of functioning at each agility level.[1]

Figure 1: Quick Reference Guide to Three Levels of Leadership Agility

As the chart indicates, the Expert level of agility is best suited to traditional software development practices. Consistently effective leadership of agile teams requires growth to the Achiever level and, even better, to the Catalyst level of agility.

Leading Projects
Experts have a tactical, problem-solving orientation. Once the requirements of a project have been defined, Experts tend to take them for granted, focusing on the technical tasks needed to meet these requirements. They prefer to avoid substantial engagement with stakeholders. If conflicts arise, they try to resolve them by relying on their authority or expertise. Overall, they're more comfortable leading projects (if any exist) where requirements remain relatively static over the life of the project.

Achievers retain the ability to focus on tactical issues, but they've also developed a strategic, outcome orientation that gives them the agility needed to adjust their projects as requirements change. Their attunement with business outcomes and their ability to understand cross-functional perspectives motivates Achievers to engage with stakeholders and align their projects with business objectives. They usually try to gain stakeholder buy-in to their projects by persuading them about its benefits, by accepting input consistent with project objectives, or both.

Catalysts can be tactical or strategic as needed, but they also have the capacity to pursue more visionary objectives that may take a decade or so to be fully realized. They're more comfortable responding to the uncertainty that attends continuous change, and they're more fully attuned to the human dimension of visionary initiatives. For example, a Catalyst perspective on the agile movement sees that, at its core, it's about creating organizational communities that value people, trust, respect, and collaboration. [2] They're likely to engage in genuine, proactive dialogue with a diverse set of key stakeholders, not simply to gain buy-in, but because they feel it will improve their decisions.

Leading Teams
Experts rarely create teams in the true sense of the word. They tend to work with direct reports one-on-one. Even in group meetings, they prefer information sharing and one-on-one interactions to team problem solving. They're often too caught up in technical details to lead their team in a strategic manner.

Achievers realize that their direct reports need to be managed, motivated and developed as a team. Their team meetings include discussion of important issues. However, they often orchestrate these meetings to gain buy-in to their own views, a critical limitation because this prevents teams from developing the self-organizing capabilities they need to be truly agile.

Catalysts retain the team leadership skills they developed at previous levels, but they usually find a dynamic balance between acting as a team leader and facilitator, thereby generating a higher level of participation and influence within the team. They believe that this creates a truly agile team that gets more effective results in dynamic business environments.

Overall, our research found that managers with higher agility levels do, in fact, develop teams that are more agile in responding to changing demands, engaging with stakeholders, creatively solving "ill-structured" problems, and learning from their experience.

Engaging in Pivotal Conversations
Pivotal conversations are direct person-to-person interactions that have a significant impact on project outcomes. When engaged in these conversations, Experts either strongly assert their own opinions or withhold their views in an attempt to avoid conflict. They may also swing back and forth between these two stances. Regardless of their style, they are inclined to believe that difficult conversations will not go well. Partly for this reason, they're less likely than Achievers or Catalysts to give or request feedback.

Achievers usually develop an interpersonal style that is primarily assertive or accommodative. However, assertive Achievers usually work some accommodative elements into their style, and vice versa. Whatever their style, Achievers will often accept or even initiate feedback, as long as they feel it will be helpful in achieving valued outcomes.

Catalysts can be assertive or accommodative, as the situation requires, though they most prefer a balanced style where they assert their own views, then immediately inquire about others' views. Because of their genuine interest in learning from diverse viewpoints, they are proactive in seeking and utilizing feedback

Thus, as team leaders become more agile, their capacity for collaboration increases, and they develop a genuine and increasingly proactive interest in feedback of all kinds, setting a tone within the team that supports and encourages agile practices.

Assessing Your Leadership Agility
Accelerating change and increasing interdependence mean that higher levels of agility are essential regardless of your organizational position. If you want to increase your own leadership agility, you can use the chart presented earlier to assess your current level of agility. To supplement your self-assessment, ask a few trusted colleagues to tell you where they think you function most of the time. [3]

Developing Leadership Agility
In our experience, the best support for increasing your agility is a workshop, coaching relationship, or action learning program that focuses specifically on leadership agility. Ultimately, however, the primary "engine" for developing leadership ability is self-leadership: Start by assessing your current agility level. Then ask yourself whether and you want to develop further within your current level or to the next level. Set specific leadership development goals (new behaviors) that match this aspiration.

Once you've set your leadership development goals, the key to increasing your agility is to use your everyday initiatives to experiment with more agile behaviors. Self-leadership is an ongoing, cyclical process of setting objectives, clarifying a plan for achieving these objectives, taking action, then reflecting on and learning from your experience.

Repeatedly engaging in self-leadership allows you to use the challenges you face everyday to increase your agility. The more you nurture a resilient, self-empowering attitude toward these challenges, the more your own commitment to self-leadership and leadership agility will grow. With this practice as your ally, you'll be able to meet the changes and complications that come your way with curiosity and optimism - and you'll be able to help others to do the same.

About the author: Bill Joiner is co-author of Leadership Agility and co-founder of ChangeWise, a leadership and organization development firm with offices in Boston and San Francisco. Bill provides talks and seminars on leadership agility. He is a seasoned organization and leadership development consultant with 30 years of experience completing successful projects with companies based in the US, Canada, and Europe. Bill has a Doctorate from Harvard University, where he worked with Chris Argyris and Don Schon, and an MBA. Bill welcomes dialogue with anyone interested in the topic of agile leadership. 

[1] Leadership Agility: Five levels of mastery for anticipating and initiating change, Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs (Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2007), pp. 230-33.
[2] Jim Hightower, "History: The Agile Manifesto,"
[3] ChangeWise has also developedthe Leadership Agility 360, an online assessment tool based on its research to help assess leadership agility levels.

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