Be an Agile Leader

In business today, there’s a growing trend toward agile leadership: a focus on fast decision making, short-term goals, and the empowerment of individuals. What began as a leadership approach confined to IT departments—business units that must respond quickly to rapidly changing technology—has become a way of life for leaders generally.

Today, it’s not just IT departments that have to be on their toes—everybody in an organization must adapt quickly to change. People are recognizing that yesterday’s hierarchical structures and top-down management styles simply don’t allow for the flexibility and innovation required to compete in today’s fast-paced business environments.

That’s why the term agile leadership has expanded to include general leadership skills like acting on a shared vision, creating empowered teams, leading change, and sharing decision-making.

 

Agile Leadership at the Manager Level

Just as top-down management no longer works at the organizational level, it no longer works one-on-one, either. Agile leaders practice side-by-side leadership, partnering with their direct reports to provide the direction and support they need for their level of development on any given task.

Agile leaders are servant leaders, because they recognize that there are two aspects of servant leadership: vision and implementation. Creating a shared vision is the leadership part of servant leadership; helping people implement that vision is the servant part of servant leadership.

For many years, The Ken Blanchard Companies has been teaching SLII®, a servant leadership model that is based on the belief that leadership style should be tailored to the situation. This kind of flexibility is a key principle of agile organizations.

To become agile, SLII® leaders, managers must master three skills: goal setting, diagnosis, and matching. Goal setting involves aligning on what needs to be done, and when. SLII® managers make sure people know what they are being asked to do and what good performance looks like. Diagnosis involves determining a direct report’s development level—their competence and commitment to accomplish the goal. Matching involves aligning leadership style to a direct report’s development level. The goal of the SLII® leader is to develop direct reports so they can perform at a high level on goals without supervision.

Agile leaders trained in SLII® provide direction and support in the proper amounts to help fill in what direct reports can’t provide for themselves. When someone is new to a task, this means providing specific direction; when someone gets discouraged, it means providing coaching. As the person gains competence in the task, the leader pulls back on the amount of direction they provide as they support the person’s continued development. And when the person demonstrates self-reliance on the goal or task, the leader moves to a delegating style, giving direct reports the autonomy characteristic of people in agile organizations.

An agile leader can comfortably use a variety of leadership styles. As a leader’s direct report moves from one development level to the next on any given task, the leader’s management style changes accordingly. When leaders can comfortably use a variety of leadership styles, they have mastered the flexibility required by agile organizations.

 

A Real World Example

Let’s see how an agile leader can use SLII® to develop the empowered individuals needed in agile organizations.

Suppose you hire a 22-year-old salesperson with little actual sales experience. She has a high commitment to becoming good at sales and is curious, hopeful, and excited. Someone at this level is an enthusiastic beginner. A directing leadership style is appropriate at this stage. You need to teach your new hire everything about the sales process—from making a sales call to closing the sale—and lay out a step-by-step plan for her self-development, teaching her what experienced salespeople do and letting her practice in low risk sales situations.

Now, suppose your new hire has had a few weeks of sales training. She understands the basics of selling but is finding it more difficult than she expected. She’s not quite as excited as she was before and looks discouraged at times. At this stage, your salesperson is a disillusioned learner. What’s needed now is a coaching leadership style, which is high on both direction and support. You continue to direct and closely monitor her sales efforts, and you also engage her in two-way conversations. You provide a lot of praise and support at this stage because you want to build her confidence, restore her commitment, and encourage her initiative.

In time the young woman learns the day-to-day responsibilities of her position and has acquired some good sales skills. She still has some self-doubt and questions whether she can sell well without your help. At this stage, she is a capable but cautious performer. This is where a supporting leadership style is called for. Since her selling skills are good, she doesn’t need direction. She needs you to listen to her concerns and suggestions, and be there to support her. Encourage and praise, but rarely direct her efforts. Help her reach her own sales solutions by asking questions and encouraging risk-taking.

Eventually, your former new salesperson becomes a key player on your team. Not only has she mastered her sales tasks and skills, she’s also working successfully with some of your most challenging clients. She anticipates problems, is ready with solutions, works successfully on her own, and inspires others. At this stage, she is a self-reliant achiever. At this level of development, a delegating leadership style is best. Turn over responsibility for day-to-day decision making and problem solving; empower her and allow her to act independently. Challenge her to continue to grow and cheer her on to even higher levels of success.

Using the servant leadership skills of SLII®, leaders develop employees who are more proactive, engaged, and ultimately, self-reliant—in short, ready to meet the needs of the agile organization.

The Precious Present

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift—that’s why they call it the present.”

You may have heard this quotation, attributed to many different people including Eleanor Roosevelt. It reminds me of when I first met Spencer Johnson. He had just finished a manuscript entitled The Precious Present (Doubleday, 1984).  It’s a wonderful parable about a young boy who lived near an older man who always seemed to be happy. One day the boy asked the old man about it.

The old man told the boy that the secret to lifelong happiness was finding the Precious Present. “It is a present because it is a gift. And it is precious because anyone who receives such a present is happy forever.”

“Wow!” the little boy exclaimed.  “I hope someone gives me The Precious Present.”

For years as the young boy grew, he searched high and low, trying in vain to find the Precious Present. Finally, as a grown man, he stopped to recall the things the happy old man had told him so many years ago. At that moment, he realized the Precious Present was just that: the present. Not the past, not the future, but the Precious Present.

It’s okay to learn from the past, but don’t live there. And it’s okay to plan for the future, but don’t live there, either. If you really want to be happy as you go through life, don’t lose what is precious to you. Live in the present.

What a powerful message. I always remember it when I’m feeling bad about something that’s already happened or when I start worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. Living every day to the fullest is really the best way I know to be happy for the rest of your life. Thanks, Spencer.

Escape the Tyranny of Your To-Do List

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I get overwhelmed by my to-do list. I can end up grinding my teeth thinking about all the meetings, projects, and deadlines piling up on my calendar. That’s when I know it’s time to take a deep breath, calm myself, and affirm, as the Daily Word recently reminded me:

I have all the time I need

to do all that I need to do.

Once I’ve calmed myself, I’m able to reprioritize and see that everything is happening perfectly—on God’s timetable, not my own.

When you’re on a tight schedule, one of the things that can add to that feeling of stress is an interruption: A traffic jam puts you a half-hour behind. An urgent phone call breaks your train of thought. An unexpected visitor interferes with your carefully planned day. But don’t be too quick to look at interruptions as the enemy. Sometimes those unwelcome intrusions are blessings in disguise. For example, there have been times when I’ve gotten bogged down in my writing and an interruption occurs. Surprisingly, when I return to my writing, I find the right words. Neuroscientists call such interruptions “disfluency” and confirm that they can enhance creativity by leading to insights and innovation.

A variation of the interruption is the plan gone awry:  New developments undermine the project you’re working on. The dream job you wanted so badly isn’t offered to you. A layoff derails your carefully planned career. At times like these, it’s wise see if the bad news is, in fact, good news in disguise. An example I often give is when the California wildfires of 2007 burned down our house. At first, that loss seemed devastating. But it led to our moving across the street to the house we’d always dreamed of living in—which was priced lower than the cost to rebuild our old house!

So escape the tyranny of your to-do list and don’t be too discouraged by setbacks. How many successful people do you know who are doing what they thought they’d be doing at the outset of their careers? Often the path to achievement is more like a winding road than a vertical ladder. While focus is a wonderful thing, it’s important that your commitment to a goal doesn’t blind you to the opportunities that a so-called derailment might be presenting to you.

The Glass Is 100% Full

As humans, we often tend to look at the dark side of things. For many of us, the proverbial glass is always half empty.

This is unfortunate because research has shown that what we place our attention on tends to grow stronger in our minds and in our lives—for good or bad.  My daughter-in-law, Madeleine Homan Blanchard, has a master’s of science degree in neuroleadership from Middlesex University. As I’ve learned from Madeleine, studies confirm that your thoughts and experiences actually change the cells and structure of your brain—something scientists call neuroplasticity. If you focus on positive thoughts, your brain will strengthen the electrical pathways related to an optimistic outlook. If you focus on negative thoughts, your brain will become hardwired to pessimism.

There’s nothing wrong with identifying negative situations and working to make them better. The trick is to keep your eye on the positive. No one expressed this better than retired basketball legend Michael Jordan, who said:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Do bad things happen? Of course. But so do good things. This week Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times reported that 2017 “was probably the very best year in the history of humanity.”  He pointed to statistics that showed a smaller proportion of the world’s population was hungry, impoverished, or illiterate than at any time before. “In another 15 years, illiteracy and extreme poverty will be mostly gone,” Kristof reported. “After thousands of generations, they are pretty much disappearing on our watch.”

Take that, gloom-and-doomers!

As a witty T-shirt points out, technically, that proverbial glass of water is always 100% full—half is full of water, half is full of air! So look at the bright side—your brain will thank you for it.

The Way You Think Can Change Your Life

Lately, I’ve noticed a lot of people engaging in what I call “ain’t it awful” conversations. Believe me, I understand that with things going on like the terror attacks around the world, the controversial Presidential campaigns in the United States, and even the weather, it is easy to slip into a negative mindset. But hand-wringing and downbeat discussions aren’t going to change anything. In fact, it can make things worse by taking all your thoughts into a downward spiral.

Now is the time for positive thinking. I always loved working with Norman Vincent Peale because he used to say “Positive thinkers get positive results.” That is such a powerful message, and we need to keep it in mind to be able to rise above the negative and focus on the positive. We are free to choose our thoughts—and thoughts guide our behavior. It is essential to keep uplifting messages in our head so that we are able to think more clearly, make better decisions, and approach life with a better attitude.

I don’t want to minimize the difficulties we all face in life such as illnesses, money problems, stress at work, and a hundred other things that can drag you down. But I know that a peaceful mind will give you more energy—and that will help you get through tough times.  My wife, Margie, uses a gratitude exercise to help her focus on the positive. Each evening she writes down the top three positive things that happened in her day. Sometimes it is as simple as getting a much-needed rainstorm in our time of drought, or reconnecting with an old friend. The point is that she ends her day with positive thoughts and a peaceful mind.

Try it for yourself. I encourage you to think about it from two perspectives—your personal life and your work environment. I think you’ll be surprised how this simple shift in thinking will change your outlook on life for the better.