Agile  | 3 MIN. READ

Building Agile Leaders

Andrew Webster, October 17, 2018

How to adapt traditional leadership development programs in disruptive times

Building Agile LeadersCorporate leadership academies have become a mainstay for global organizations, teaching generations of leaders how to be successful based on the skills, insights and lessons learned from those who came before them. This was a fine approach to building leaders in slow moving economies, but it no longer works today in a time of constant transformation for organizations, industries and people.

The business world is evolving so quickly that leadership training programs are now teaching new leaders skills that they will likely never use, because their future roles and contexts will change so dramatically, or their roles have yet to be created, and so the training needs have likely not been yet identified.

Even if these leadership academies evolve to cover current trends around digital transformation, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other technical buzzwords, by the time these trainees take over, those lessons will likely be obsolete. At the same time, leadership academies are also failing to give them the skills they need to lead organizations that are increasingly in a constant state of transformation.

Unless companies rethink their approach to leadership development, they could be setting up young leaders to fail, and as a result, the organizations they manage. To adapt, companies need to refocus their development efforts on creating agile leaders who have the skills and insight to be adaptive in the face of uncertainty, who recognize when and how to take calculated risks, and who can confidently empower their people to be innovative without micromanaging their every move.

Design thinking — the art of iterative innovation, where every employee focuses on solving relevant problems, challenging assumptions and pushing their ideas based on customer feedback — will be an important part of this process. When leaders learn how to leverage design thinking tools, it gives them a framework to create agile organizations where adaptability and innovation becomes the norm.

How to Recognize an Agile Leader

Agile leaders have a core set of skills and an attitude that allows them to embrace change and to find opportunities where others see only risk. Agile leaders:

  1. Understand the value of taking small, calculated risks and encourage their people to generate big ideas, test theories, and gather feedback to validate their efforts.

  2. Don’t rely on rules to govern behavior. Instead they communicate a clearly defined vision for the business and the metrics they will use to measure success, then they trust that their people will find the best way to achieve them.

  3. Celebrate the process, not just the outcome. It is how they demonstrate the value they put on innovative thinking, and helps them create a culture where every employee feels empowered to question long-held assumptions and seek more compelling solutions.

  4. Recognize that bureaucracy is the enemy of innovation and they do everything they can to insulate their people from processes and activities that deliver no real value.

  5. Talk to their customers all the time, and put their needs at the center of their business strategy — because when customers are happy, companies thrive.

How to Build an Agile Leader

Organizations that see the value of agile leadership need to take a hard look at how they choose and develop leaders, and be willing to make changes when development strategies and business goals don’t align. This transformation begins with three steps:

  1. Assess every element of your leadership development program and ask whether it will create the leaders you need in the future. If not, get rid of it. For some organizations, the training, mentoring, and stretch assignments that define their leadership programs may need only minor tweaks to generate more agile leaders, while for others the entire system will need to be rebuilt — or scrapped all together.

  2. Rethink your high-performer track and who is on it. Talent who are adaptable, daring, and willing to take thoughtful risks will make the best future leaders. The sooner you find them, the more agile your leadership team will be.

  3. Identify the agile leaders you already have, and those with the potential to lead in the future. The people in your organization who inherently understand the value of customer feedback, questioning old methods, and taking calculated risks are already modeling agile leadership behavior. Celebrate their methods (even if the results aren’t always a success), and give them opportunities to share their vision with the rest of the organization. It’s a grassroots way to create an innovative culture, and to let people know that agile leadership is the new norm.


Learn how to enable innovation skill-building at scale here or download our free ebook Kickstart Innovation: A Guide for Organizations.



Andrew Webster

VP of Transformation at ExperiencePoint. Andrew leverages over 15 years of experience designing and delivering working models, design sprints, change interventions and training programs to develop and apply user-centric problem solving approaches and solutions. Andrew has worked with global organizations including Walmart, GE, Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola, Deloitte, MetLife and Microsoft. He has also taught executives at leading universities, including Harvard Business School and IMD.

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