4 Agile Leadership Competencies To Outlast Covid-19

Even before Covid-19,  many businesses were operating in a world of continual change. Faced with the need to constantly adapt and future-proof themselves against increasing digitally-based disruption, organizations were wholeheartedly embracing agility and other concepts that emphasize small, self-organized teams, co-ordinated networks, mutual communication and people empowerment. 

Covid-19 has clearly accelerated many organizations’ imperative to change and accelerate their digital transformation efforts. And leaders are kicking into high gear to understand what type of leadership skills may be needed for managing virtual teams and remote workers. But there are four core agile leadership competencies that were valuable before, during and will continue to be relevant post-Covid 19.

Research on leadership in the digital age reveals that certain qualities such as deep domain expertise, decisiveness, authority and short-term focus are giving way to soft skills, such as humility, adaptability, vision, and constant engagement. IMD’s Center for Digital Business Transformation refers to these four competencies as the HAVE mindset. 

H: Humility

In times of rapid change and uncertainty, knowing what you don’t know is as valuable as knowing what you do. Humility removes the need for leaders to have all the answers. As data continues to grow exponentially, it’s no longer possible to know everything.

Humility has come to the forefront for many leaders during Covid-19. French President Emmanuel Macron recently took a reflective view on his handling of the pandemic in France and his hopes to humanise capitalism. “There is lots of uncertainty and that should make us very humble,” he remarked as he contemplated on whether his policies would bring the desired effects.

Individuals may not need to know everything, but they do need to embrace opportunities to learn. In a rapidly changing workplace, individuals need to continue learning to increase their knowledge, skills and competencies. “It’s time to move from being a know-it-alls, to learn-it-alls,” remarks Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella who describes the importance of humility in learning. Since his promotion in 2014, Nadella has been credited with defusing the highly combative, silo-oriented organization of his predecessor by building a culture of listening, communicating, learning and sharing view-points.

A: Adaptable

At an individual level, being adaptable means being open to new ideas and changing an opinion, even when it might hurt the ego. It is also about being able to effectively communicate that revised opinion to relevant stakeholders.

Many people went through extraordinary change during the past weeks with the sudden disruption of familiar work and personal routines. The sudden change to remote work, for example,  is a stark example of adaptability.  According to a survey by Mercer, only 22% of organizations were ready for mass remote working prior to Covid-19. Within a month of the outbreak, close to 40% of organizations had implemented company-wide mandatory work-from-home policies, and individuals have been challenged in self management and building collaborative working relationships remotely.

New working norms are built and reinforced collectively. And while it’s not clear what the world will look like, accepting that change is the only constant, helps individuals to adapt as new information arises. Having a “fail often to succeed faster” mantra encouraged by Tom Kelley of IDEO and others, is helpful to keep in mind.

V: Visionary

Having a clear sense of long-term direction, even in the face of short-term uncertainty, can compensate for many minor short-term changes in direction.  Being visionary in the workplace means setting long-term and competitive goals that inform short-term adjustments.

Vision has been especially important during a crisis as global and systematic as Covid-19. The ability to deal with a crisis is heavily dependent on the perception of the crisis and consequently, the reaction to it. On this front, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden’s approach demonstrates visionary capabilities, balancing her determination to lead the country out of the crisis, while managing expectations with reassurances on her short-term actions.

Leaders looking to develop this competency now could start by mapping out possible short-and long-term effects of Covid-19, and evaluate which could be controlled through management decisions.  As Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, explains, “It’s not what the vision is, it’s what the vision does.”

E: Engaged

Agile leaders need to stay engaged, but they also need to find ways to keep their teams engaged, particularly when the going gets rough and the path becomes challenging. It involves a willingness to listen, interact and communicate with a strong sense of curiosity.

There are several examples of how leaders have engaged during Covid-19. Ensuring the safety of their workers has been one common example with work from home measures and sanitized work areas, and shifted towards digital and contactless operating models.

Keep in mind that a Gallup poll revealed four primary needs that employees have of their leaders: trust, compassion, stability and hope. Leaders can keep engaged by being consistent in their actions, demonstrating empathy, being transparent about business decisions and communicating the vision about the future.

Preparing for agile leadership in highly uncertain times requires developing awareness about these four competencies and understanding how to develop them.

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