Virtual Event: July 14th, 2020
Panel: Dr. Alan Bourne, PhD in Organisational Psychology and Founder CEO of Sova
David Fairhurst, Founder of OrgShakers and previously CHRO McDonald’s
Anna Capitanio, Director of HR for BT’s Consumer Division
Simon Linares, Board Member and former Group HRD of Direct Line

Host: Lisa Gerhardt, Partner, Global HR Practice, Board Practice, Savannah Group


For leaders in the current climate, everything is magnified. Rapidly changing business environments require strategically agile leaders, able to quickly adapt to changing situations and with a high degree of cultural sensitivity to make them equally effective across the global span of their business operations.

Savannah Group recently hosted an event with a panel of experts including David Fairhurst, Founder of OrgShakers and previously CHRO McDonald’s, Anna Capitanio, Director of HR for BT’s Consumer Division, Simon Linares, Board Member and former Group HRD of Direct Line and Dr. Alan Bourne, PhD in Organisational Psychology and Founder CEO of Sova to get their thoughts and insight into what defines leadership agility and how to identify and develop it within teams and organisations. Here is a summary of the ideas discussed.

What does Agile leadership mean?

Agile leadership is manifested, demonstrated and described in a number of different ways but they all have commonalities – fluidity, flexibility, collaboration, outcome focused and pace.

One way of describing agile leadership is ‘And’ Leadership. Managing for today and for tomorrow. Particularly in large, global organisations, leaders face unexpected situations every day such as natural disasters, major political events, or events impacting staff or customers. An agile leader is able to deal with the current situation, whilst also keeping the business focused on and navigating towards to the future.

Describing agile leadership as ‘And’ leadership also helps to differentiate from traditional ‘either or’ scenarios and approaches. Other examples include market and enterprise or innovation and execution.

Flexibility, fluidity and outcome focused

Change is happening so fast. And the current rate of change is the slowest pace that we’ll experience for the rest of our careers. Things are only going to get faster. Agile leadership is being comfortable leading in an iterative way rather than an established manner and it is leading towards outcomes rather than through a process. If a leader is comfortable with fluidity, they will be able to relax the process to achieve the outcome. Historically, methods have been developed by trying to identify the process that best meets the organisation’s needs, rather than focusing on what is necessary to deliver the outcomes.

Change is happening so fast. And the current rate of change is the slowest pace that we’ll experience for the rest of our careers.

Leading into the unknown and navigating through ambiguity

What do we need to do to make our leaders comfortable with agile leadership? Agile leadership means accepting that we are in an uncertain place and we don’t know the answers, which is hard. Traditional organisational structures have hierarchical arrangements with command and control style leadership. In these structures the unknown can be an uncomfortable place leading to some leaders feeling at best exposed and at worst paralysed. A fundamental part of agile leadership is accepting failure as long as failure is seen as learning to help move forward. As businesses become less rigid we are seeing a move away from organisation structure to organisition dynamics, job descriptions to job crafting, talent acquisition to talent ecosystems and culture fit to culture add.

A fundamental part of agile leadership is accepting failure as long as failure is seen as learning to help move forward.

Collaboration not representation

Agile leadership is about working together to get to the best answers, not necessarily the right ones. Organisations need to ensure they are getting the right knowledge from the right people – and this means true collaboration. This does not mean just having someone from each department at the meeting without listening to or taking on board their views – that’s just representation. It’s working together, and taking an enterprise wide view regardless of role, with a diverse range of inputs and ideas.

How do you assess and develop Agile leadership?

The first step is acknowledging that no-one will have all the characteristics and abilities of agile leadership, and not everyone will be able to become an agile leader. Some characteristics are polarised. For example, some people are great at making the right strategic choices, intuiting strategic decisions while others are great at rapid, immediate execution and operational excellence.

It helps to look at the individual’s motivation and the parts of their personality that relate to some of the agile characteristics. This gives a scientific starting point leading to future development. Coach leaders and help them understand the theory and science of agile leadership but let them observe and learn. Assessing and understanding an individual’s agile abilities helps develop areas which are not as strong, so when the pressure is on they are better equipped to make better decisions and respond rapidly.

When recruiting or assessing, look for the behaviours that will block agility as they can be easier to see. For example, if a person is known for command and control, tight leadership and keeping things within their team, they’ll probably find it more difficult to manage and lead in an agile way. However, if a person is known for building great teams, celebrating what other members of their team have done and collaborating with other areas of the organisations, they are more likely to be more suited to an agile leadership style.

The panel created a list of attributes they felt reflected individuals most capable of agile leadership:

  • Openminded – curious, open to change and advice, open to different and divergent points
  • Acceptance of ambiguity
  • Resilience
  • Clarity of purpose
  • Cognitive complexity
  • Diversity – both in own thinking style and people around you
  • Learning and growth mindset
  • Low ego
  • Risk appetite – seeing that opportunity inherently contains risk
  • Focus on making progress and making decisions
  • Building teams without structure (not building teams that you can control)
  • Engage and collaborate (network rather than control)

Agile leadership in pressured environments

How can you maintain agile leadership when the pressure is on? Many organisations are seeing an increase in speed of operating, creating a greater pull on people to operate outside their comfort zones. Where the situation comes to a head is often the time when the chance for derailment is at its highest so leaders need to be aware of where those pressure points are, be aware of the risk factors and to develop coping strategies such as taking time out or ensuring they manage or mitigate their own natural behavioural style.

The adrenaline of a high-pressure situation can be used to get a good output, but it can’t be relied on indefinitely. Leaders need to be acutely aware of their own behaviour in a high-pressure situation as others in the organisation will be looking to them for support and guidance. That means being aware of your personal impact – what you say, think, do. Even what your face looks like as these body language cues have an impact on how others will perceive the situation. Control yourself as a leader. Balance your IQ and EQ during a crisis. Align your head, heart and guts. Get to the facts when you need to get to the facts and get to a gut feel when you need to get to a gut feel.

Think about your support system. How diverse is your team? A more diverse team will be better suited to dealing with a variety of issues and challenges. Understand the skills and sometimes hidden skills of your teams so you can deploy them quickly to best effect. Know your limitations; where your abilities are and where they stop. It’s critical however that underlying all of this there is a bias for action as ultimately decisions need to be made.

Our panel commented on the different groups of leaders they’ve seen under pressure:

  1. The first group are the ones doing it – they are leading
  2. The second group are observing the others doing it
  3. The third group are struggling to come to terms with what’s happening around them. This group are a watch-out as not only are they often ineffective in a crisis, but they can become blockers for those trying to find a way forward.

Alan also warns against inaction. In a pressurised situation some people will have a bias for inaction as a starting position but it’s generally better to do something and try to make it work than doing nothing at all.

Simon’s advice is to focus on outcomes. If no one has the answers, some of the traditional blockers to agile working are removed. Pressure is usually seen as negative but can be a positive in terms of driving change. Particularly in speeding up changes and adoption of technology.

Good leaders give people permission to get on with it and good leaders give permission to not get it exactly right. And that’s what creates agile leadership. It’s an iterative way to keep learning and keep readjusting. Be comfortable being uncomfortable and remember that it’s okay that everyone hasn’t got the answers already.

In a pressurised situation some people will have a bias for inaction as a starting position but it’s generally better to do something and try to make it work than doing nothing at all.

Creating an Agile leadership culture within an organisation

Creating a culture of agile leadership is difficult. Individual assessment and development is arguably easier to implement than organisation wide culture shift and scaling, however there are areas businesses can work on to help them transition to have a more agile working practice.

Employee engagement

How do we motivate the performance of people to get the best outcomes, growth and recognition that links to a more agile way of working? Performance management has a strong correlation with how agile behaviour is developed. One suggestion was to reframe the approach from performance management to ‘performance motivation’ which sees the role of line managers and leaders as being there to motivate the performance not manage the performance. And from an HR perspective, instead of obsessing about defining performance levels the focus should be on supreme clarity of goals and then truly coaching and enabling success.

Give people choices

This could be encouraging a second career, a potential job swap or allowing work in different locations. The panellists note that large organisations often get fixated on ways of working and try to stick with what they think is right. For example, when asking employees of a contact centre whether they would prefer to work at home, the organisation assumed they knew the answer. The covid crisis forced the organisation to ask this question and have reflected and learnt from the varying responses to be more willing to think about what choices are available. If you engage people on choices, you will discover an awful lot of possibilities that could open you up to a future you didn’t think was even possible.

If you engage people on choices, you will discover an awful lot of possibilities that could open you up to a future you didn’t think was even possible.

Banning the word ‘culture’?

Culture is a word open to interpretation. Talk about what you want to talk about to avoid ambiguity. For example, referring to culture to one person could mean diversity and inclusion and to someone else it could mean performance management. This variety of interpretation can stall the conversation.

Instead have open and honest conversations to identify causes of why areas of your business aren’t working. It’s often because the wellbeing culture isn’t right, or the performance management system isn’t right and once you can pinpoint those you can work back from there. Although not necessarily endorsing Agile Organisational design, one positive aspect of it is it forces frequent conversations. For example, in daily stand up meetings there is discussion about performance since yesterday providing timely updates and identifying immediate threats or opportunities.

Clarify decision rights

Companies put a lot of effort into organisational design, but not necessarily enough time into clarifying decision rights. This means nobody is exactly clear of the flow of information or who is actually the best person, with the best knowledge to make the decisions. David expands, “Decision making analysis is lacking in many organisations. You’ll often find decisions are not being taken by the right people with the right knowledge in the right way and decisions often get vacuumed upwards in organisations.”

Map the risk of decision-making risk across an organisation from low risk to high risk and make sure decision makers have access to the right information and people to effectively make those decisions. Diversity and an inclusive environment is key in decision making and if the right information is not getting through, you won’t make the best decisions. You need to gather the right people who may not have the biggest voice but have the facts and the knowledge.


As organisations have been forced to see the benefits of agile leadership in recent months the need for a change of gear is apparent. By looking at decision making across the organisation, assessing for and hiring diverse agile leaders, enabling open and honest conversations, organisations can empower the right employees to make decisions and in time create a culture of agile leadership across the organisation.

Although whether organisations will fully adopt an organisation-wide agile approach – across agile leadership, agile organisations and an agile culture is yet to be seen. A paradox exists about wanting to be more agile but continuing to run the business in the way it has been set up. Anna summarises this well, “After trying to understand hard how to make it work, I think we are coming to the conclusion that we need to become somehow comfortable with this paradox, as we will never be just one or the other”. Which in itself is agile. So perhaps, the best immediate approach should be one of ‘And’ leadership.

To discuss further or find out more about Leadership Assessment and Coaching please contact Lisa Gerhardt at

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