Have you ever caught one of those annual dog shows hosted by your local kennel club? If not, you are missing out on a super fun, family-friendly outing. The highlight for me is watching the agility demonstrations. With an abundance of eagerness and joy and a sprinkling of occasional confusion, purebreds and mutts alike weave their way through poles, dash through tunnels, leap through hoops and over hurdles and balance on seesaws to reach the finish line as quickly as possible. The giggling, enthusiastic crowd cheers them all on, dogs big and small, as they deftly (or maybe not so deftly) navigate through each obstacle, their handlers cueing each move with gestures and commands and offering a hearty belly rub and yummy treat at the end. 

For leaders, the workplace often presents a similar proverbial obstacle course, requiring all manner of weaving and dashing and navigating for leaders to stay on top of their responsibilities and achieve the results expected of them. However, the dogs have several advantages — knowing and practicing each obstacle before the contest, a loving handler to keep them on track and an audience to cheer them on. Leaders? Not so much.  

And while physical agility is key for the canine competitors, for human leaders, the emphasis is on the intellectual, mental and emotional aspects — in a word, it’s about mindset. 

Jim Highsmith, one of the creators of the Agile software development methodology, has characterized agility as “principally about mindset, not practices.” Mindset describes the personal attitudes, beliefs and expectations that fundamentally shape who we are and what we do. The cognitive model of human behavior demonstrates how our thoughts become feelings, which become our actions, and those actions yield some sort of outcome. For leaders, mindset is at the foundation of how they see, interpret and respond to situations in the workplace. As noted a McKinsey white paper, “Making the leader’s mind-set the subject of conscious scrutiny is indispensable to all leadership effectiveness.” 

Mindset is key to agility. 

How Does Mindset Impact Agility? 

Agility in the workplace is about finding a path through challenges and obstacles that can be new, ambiguous, unanticipated or changeable in order to achieve desired results. Leaders demonstrate agility all the time, in big and small ways. In practice, it takes the shape of a host of standard leadership skills, such as managing conflict and change, communication and critical thinking, among others. For that reason, some researchers have dubbed agility a “meta-competency” because it requires the application of varied skills simultaneously and with intention. This is where mindset comes in. 

Indeed, the relationship between mindset and agility was a recurring theme in our review of thought leadership on the topic. For an agile leader, managing mindset is about cultivating an approach to workplace challenges that enables a response that is thoughtful and rational, and conducive to a positive outcome. Unlike the energetic, high-spirited pups dashing madly toward their reward at the end of the course, agile leaders are best served by a mindset that supports a measured, deliberate way forward.  

Mindset and Agility as a Process 

Today’s business environment is marked by uncertainty, tumult and constant change. The best-laid plans don’t always go as we expect or want them to go. The habits and practices that once got results may no longer apply; the need to create, innovate and reinvent is as constant as it is stressful.  

As researchers Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs note in their book, “Leadership Agility,” “Our economy demands new personal capacities as well as new leadership competencies.” As they navigate this reality, the clients we work with consistently name agility — which Joiner and Josephs call a “master competency” — as a skill they seek to fortify among their leadership ranks.  As part of our efforts to help leaders develop this critical competency, we developed a model to represent how leadership agility works (see Figure 1). 


Figure 1. 


The model outlines agility as a circular process, with mindset at its center. The emphasis is not on the details of a leader’s response to a challenge or situation; instead, it’s everything that leads up to the response (informed by mindset) that is most critical to the process. This practical, action-oriented approach, based on our analysis of the work of leadership agility researchers and practitioners, points to four key steps.

Step 1. Know Your Purpose and Understand Yourself 

Agile leaders are grounded in self-awareness and situational awareness, and this awareness forms the foundation of their mindset. They are clear on the organization’s purpose, goals and values as well as their own, making that information the lodestar of the work they do, from day-to-day activities to complicated, high-risk decisions. Developing this awareness is an ongoing effort based on curiosity, humility, emotional intelligence and engagement.  

Agile leaders are keenly tuned in to their organization’s vision and strategy for achieving it as well as the standards and principles it strives for. This information defines their individual role, mission and accountabilities and directs where they focus their energy and effort. At the same time, they recognize their own personal drivers, strengths and limitations as well as a vision of their own professional and personal future. The alchemy of these varied insights shapes how they show up on the job. And this is not a one-and-done pursuit; agile leaders are constantly seeking data, feedback and perspective to keep their self- and situational awareness fresh.  

Step 2. Check Your Mindset 

This awareness sets the stage for the key part of the process: Checking your mindset. As noted previously, when leaders are actively managing what they think, they positively impact how they feel and act, providing themselves with a better chance of achieving the outcomes they want. As powerful as this is, it’s not easy. Unlike the eager, energetic dogs bounding happily through an agility course, human leaders know how daunting, frustrating and draining dealing with obstacles can be.  

Maintaining a mindset that casts obstacles as opportunities for learning and growth, for example, takes effort. This isn’t about a toxic façade of positivity; instead, it’s about cultivating a mindset that puts you in the best position to facilitate a good outcome. In their McKinsey Quarterly article, “Leading With Inner Agility,” Sam Bourton, Johanne Lavoie and Tiffany Vogel recommend that leaders “pause to move faster.” As they describe it, “Pausing in the chaos of great change is a counterintuitive action that can lead to greater creativity and efficiency. It carves out a safe space for self-awareness, for recentering yourself, for something new to emerge.”   

Naturally, a leader will sometimes discover they may not be in the right headspace to effectively handle a problem. It happens, and it’s okay — that just means a reset is needed. Stepping back from the situation and being open to new perspectives and ideas may mean reaching beyond comfort zones and embracing vulnerabilities, but it can also create the shift needed to move forward with a more appropriate approach. With a foundation of self- and situational awareness set in the first step of the model, this shift becomes easier to make.   

Step 3. Respond With Intention and Equanimity 

Instead of simply reacting to a situation, leaders who are grounded, purposeful, self-aware and open to learning and adapting are better prepared to meet challenges and obstacles with a composed, even-tempered, deliberate response. What’s the difference? Based in our brain’s ancient fight-or-flight instincts, reactions are typically short-sighted and ruled by impulse or emotion. When stress is high or the stakes are big, those drivers can precipitate poor outcomes and regret. Responses, however, are thoughtful, rational and big-picture oriented — and therefore more likely to facilitate good results.  

Step 4. Reflect on Actions or Experience 

Because agile leaders constantly seek to grow and improve, their process includes a practice of reflection to identify lessons learned and key takeaways. Stakeholder feedback and consideration of the impact on relationships and the workplace environment can be part of this practice. As the model shows, the reflection process circles back to the starting point — knowing your purpose and understanding yourself — and provides insights that inform growth as an agile leader.   

Developing Leadership Agility 

Whether you are a corporate leader or a talent development professional, learning to behave in ways that are not always comfortable or intuitive takes time, patience and practice. Some situations will bring challenges that can be navigated handily. Others will be akin to being stuck in a nylon tunnel. The important thing to remember is leadership agility is a skill that can be developed. And that’s excellent news for all of us because the changes coming our way — be it AI, new generations in the workforce or the latest unforeseen workplace complexity — will not be slowing down anytime soon.