Leadership Agility: Transforming Problems into Results

March 30, 2012

My last post discussed reflective action from the book, Leadership Agility by William B. Joiner and Stephen A. Josephs. Reflective action is a leadership agility skill that guides you towards making better decisions, engaging in action, and then evaluating – reflecting – on what you’ve learned so that you develop as a leader.

As the book points out, if you are leading in a rapidly changing, complex business environment, you will be facing ill-structured problems. A key challenge for leaders in these situations is that solutions to these problems aren’t predefined, nor will they have one right answer. You will be working with incomplete information and evaluating a number of plausible solutions that will require what the authors called creative agility.

Creative agility is a combination of critical thinking skills and breakthrough thinking that generate “uniquely appropriate responses that transform these ill-structured problems into desired results.” Your creative agility is supported by two capacities:

CONNECTIVE AWARENESS: The ability to hold various ideas and experiences in mind, compare and contrast them, and make meaningful connections between them.

REFLECTIVE JUDGMENT. This capacity refers to the way you determine what’s true and what is the best course of action for solving ill-structured problems – and to the way you justify these views to yourself and to others.

These capacities vary, depending upon your level of leadership development (if they exist at all). The book explores five levels of leadership and how these two capacities are – or aren’t – part of leader’s repertoire:

EXPERT LEVEL: As an expert, you solve key problems. You treat problems as if the right solution had already been determined, either by senior management or technical or functional training. You analyze a situation and use your own judgment to make a decision.

ACHIEVER LEVEL: As an achiever, you accomplish desired outcomes. You have a greater appreciation of the ill-structured nature of business and organizational problems and you want to make sure that your diagnoses are consistent with the available evidence. You want to consider any data that will help you, but once you arrive at a position that seems consistent with the available evidence, you find it very difficult to seriously consider alternative interpretations of the same evidence.

CATALYST-LEVEL: As a catalyst, you mobilize breakout endeavors. You are capable of creating new contexts where people can tap into their creative potential by participating in the development of solutions that benefit multiple stakeholders. You seek to provide more meaningful and satisfying experiences that enable the sustained achievement of desired outcomes. You have a well-developed reflective capacity with a heightened interest in the relationship between experience and reflection, but your reflections on your experience don't take place on the spot. However, you are now able to make adjustments that you wouldn't have formally made.

CO-CREATOR LEVEL: As a co-creator, you realize shared purposes. You view all organizational processes and results as being created by many people working together simultaneously, with your interests focused on creating work environments that emphasize shared responsibility. You have an understanding and appreciation for frames of reference that may differ from your own. You look beyond – without ignoring – doing what the company needs to accomplish to ask what contributions the company can make – through its people – to the world through a deep collaboration with others.

SYNERGIST LEVEL: As a synergist, you evoke unexpected possibilities. You have a “power of presence” that deeply attunes you to people, groups, and organizations. Your skills are more blended and available when you need them, in the moment or through more deliberate thought. You are able to sense subtle “energetic dynamics” that would have escaped your awareness at earlier levels. You remain focused on the common good while holding in mind multiple and conflicting stakeholder views and interests in an accurate, yet empathetic way. You are driven from a desire to engage with life in all its fullness and to be of real benefit to others.

I’m not doing the book justice with a short summary like this, but Leadership Agility does a great job of exploring the five levels of leadership and how they differ. The “Five Eds” in Chapter Two uses a common scenario of a new CEO being given a mandate to restore profitability within two years and reclaim market leadership of a firm within three to five years.

In a dinner conversation that is replayed for each leadership agility level, Ed talks about how he views the current situation, what he sees as problems, and how he plans to go about meeting his mandate. The differences are remarkable, and you can’t help but want to work for the leader at the higher levels. You feel a certain pull that isn’t evident in the earlier levels.

Leadership Agility takes you through key steps in leadership development along with the ins and outs of each level so that you as a leader can reflect on where you are today and what you can and should aspire to be tomorrow. I highly recommend this book!