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Analysis of Leadership Agility Theory

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Published: Tue, 02 Jan 2018

Leadership is in a constant flux, driven by the dynamics of an ever-changing global landscape. Competition has never been fiercer, times have never been more unpredictable, and leadership has never been more significant for organizations to succeed. Bill Joiner and Robert Stephens (2006) introduce the concept of “leadership agility” which they defined as “the ability to take wise and effective action amidst complex, rapidly-changing conditions” (p. 6). The best thing about the book is that upon reading the introductory pages, you already know that it is a timely book on leadership. Joiner and Stephens make their case early on that effective leadership in the globalized world is contextualized — that with the cross-cultural considerations, leaders are now faced with the challenge to adapt more ably to changing conditions and goals. When it comes to books on leadership, I was looking for concrete examples on what the authors are actually trying to point out in order to illustrate the theories in a real-world setting. This book did not disappoint me on this aspect. There were numerous examples of individuals at various stages in their leadership careers, how they handled crisis situations and decision-making, including the strengths and weaknesses of their judgments. The last chapter of the book also encourages the reader to assess his or her level of organizational agility and to determine which core competencies of agility he or she needs to develop to lead more effectively.

The book is well-written, not very technical in language, very organized, and rife with illustrations on the points they wanted to make, particularly on how the various levels of agility and core competencies differ from one another. From the title itself, I expected structure as I knew the authors would try to guide me through what they call the five levels of mastery in leadership. The authors succeeded in meeting all the challenges in coming up with a book on leadership that in the end, gives the reader not only the basic concepts, but teaches him on how to measure his or her agility level provide guidance on what to do next. In this book review, I intend to indicate the strengths as well as the points for improvement that I found while reading the book. I will also synthesize the concepts presented by the authors to relevant leadership concepts we have learned from the course from Northouse (2008), Clawton (2008) and Kouzes and Posner (2007).

Highlights of the Book

Part One of the book introduced the core competencies in leadership agility which is the main topic of this work. To do so, the authors did three things. First of all, they provided the rationale for leadership agility in the context of the interdependent world that has been borne out of globalization. They emphasized the complexity that leaders in organizations now face. The acceleration of ideas and new technologies has increased competition to a level never anticipated in the past. With the speed of these technological changes, opportunities and threats are also encountered at roughly the same level. This necessitates leaders to develop the ability to become “agile,” a behavior demonstrated when leaders are able to leverage resources and relationships in order to effectively respond to changes that affect the organization. Agility, said the authors, is developmental – it passes through different stages and displays specific behaviors as leaders go from the most basic stage to the highest. The five steps in leadership agility include (from the lowest to the highest level): expert, achiever, catalyst, co-creator and synergist (Joiner & Stephens, 2006). Second, in order to provide a brief look at how agility is demonstrated differently in five ways, the authors narrated a fictional character, Ed, a manager, who, upon encountering a situation responds to it in five very distinct ways. The manner in which Ed responded to the situation given illustrated a level in the leadership agility hierarchy. Third, the authors presented core competencies which are significant in leadership agility. By competencies, they meant the abilities and the skills needed by leaders to become agile. All in all, there are four competencies, which include context-setting agility, stakeholder agility, creative agility, and self-leadership agility. Under each core competency are two capacities involved. Within the context-setting agility, leaders have sense of purpose and situational awareness. Under creative agility, leaders possess reflective judgment and connective awareness. Under stakeholder agility, leaders possess power style and stakeholder understanding. Under self-leadership agility, leaders possess developmental motivation and self-awareness.

Part Two of the book expounds on the five stages of leadership agility, devoting one chapter for each level. This section of the book explained in detail the areas, distinctions, and differences at each level of agility and illustrated each by presenting at least three case studies. The authors showed the leadership style, organizational initiatives, team leadership, and handling pivotal conversation associated with each agility level. The specific stages in leadership agility intertwine with some of the leadership concepts and styles that have been discussed in the course. I will discuss the concepts in relation to the five leadership agility levels.

Expert. At the Expert Level, which is the lowest in the agility hierarchy, the leader proceeds with a tactical and problem-solving style of leadership. At this stage, the leader believes he holds the expertise and position to know what is best for the organization. This is similar to what has been learned from the course objectives. The style of leadership being manifested at this level is transactional – management is key. This is what Burns (as cited in Northouse, 2008) tried to reiterate in distinguishing managers and leaders in that “managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing” (p. 213). The thrust in the Expert level of agility is results, not the fulfillment of organizational goals or empowerment of followers. The leader stays on top of the situation. While this leadership style gets things done, it is a mild variation of the autocratic leadership style because the leader is the central decision-making body and the leader assumes that he or she alone knows what is best for the company.

Achiever. The Achiever strives for outcome and leads knowing that one’s expertise and positional authority alone does not lead to effective leadership but also on one’s capacity to motivate others. In this stage, the leader moves up from being purely transactional to recognizing the need to be transformational as well. Northouse (2008) explained the difference between transactional and transformational leadership by saying that the latter motivated by considering and appealing to the interest of the followers. The ability to motivate others is the leadership aspect in Kouzes and Posner’s (2007) so-called “journey.” According to them, leadership requires the capacity to convince people to go on board while management guarantees that they reach the destination. To Joiner and Stephens (2006) then, the Achiever level of agility requires one to be both leader and manager. The Achiever initiates change by looking at the market environment and seeking input from stakeholders. Since the Achiever prioritizes outcome, there is an emphasis on using communication to assert the leader’s views as well as accommodate views from others so long as it furthers organizational goals. One of the biggest concerns for leadership is handling the change process through more effective ways of communicating (Northouse, 2008; Clawson, 2008). Clawson (2008) considered communication important in any organization and opined that meetings should be a forum of empowerment. Clawson (2008) believed that meetings are an avenue where leaders show that while being the head of the organization, he or she is not supposed to dominate the group but instead empower them to speak out about current concerns and to foster dialogue in the direction of finding working solutions.

Catalyst. The Catalyst’s leadership style is visionary and innovative and is able to articulate goals and at the same time inspire people into achieving those goals. In a sense, the Catalyst is transformational and realigns the culture and values of an organization to that of empowerment, teamwork, and participation. The Catalyst pushes for change and does so progressively. This is because he or she realizes that organizational change and member empowerment are vital elements of building and maintaining an industrious and dynamic organization. Kouzes and Posner (2007) believed that transformational leaders engaged stakeholders proactively and values their feedback as important considerations in decision-making. Even in the midst of opposition, the Catalyst welcomes dialogue and considers team-building to be an integral part of leadership development. This is very similar to what Northouse (2008) referred to as intellectual stimulation present in transformational forms of leadership. This is a characteristic where leaders foster a climate of open-mindedness and creativity, challenging members to “question the status quo, and to challenge their beliefs and values, as well as those of the leader” (Northouse, 2008, p. 177). Northouse (2008) also highlighted in Chapter 6 of Introduction to Leadership that vision is crucial in leadership and that possessing it is as important as articulating it effectively, as in the case of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech and the inaugural address of John F. Kennedy. In the same vein as Joiner and Stephens (2006) emphasis on the Catalyst’s appreciation for feedback, Northouse (2008) also considered the development of group behaviors as important and that leaders must ensure that members are trained to provide constructive feedback that will help improve the dynamics of the team toward organizational effectiveness. On the other hand, Kouzes and Posner (2007) said that that leaders must “search for opportunities to innovate, grow, and improve” but reiterated that leaders should not be the only sources of innovation (p. 371).

Cocreator. Joiner and Stephens (2006) identify the Cocreator as someone with an orientation toward collaboration and shared objectives. The Cocreator views leadership more importantly as a form of service toward the common good, similar to Kouzes and Posner’s (2007) emphasis on leadership as a means of achieving justice. Joiner and Stephens (2006) places upon the Cocreator the capacity to leads toward organization change – by creating deep relationships with stakeholders fueled by mutual interests and devotion to uphold the welfare of the general population. The Cocreator may be more inclined to advocate for corporate social responsibility as a crucial component in organizational leadership. Team leadership to him is about collaborative practices and instilling in members that the welfare of the organization is a collective responsibility (Northouse, 2008). At this stage, leaders are aware that in order to accomplish goals and in handling change more effectively, they need followers, and vice versa. It is also at this stage where leaders are more keen on adopting ethical practices in leadership, because the leader becomes more aware that the actions, values, character, and goals of the organization are important (Northouse, 2008).

Synergist. The Synergist is the highest type of leadership agility and in the author’s estimation, present only in 1% of managers today. The leadership orientation is holistic – leading becoming a purposeful activity which benefits the organization while at the same time becoming a medium for personal transformation. A sense of purpose is a recurrent theme in leadership literature and is an acknowledged element in the change process. Effective leadership, according to Clawson (2008) is pursuing purpose by exerting one’s influence in improving the conditions and making things better for the organization and the society in general. The Synergist is able to maintain a keen yet objective awareness of incompatible stakeholder interests but is able to transform these differences in opinion into a win-win situation to the benefit of all concerned. Team leadership in a Synergist is fluid and dynamic and is able to form group dynamics in a way that provides optimum results. When engaging in pivotal conversations, the Synergist maintains a “present-centered awareness” that is able to unify the organization despite chaotic situations (p. 11). According to the authors, this is the type of leadership agility that all managers should aspire for in the long-term.  

While the five levels of leadership agility are hierarchically presented, meaning that the topmost Synergist level is the most effective form, Joiners and Stephens (2006) are quick to point out that this does not mean that the Synergist type is always the applicable one. In this vein, leadership agility becomes situational (Northouse, 2008). At this current business environment and considering the present forms of leadership that are found in most organizations, the challenge is to get past the so-called “heroic leadership” forms characterized by Achievers and Experts at the lower and middle level management (Joiner & Stephens, 2006, p. 35). Heroic leadership is purely transactional, characterized by self-centeredness and the belief that the leader along is responsible for charting the organization’s objectives, coordinating the activities of the members, and in managing how workers perform their respective jobs. Agile leadership on the other hand is transactional as well as transformational because it is dynamic and adaptive to the requirements of rapidly changing global business environment requires (Kouzes and Posner, 2007). The authors recommend the post-heroic leadership forms that emerge from the Catalyst stage onwards. What is desirable about post-heroic leaders is that while leaders hold accountability and accept ultimate responsibility, they allow members to participate and the organization shares commitment and burden in realizing organizational objectives. In this manner, even members of the group are empowered without necessarily holding a position with power.

Conclusion

This work from Joiner and Stephens (2006) is a response to the ever-growing challenges of leadership that has swept the global age. Compared to the more normative concepts of effective leadership that could be read from Northouse (2008) and Kouzes and Posner (2007), Joiner and Stephens focused on the ability not only to achieve organizational outcomes but to adaptability as well to respond to the changing conditions in society to achieve success for the business or organization. Comparatively, Joiner and Stephens presented a more contemporary strategy for today’s leaders and highlighted examples that are grounded to twenty-first century realities. They used recurrent themes in leadership in presenting their case for leadership agility such as the distinguishing the difference between managers and leaders. The first two forms (Expert and Achiever) resemble the traits of a manager who “controls, arranges, and does things right” (Northouse, 2008, p. 135). Joiner and Stephens (2006) recognize that managerial skills are important in achieving outcomes but must be elevated to include transformational leadership skills in order to apart more effectively to global challenges. For instance, in education reform, there is a need to apply more creative strategies in response to organizational change. This may include proposing for policies that require 1) inclusion and diversity, 2) trends in curriculum and instruction, and 3) use of technology (O’Connell, 2010). As agility progresses to the Catalyst, Cocreator, and Synergist level, the managers transitions to a leader who not only gets results but unleashes creative potential among followers, guides them with a sense of purpose and vision and empowers them toward achieving not only the outcomes of the organization but toward the good. Joiner and Stephens (2006) also dealt with the importance of communication in handling the change process. They reinforced Clawson (2008) in saying that meetings should be empowering to followers. Furthermore, communication also requires that the vision and mission of the organization are articulated well and understood by all levels within the organization (Clawson, 2008; Kouzes & Posner, 2007).

Joiner and Stephens (2006) incorporates some of the traditional leadership concepts such as transformational leadership, motivation, influence, creativity, innovation into the hierarchical leadership agility model but is unique in characterizing the stages in agility into three areas: organizational change, team leadership, and handling pivotal conversations. Dealing with and initiating change is one of the central tenets of this book. Clawson (2008) opined that organizations need to respond to changes in the external environment more proactively. Leaders need to develop a comprehensive understanding of competition, market, consumer issues, and all possible underlying factors in order to adapt more effectively to changes. Competitiveness in this global age relies not on what has been traditionally done, but on versatility and change (Kouzes & Posner, 2007; Clawson, 2008) – or agility according to Joiner and Stephens (2006). As a response to accelerated technological developments and increasingly borderless world, firms and organizations must step up to the challenge of constantly innovating and addressing threats that come and embracing opportunities encountered. One weakness of this book is that it is largely silent on ethics as a consideration on leadership agility. Kouzes and Posner (2007) capitalized on ethical leadership as an urgency for organizations. Northouse (2008) considered it important for leaders to continually self evaluate in terms of how they are performing in better, fairer, and more humane ways (Northouse, 2008). Oftentimes, change in the globalized world is synonymous with maintaining competitive edge over others – usually at a cost. With the increasing attention on global climate change, environmental issues, terrorism, protectionism, and even resistance to globalization in the twenty-first century, leaders must be highly adaptive to these global issues as well and weigh how these global conditions come into the equation.


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