Agile Leaders—More Maturity, More OptionsDecember 4, 2014

There’s a substantial body of research that supports the idea that managers and leaders at higher stages of development are more effective than those at lower stages of development. This holds true for most meaningful measures of business and organizational effectiveness. Post-conventional or what we sometimes call “post-heroic” forms of leadership and management out-perform and out-maneuver less developed individuals.

Research into nearly 500 managers across a wide range of industries reveals the 80/80 principle. 80% of managers scoring near the bottom of the Leadership Development Profile were found in junior management positions. In contrast 80% of the individuals testing near the top of this developmental assessment were found in senior levels of management. (For those of you not familiar with the Leadership Development Profile, it was created by two of the most trustable names in adult development, Bill Torbert and Susann Cook-Greuter, and has over 40 years of research behind it.)

What this means is that when your capacities develop or mature, you get more options. More choices become available. More diverse behaviors become viable responses. Vertical development yields greater response-ability. Vertical development yields greater command, and more influence.

So, following from that, it also means that if you’re interested in climbing the organizational ladder, one of the most essential tools you need to invest in is your development. And, there’s a good chance that in order for you to even thrive at your current position—let alone add complexity to your job description and responsibilities—you may need to develop.

Bill Joiner, author of Leadership Agility and President of ChangeWise Inc. describes the need for development and the requirement for “leadership agility”:

“Rapid change and growing interdependence are two of the most powerful forces shaping today’s turbulent organizational environment. Because these deep trends affect all managerial levels, [Leadership Agility] is increasingly needed not just in the executive suite but also throughout the organization.”

We should understand adaptive, agile leaders as those with the ability to lead effectively under rapidly changing conditions and within organizational environments that are increasingly becoming more interdependent. And this is already the reality on the ground for most organizations today.

For those of you who approach your work with the intention to improve and accomplish the tasks your job demands of you, your aims are insufficient. Merely responding to the demands that are coming at you in your professional environment–and perhaps even doing so faster or more precisely—is not the definition of agile leadership. Many people misunderstand this.

First, agility in leadership depends on on a self-directed or “self-authoring” capability.

Yes, you should drive hard to achieve desired outcomes, but your self-chosen values should be your ultimate guide for how you pursue these aims. In other words, your leadership agility depends upon whether your actions are directed by your values or the ones around you—your boss’, or the organizational culture you find yourself in.

Instead of merely responding to the demands that are given to you, I’d like to urge you to pause and reflect on yourself, who you are and what ultimately serves your personal integrity?

Ask yourself, What values do you stand for? What behaviors do you stand against and oppose? Investigate why and clarify what matters most to you.

Next, if you have already mastered the ability to execute from your personally authored values, I’d also like to invite you to pause. The challenge that emerges with being value-driven is that we can often lack a larger situational awareness. To develop more agility, I encourage you to step back in the moment and attend directly to a larger aperture of experience. Practice seeing your feelings. What you are doing and how well you’re doing the activities of your job may only be the surface of your job. Dive beneath and sense into how you feel in the activities of your job. Sense behind or underneath the behaviors you are doing. Become curious about the implicit assumptions that you may not see without your greater curiosity.

This added level of self-awareness enables you learn and adapt faster. Ultimately, assumptions cut off important data flows. Information that may need to get into your attention is cut off when you make assumptions. Sense deeply into your work and yourself with curiosity. This is going to enable you to create contexts and processes that are more meaningful and more effective over time.

And finally, if you feel as though you already have hold of the competencies I just described, I encourage you to bring more sustained attention to the ongoing flow of experience—what I call the “experiential flux” in my book The Elegant Self. Pay particular attention to the difficult facets of experience. Investigate these with the intention of integrating them into your work and yourself. And, while you’re welcoming difficult and often neglected facets of experience in yourself, do the same with your organization and the people around you. Genuine curiosity about different, divergent and diverse perspectives are essential. These difficult and challenging facets of experience can be creative and valuable resources for innovation. This enables you to tap into a truly developmental or evolutionary narrative that makes sense of the work you are giving your life to.

Ultimately, in the pursuit of your own increasing agility as a leader, you are pursuing greater levels of awareness. Awareness of yourself, awareness of the people and cultures you relate to, as well as the organizational and environmental contexts you operate in. All of these are critical areas to attend to.

Apply the pressure of your attention to meet the multi-faceted contours of your professional life. This stimulates what Laura King calls “active development.” It happens from a simple trick: actively engage with the full territory of the environments you find yourself in. Better yet, wholeheartedly engage with the environments inside of you, inside the people around you and the contexts holding you and your job. This will, over time, develop you. You will become a more agile, responsive and capable person. Become a more agile leader, commit to developing yourself in your work every day. Your ongoing success may very well depend on it.

Rob McNamara
Creator of Commanding Influence: Your Development for Greater Mastery at Work
Harvard University Teaching Fellow
Leadership Coach & Author of The Elegant Self
Faculty & Coach, Integral Facilitator Certificate Program

Rob McNamara’s premiere developmental audio learning program, Commanding Influence: Your Development for Greater Mastery at Work, is now available. Learn More.



Bernhard Hilmarsen

Hi Rob, thanks for sharing these thoughts! I´m working in the leadership development field and use Joiner´s leadership agility model a lot. You mention a study where the 80/20 rule applies regarding level of maturity at the different hierarchical levels in organisations. You statements could be interpreted differently than Joiner found – his study found that there are more post-heroic leadership present in the top levels than at lower levels, but there´s still more heroic leadership present at top levels than post-heroic. Are you able to share the reference to your study? It would be very interesting to have a look at it. Best, Bernhard Hilmarsen

Rob McNamara

Bernhard, thanks for your comment here and for the work you’re doing in the world. Both are greatly appreciated over here. 🙂 And thank you for drawing in more of Joiner’s findings for our readers.

The 80/80 principle (please note, it’s not the 80/20 principle) is based on research conducted with 497 managers across industries. Using the Leadership Development Profile David Rooke and William R. Torbert studied thousands of leaders over the better part of a few decades. In their developmental model 7 action-logics or stages of leadership development have been identified. Specifically, 80% of individuals testing at the second lowest stage (the Diplomat Stage) were found in junior levels. In contrast, 80% of the leaders scored at the second to highest stage of development (the Strategist Stage) were found in senior levels of management.

You can get your hands on this commentary in their Harvard Business Review article: Rooke, D. & Torbert, W. (2005). Seven Transformations of Leadership. Harvard Business Review, April.

Ivelina Mladenova

Hi Rob McNamara, I love the structure and descriptions of your work. My organisation also have almost the same hierarchical levels and mechanisms of management. I want to ask you about your recommendations, plusses and minuses for implementation of leader/head in agility level (with 8 to 10 leaders) In hierarchical levels like: CC manager/highest level and the our agility level. The situation is very important, because is difficult to coordinate all processes, incl. A usual day tasks, trainings, responsibilities and etc and stick all of this with CC manager. This is going to create middle level from one “Awaken” senior manager for best and
More effective control. Also it is great opportunity for CC to manage more higest things and concentrate with demands, cooperate more with other departments and planning. Can’t wait to see your comments

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