Agile Leaders: Nature vs. Nurture

The word “agile” refers to one’s ability to move and maneuver quickly; to be nimble, spry, dexterous and graceful. Translated into the business world, agile leaders are those who make decisions quickly, build relationships and see an organization as a unified whole while still being able to find what’s unique about the individuals that make up the team. Agile leaders are great coaches; they inspire their teams to be exceptional while showing resiliency during the continuous changes found in life.

Are leaders born or made? Where do these leaders come from? How much of their skill sets are inherent qualities or personality traits and how much is learned through education and experience? Agile leaders are born from a combination of natural ability and successful nurturing throughout their career. Here’s what to look for in an individual and how to nurture that raw talent into an agile leader.

Nature: The Raw Talent

Discovering the shining stars that are destined to be agile leaders has proven to be a difficult challenge for American employers. According to the Gallup Report, The State of the American Manager, only about one in every ten people possess the unique characteristics that make a great manager. What’s more, only about 18 percent of current managers have these skills. In other words, few companies are able to find that needle in the haystack. Perhaps this is because they are unsure of what to look for.

While seniority or individual contributions to a company may be important points on a resume, these accomplishments do not always point to an individual who has the capacity, ability or aspiration to be a strong leader. Technical capability rarely translates to leadership capability. Instead, people who demonstrate an instinctive ability to lead, motivate and inspire others by boosting engagement and involvement will have far greater potential. These are the individuals that companies need to identify early in their career to develop and build a sustainable pipeline of leadership talent. Companies need leaders who have enough technical knowledge to generate the initial respect from the group, but “game-changing leaders are those that create an environment where employees leverage their strengths and work towards a come goal. It is essential for these leaders to develop the ability and confidence to maximize and promote the skill sets of others without fear of being overshadowed by talented team members. 

Another important trait that’s difficult to define is being a good fit for your organization. What this means depends on the environment, goals, mission and future direction of the organization. There will always be people who have outstanding performance metrics, but they must also fit in with the company’s culture. Failing to find a good fit will result in greater dissatisfaction, high turnover and a potentially toxic environment. A good fit will lift up your company’s values and embody them in a way that achieves buy-in and satisfaction all around. 

Nurture: Refining Talent

Stephen King once said that talent is cheaper than table salt; what separates the talented from the successful is a lot of hard work. Once you’re able to identify talented individuals, it’s time to put in the work to make them remarkable. Agile leaders are developed in the context of an agile company and creating this culture makes it possible for the best leaders to emerge.

First, leadership expectations must be well-defined. Forget fad definitions of leadership, and looking outside of the company for descriptions. Instead, what are the long-term values that your company should represent? These values should define leadership roles. Leadership development must also be aligned and integrated with processes such as performance management, talent reviews and retention initiatives, as potential leaders should be able to see where their future is. The context of leadership and leadership development must also begin in the middle, as this is where the greatest concentration of leaders will be found, and these are the managers who are most responsible for influencing employees.

The most important component of creating a nurturing environment for agile leaders is through the development and implementation of modern learning methods. Formal training and education have their place in the development landscape, but coaching, practical application, simulation, experiential learning and microlearning, or using bite-sized bits of information in their real context is where the best learning happens. This development style delivers higher engagement with concepts, better retention, improved transfer of skills to real-life situations and faster development. Continual, in-the-moment coaching, and a culture of learning and growth are where natural leaders flourish. Plus, agile leaders are already natural coaches so giving them the proper context from which to guide their teams to success while also benefiting from coaching from their predecessors is where the real magic happens.

Nature vs. Nurture: The Answer is Always Both

In too many cases, people with all the natural qualities of agile leadership are toiling away in a workplace that isn’t prepared to nurture those talents, arm them with concrete skills, and redeploy them among the workforce to continue the transformation. Once you’ve identified those who have the greatest potential for leadership within your company or among a group of applicants, don’t make the mistake of leaving the diamonds in the rough. Instead, create an environment where they can be polished and refined into the valuable gems that they are.