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  • Writer's pictureDr Kiran Chitta

We need more agile leadership - and it can come from anywhere

As we continue to struggle with a pandemic, leadership role models seem hard to find.

Arguably the identification of a role model is deeply personal.

Leaders grow leaders, and therefore they build adaptive capacity, before it is most needed. In this post I will reflect on agile leaders who build adaptive capacity in organizations. I draw on Satya Nadella as a powerful example, whose writing has inspired me, and seems to exemplify leadership agility fit for a digital world.

Adaptive capacity has long been a hallmark of high-performance teams and high-performing organizations. In such organizations, the kinds of abilities associated with agility, or at least some of them, are present or have been present during periods of sustained success. To what extent can we ascribe that success to individual leaders and their own leadership agility?

Issues such as personal branding and reputational defences around high profile leaders mean that the quality of research data on individual leaders’ behaviour, and their effect on organizational agility, is mixed. It is still possible to use public information sources, such as corporate performance metrics, then to make some connections with a leader’s public behaviour.

One CEO who has appeared to demonstrate considerable agility, is Satya Nadella. He has led a major transformation at Microsoft which he wrote about in depth in his 2017 book, ‘Hit Refresh’. I am tentative about drawing too many conclusions about Nadella at this stage. Nadella’s personal trajectory, and leadership of Microsoft, could still go in any number of directions. However, I am treating Nadella and Microsoft as a case in point for agility in the way they approach transformation and the development of adaptive capacity. Nadella and Microsoft appear to be as good an example as any currently available.

In today’s business world, business transformation is highly unpredictable. The fragile existence and brief tenure of many CEOs, particularly in the US and UK, is well documented. This is a reason for the criticality of collective leadership agility in the process of transformation. Microsoft has evidently worked hard over several years of transformation to develop agility at a collective level, throughout Microsoft’s business. This has reflected itself in positive business outcomes.

Microsoft does not just rely on Nadella’s individual genius. Nadella acknowledges the role of leaders across Microsoft and at every level of the organization. He places enormous emphasis on developing an agile culture.

When reflecting on what he has learned from other technology organizations, such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple, in his book ‘Hit Refresh’ Nadella says ‘I found that the key was agility, agility, agility. We needed to develop speed, nimbleness, and athleticism to get the consumer experience right, not just once but daily. We needed to set and repeatedly meet short-term goals, shipping code at a more modern, fast-paced cadence.’

Nadella’s relative success so far in leading Microsoft’s transformation is a sign that he could be a role model for agile leadership behaviour. In ‘Hit Refresh’, Nadella discusses how his own life has helped to prepare him psychologically to lead Microsoft’s transformation. In his communications, he tends to show a degree of humility, authenticity, and vulnerability. Nadella appears to connect the work he does to develop his own emotional agility, with the work he does externally as a CEO. That is refreshing in a CEO of a global corporation.

Going further, perhaps he is an example of a rising tide of global leaders who are not monocultural, who code switch as a matter of course across cultures. A global mindset, and intercultural flexibility are hallmarks of agility, and Nadella’s visible leadership style. Leaders who are capable of being teachers, coaches and learners are most likely also to develop adaptive capacity in their teams.

Microsoft’s ongoing transformation journey is a powerful case study of how mature organisations can be agile, especially as we navigate economic upheaval, climate change, and a pandemic. Nadella’s rise as a global leader demonstrates that leaders can come from anywhere.

In a world of work that continues to digitalize and virtualize at pace, leadership potential and leadership capacity exists everywhere, and is more abundant than we might think.

What examples do you have of agile leadership? What role do leaders play in the development of adaptive capacity in organizations?

See also -

Katzenbach, J.R. & Smith, D.K. (1993). The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the high-performance organization. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Nadella, S. (2017). Hit refresh: the quest to rediscover Microsoft’s soul and imagine a better future for everyone. New York: Harper Business.

My books are available on Amazon:

Strive: Unlocking agility and unleashing talent in a digital world

Change Agility: Leadership, transformation and the pursuit of purpose


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