Given the myriad of factors affecting today’s corporate landscape, companies keen to create value in the 21st Century urgently need to equip their leaders with a range of critical skills including empathy, courage, collective intelligence and mindfulness.

In the first of a series of three articles about Developing 21st Century Leadership we focus on “Agility”. This article offers an illustration of the approach we would take to help your leaders and executives develop Agility.


What does being agile mean in the modern business world?

If you asked twenty people this question, you would probably get, Hummmmm, fifteen different answers, if not more! There seems to be some consensus that in the main, agile leadership refers to a style which requires flexibility, adaptability and speed at making decisions.

We have a slightly different perspective on this capability.

One of the critical areas of Agile culture that gets less attention, in our opinion, is the need to read the environment, make sense of it, adapt to it and change quickly – and for leaders, to help their teams do this with them. To address the need for these skills, we use a new model of Learning Agility developed by Warner Burke at Columbia University, NYC. Unlike existent models of learning agility, he researched the behaviours that differentiate agile learners from those that aren’t. He found 8. He also found that two of them – Speed and Flexibility – have a greater impact than the other six which included: Experimenting, Collaborating and Reflecting (among others). Each has a short, observable behaviour definition and they correlate positively with higher performance.

After a short theoretical introduction, we give participants a set of eight cards. On the top, there is description of each observable behaviour and on the reverse, there are three workplace strategies for improving it. Our experiential learning activity starts by asking participants to read each definition, reflect on how well and how frequently they practice it in the current work, and then place the cards in front of them to form a continuum from ‘less effective/less well-used’ to ‘more effective/more well-used’. We then invite them to share and explain their continuum to their neighbour who is asked to request ‘concrete examples of the behaviour in action’ for each of the top 2/bottom two (as a minimum). They are then guided to ask reflective questions like, ‘What are you learning from this?’ ,’Which of these behaviours are required most by the work you are currently doing?’ and ‘Which would you like to improve/use more?’ etc. They change roles and are then invited to refer to the improvement strategies on the reverse side of the cards. This facilitates an initial step in action/improvement planning.

To consolidate understanding across the whole group. we suggest they imagine the eight behaviours are distributed in a fixed sequence along the length of the room. We ask them to go and stand on their strongest behaviour. The distribution of participants is invariably skewed. We use this to facilitate a discussion about the culture/climate required for agile learning to happen. We ask them to stand on their weakest/less well-used behaviour and continue the discussion about culture/climate making link with their role as leaders in creating the right conditions for the teams they lead.

Key take-aways include a greater self-awareness of agile readiness, identification of specific improvement strategies, awareness of group level agile readiness and insights to work culture, an appreciation of things they need to do to create and support the right climate for agile working in the teams they lead. As the leadership development workshop/programme is also a learning event, a further advantage of this activity is that it gives the participants ‘a language for learning’ that we then role model and encourage them to use throughout the remainder of the programme.



Developing 21st Century Leadership skills seem to be high on the agenda for many executives, chief learning officers, HR Directors and LD practitioners. They want to know how skills like agility can be developed in creative, engaging and effective ways. We hope the above provides a helpful illustration of how we may go about developing agility amongst your leaders.

When we’re asked to develop agile leaders we typically would want to understand any specific Agile models or practices your leaders are already expected to work with. We then align our approach to that or offer new models of Agile Leadership.



Author: Tim Coburn ([email protected])