Recently, I saw a prominent leader in descent. His iconic business, hugely profitable for years, was in rapid decline. Voices of customers, employees and investors were not being heard. Returning to past glory seemed more important than discovering new pathways to profit; his board responded to that bit of nostalgia with an invitation to depart. His is an example of a growing risk: leadership out of step with the age of agility.
Why has one person lead an agile ascent to victory while another is crushed by change? Someone I admire, David Dotlich, says that the difference is “…the ability to recognize, read and respond to context.” David is the founder of Pivot Leadership and a major voice in organizational learning; I think he is on to something important.
According to Merriam-Webster, context is “the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs”. Today, as the rate of information exchange continues to accelerate cultures, marketplaces, customers and businesses evolve rapidly. Context has become more fluid, more transient. As “interrelated conditions” go through dynamic flux we can be suddenly out of synch. Basing today’s choices on yesterday’s success may be briefly comforting but ultimately dangerous. What is the core capability for leading in this age of agility?
The origin of the word context is from Middle English for “weaving together”. Context is woven from the purposes, worries, and perceptions of human beings relative to the circumstances in which they live. Whoever recognizes reads and responds to those threads can lead an agile ascent by constantly turning the insights into action.
The death of contextual agility is bravado, that blustering over-confidence borne of stale knowledge. Agnes De Mille said, “Who already knows has begun to die a little.” Too many leaders get their confidence from what they already know and too few from their capacity to listen and learn in this moment. To develop winning leadership in the age of agility start with something you can practice all day every day: staying truly connected to the people who influence your fortunes. Start with an honest audit:
The core competence in the age of agility is ever-current connection. Practice with customers, associates and competitors. Learn what is shifting in their context and notice how rapidly your judgment improves. Keep it up and enjoy the agile ascent.