Being the Agile Boss

Leading through radical uncertainty means helping your team and your network create the future with you.

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An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
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Image courtesy of Sam Chivers/

Leading in late 2020 means carving a new path through an epic disruption precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has spawned health, economic, and social crises that have rendered the best-laid plans useless. With no road map for the marathon ahead, navigating through these times is a test of agility. Together, you and your organization will have to experiment, execute, and learn from successes and failures to invent your organization’s future.

Agile leadership matters now more than ever — it is about leveraging, not reacting to, the turbulence around you. How can you empower your team to solve problems nimbly and resourcefully when circumstances are in flux and reliable data is elusive? How can you create the conditions for your organization to survive? How do you create new ways of engaging with key stakeholders when they are all under pressure and resources are scarce? And how do you cultivate your capacity to cope with the imponderables that lie ahead?

Through three decades of research, consulting, and teaching, I have found that there are three imperatives of great leadership: managing your team — creating a high-performing “we” out of all the “I’s” over whom you have formal authority; managing your network — building partnerships with key stakeholders both inside and outside your organization; and managing yourself — using yourself as an instrument to get things done. When your ambition is to prepare your organization for the “next normal,” neglecting even one of these responsibilities jeopardizes the capacity of your organization to act, learn, pivot, and forge ahead.

Managing Your Team: Focus on Purpose and Learning

Your primary role as an agile leader is to create an environment that empowers everyone to be an innovative problem-solver. Doing so requires that you champion a shared sense of purpose and build a capacity for rapid learning.

Innovation is hard work. It thrives on diversity and conflict. It takes candor to identify and mitigate risk, and it takes courage to accept the inevitable missteps and pivots that occur along the way. To meet those challenges with endurance, your people need to believe that they can make a meaningful contribution to a cause they care about.

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An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
See All Articles in This Section

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