Agile leaders balance speed and stability

Dr Simon Hayward discusses agile leadership with Alan Hosking.

What is your view of agile leadership?

What great leaders do has changed. We live in a digital world and we need to adapt our leadership approach so that we can be effective and create organisations capable of succeeding in this digital environment. This involves becoming more agile, both in connecting our people to perform better, and disrupting their thinking, to be ahead of the competition and able to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. Being an agile leader means being an enabler and a disruptor at the same time – this is the agile leadership paradox.

Agile leaders are connected leaders. They know how to connect with their team, customers, colleagues, and wider stakeholders. They also know how to connect with societal trends that are shaping a new reality around us – a digitally accelerating, politically unstable reality that creates new opportunities and raises the threat of obsolescence across products and whole sectors. In that new reality, agile leaders make choices that define their business success or the achievement of their goals on a day to day basis.

What inspired you to write your book The Agile Leader?

Creating greater organisational agility is one of the top concerns of the chief executives I talk to all over the world. Our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment and the pace of technology are pushing us towards more agile ways of working. Technology, and what we do with it, is changing the way we behave. It has altered the way we collaborate and communicate with our colleagues and customers. The explosion of internet connectivity also raises questions about who, or what, is in control. For business leaders, many of whom want to feel ‘in control’, this can be quite a challenge. We need to create new ways of working that reflect the changing world outside and inside our organisations, and enable us to respond to unexpected opportunities or challenges with speed and accuracy.

How much of the book is theory and how much is practical tips?

The book condenses a wealth of research into what I hope is a very readable and accessible guide to agile leadership. It provides a blueprint for creating a more agile organisation and contains some very practical tips and useful advice. I have taken my doctoral research into Connected Leadership and related it to the world of agile working. I also reviewed research from leading academic and professional associations and carried out interviews with many global CEOs and other senior business leaders. Many of these became featured case studies in the book, which help to bring the theory of agile leadership to life.

Tell me more about the agile leadership paradox

To become an agile leader in a VUCA world, and achieve a balance between speed and stability, leaders need to embrace both sides of the agile leadership paradox, the need to enable and the need to disrupt. This means that we need to create more joined-up businesses, while at the same time challenging how our organisations operate at a fundamental level. When we look at the business leaders at the helm of today’s most successful organisations, we see that they tend to be quite disruptive. They are unwilling to accept current rules, and willing to think the unthinkable, to achieve breakthroughs in innovation in both the customer experience and the operating processes of the organisation. They go against the grain, challenge preconceptions, and are unafraid to encourage what others might see as unreasonable step changes in productivity when it matters most.

However, as well as being ‘disruptors’, these people are also ‘enablers’. They understand the need to engage people with transformation. To do this, they build a clear sense of purpose to underpin the importance of where the business is going. This encourages others to follow with conviction. These leaders create an environment where fear of failure is replaced by ideas generation, collaboration and innovation. None of this can be achieved in a traditional command-and-control structure. However, it can be achieved if leaders ‘let go’ and devolve responsibility to others.

What are the biggest barriers that prevent organisations becoming more agile?

Every organisation wants to become more agile. It’s a major priority for business leaders in every industry. However, many businesses struggle to operate in a truly agile way. Often this is a combination of a risk-averse culture; a lack of clarity around vision, roles, and expectations; a lack of focus on the customer; and a lack of collaboration and team work. The good news is that it’s possible to overcome these barriers.

The Agile Leader is published by Kogan Page,, priced £14.99.


Dr Simon Hayward is author of The Agile Leader and Connected Leadership. He also recently co-authored a chapter on the subject of Connected Leadership for The Palgrave Handbook of Leadership in Transforming Asia. He is CEO of Cirrus, an international leadership consultancy, and has led leadership development and change programmes for many major global clients over the past 30 years. Simon is a frequent media commentator and a regular conference speaker. He has a DBA and MBA from Alliance Manchester Business School and an MA (Hons) in English from Oxford University.

Read Previous

Why only 6% of South Africans look set to retire decently

Read Next

Make it your business to understand the impact of AI