Modern universities are complex organizations characterized by multiple layers of approval, authority and an abundance of rules designed to ensure compliance with laws, policies promulgated by governing boards, and internal practices and procedures. Yet, effective leadership demands that strong, timely decisions are made and implemented effectively. This creates a tension, which is amplified by the ever-increasing pace of events and communication. Organizational agility is a term often used to describe the ability to navigate this environment effectively and constructively, achieving goals, advancing mission, and preserving career options and reputation.
Impediments to Agility
Change is often incremental; sometimes revolutionary. Agile leaders anticipate change and find opportunities for problem solving. As a leader, there can be many obstacles to overcome:
- Policies and procedures that require many steps or approvals for even straightforward matters; these may be cumbersome, outdated, or opaque; change frequently; cause frustration; and sap energy and time
- Conflicting messages and demands from rules, constituencies, and reward structures
- Personalities, biases, egos, and motivations that shape senior leaders’ perception of subordinates
- Social systems, opinions and emotions that are fluid, consuming cognitive and emotional energy to manage
- Cultures that create “unofficial” rules that obscure authority and complicate decisions, requiring political skill to navigate
- Resistance to change, even when that change may be essential to the health or survival of the unit
“When people are determined they can overcome anything.” – Nelson Mandela
Thinking Patterns That Can Hinder Agility
There are common thinking patterns that can impede agility and harm unit health. As a leader, watch for these and target their extinction to hone your unit’s ability to respond effectively to a variety of situations.
Rigor / close minded thinking
“We always do it this way.”
Us / them divisions / thinking
“They don’t get what it is like here.”
Group think and narcissism
“We are always right here.”
Lack of social skill and emotional intelligence
Categorizing and group labeling
“Only a woman would say that.”
Lack of proactive behaviors
“We can wait you out.”
Miscalibration with larger unit effort
“The campus plan isn’t useful.”
Misuse of power
“Who does he think he is?”
Lack of / bad communication
“I heard a rumor…”
“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive, but those who can best manage change.” – Charles Darwin
Tools of Agile Leadership
- Develop communication skills: Communication enables agile navigation of the complex academic social structure. (See “Clarity of Intent” Quick Tip)
- Network effectively: Networking is the art of building trusted relationships through personal interactions. Know who influences decision makers and accord them as much respect as those they serve. Understand who in each unit (do not overlook those within your own unit) performs important tasks, especially gate-keeping staff who are essential and all-too-often taken for granted or overlooked.
- Understand the Organization: Assess who the real decision-makers are and how they approach issues. Often, a person in charge looks to others for advice on certain situations. Knowing which person has influence on the official decision maker for the issue or item on which you are concerned, and providing sufficient and full information to that person or those persons themselves can be essential in agile leadership.
- Manage up effectively: Working with more senior leaders in ways that advance their goals earns several agile benefits. (See “Managing Up” Quick Tip). If you are managing up effectively, you
- feel comfortable, without tension or nervousness
- understand how senior managers think and act
- get things done by talking their language and responding to their needs and your recommendations are acted upon.
- Practice authentic communication: Say what needs to be said, both positive and negative, at the right time, to the right person, in the right manner; speak up, taking the heat as necessary. In agile leadership, you are capable of
- providing current, direct, complete and actionable feedback
- letting people know where they stand
- facing up to problems and difficult people
- not being afraid to take negative action when necessary and you build moral authority as a result.
- Develop political skill: Accept the messy reality of hierarchies: egos, constituencies, issues, rivalries, history, long memories… and deal with it to get things done for maximum benefit. Deal with it…politics by whatever name is always involved. Political skill is essential for agile leadership. Agile leaders
- maneuver smoothly and quietly through political waters
- are sensitive to how people and organizations function
- anticipate land mines and plans for them
- accept organizational politics as a necessary fact of life
- enable management of difficult people
- Cultivate empathy: Empathy – the ability to understand the feelings and needs of another is one of the greatest unrecognized political skills. The ability to accurately “sense” the another’s reaction to what is being said enables one to focus comments on questions and areas of interest that the other person may have, creating more productive communication and building bridges of common ground.
Joan Dubinsky, University of Illinois NCPRE Business Ethicist and Consultant, describes expectations within Organizational Hierarchies.
Joan Dubinsky, University of Illinois NCPRE Business Ethicist and Consultant, describes organizational culture.
Joan Dubinsky, University of Illinois NCPRE Business Ethicist and Consultant, discusses organizational ethics.