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September 2010


Leadership Agility: Five Levels of Mastery for Anticipating and Initiating Change


by Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs (John Wiley & Sons, 2007)


What are the big take-aways?


Based on data collected by the authors involving over six hundred managers, Joiner & Josephs identified five levels of “leadership agility” which they call Expert, Achiever, Catalyst, Co-creator and Synergist. They define agility in these terms on page 6:


Leadership agility is directly analogous to organizational agility: It’s the ability to take wise and effective action amid complex, rapidly changing conditions. In…[a survey of senior executives in Fortune 500 companies], executives said they much preferred agility to similar-sounding competencies like flexibility and adaptability. Why? By themselves, flexibility and adaptability imply a passive, reactive stance, while agility implies an intentional, proactive stance.


Ultimately, the five levels of mastery correspond to stages of adult development that define a leader’s capacity to successfully navigate complex situations involving conflicting stakeholder perspectives, including perspectives that conflict with the leader’s own interests and points of view. (These stages of development have also been described in various terms by other researchers such as William Torbert, Robert Kegan, Jane Loevinger and Suzanne Cook-Greuter, who has created a leadership assessment instrument based on the stages of adult development. A useful chart comparing the vocabularies used by Joiner & Josephs and these other theorists appears on page 248.)


The main point of the book is that the capacity for leadership agility can be developed through enhancing a leader’s awareness and intention, primarily by using reflective and creative techniques.


Why did I like it?


The whole adult development framework for emphasizing the personal aspect of leadership growth makes sense to me, based on my own experiences as a leader and as a leadership coach. I also appreciate leadership development theories which validate the idea that effective leadership competencies can be learned, and which offer tested strategies for promoting such learning.


From the second chapter (“The Five Eds,” taking the same scenario and illustrating the five levels of mastery by playing them out five different ways) onward, the reader is provided ample opportunity to self-assess where s/he might be on the developmental spectrum. There are also plenty of real-life case studies that deepen – and offer more human texture – to the over-arching theory.


For me, the authors’ “leadership agility compass” served as a helpful graphic tracking the four agility competencies identified by the authors as the book moved from chapter to chapter, and from the earlier to the later stages of leadership development. The four competencies are: context-setting agility, stakeholder agility, creative agility and self-leadership agility (page 32).


In what situations would this be useful?


For any leader, the main benefits of understanding the adult development aspect of leadership – whether it’s through Joiner & Josephs or another theorist – are two-fold: (1) any tool that promotes self-awareness is inherently positive; there is overwhelming evidence across the literature that self-awareness is key to a leader’s effectiveness; and (2) a leader’s ability to motivate people, build teams and mobilize major change efforts is greatly increased if s/he can (at least loosely) identify the developmental stage of others and use that information to everyone’s best advantage.


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


There is an excellent short article by two other researchers on seven ways of leading from what are called “action logics,” which include and parallel the five levels of leadership agility that Joiner & Josephs discuss in their book. It is entitled “Seven Transformations of Leadership” by David Rooke and William Torbert (Harvard Business Review, 2005). If you’re looking for a quicker – but very useful – treatment of the topic of adult development and leadership before committing to Leadership Agility, I strongly recommend this article.


Since Ronald Heifetz’ theory of adaptive leadership is likewise ultimately about leaders growing beyond self-interest to living a life of larger purpose – so that they and their organizations contribute to the world around them in a responsible and sustainable way – I think his recent book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (Harvard Business Press, 2009) would also pair well with Leadership Agility.


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