Agility: The Key to Success in 2021+ New Ways of Thinking

By Peter Power|2021-03-17T15:08:37+00:00March 17th, 2021|0 Comments

Publishers’ Note: We have had the good fortune to cross paths with author and keynote speaker Peter Power many times, over more decades than we want to admit, at disaster recovery, business continuity and resilience conferences. This article differs from many in our library because he is discussing leadership styles that some might consider appropriate only at the C-Suite level.

But let’s remember Dwight Eisenhower’s famous quote, “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”  Thus the business continuity planner can take heart in the importance of working thru BIAs, mitigation strategies, and all that is involved in creating, and testing, the BC plan. That is the planning!  However, when everything hits the fan, that plan becomes secondary to the leadership demonstrated in the here and now. Peter is a respected expert in business continuity, and has helped many with their essential planning work. He knows the criticality of having a solid BC plan. But in this article, he steps back from the focus of practitioners. Here he suggests that everyone, at all levels of an organization, should think through this issue of leadership style, because agile leadership will be necessary for optimal resilience. Do you agree with his assessment? We hope you will weigh in!

This article is intended to stimulate ideas towards a new way of thinking where agility gradually replaces rigid or stovepipe-based cultures and management styles. This author suggests we supplant silos with synergy with a different pan-organizational leadership approach that transcends the traditional allocation of tasks. It therefore pushes the conventional boundaries of how to oversee Crisis, Business Continuity and Risk Management by introducing a more dynamic and agile leadership style across entire organizations: One that when practiced in ‘slow time’ or routine management  processes can assist decision making in ‘quick time’ crisis scenarios as all involved will already have a greater sense of ownership, problem solving and solution sharing.

The differences between normal agile leadership and agile leadership in a crisis scenario are of context and amplification, rather than fundamental type.

The sociocultural / business landscape currently facing us points to the importance of not just leadership, but agile leadership. This article therefore offers specific, practical advice for any leader seeking to adopt a more up to date approach to better suit the type of working environment that we now have, and how to consider the type of future threats already blinking on our radar screens.

2021. A Brave New World.

As we move beyond the wreckage of 2020 and start to explore some of the threats, risks and opportunities we will all face in 2021+ there is a need to recognize the fast- emerging issues, particularly in the business world, that broadly cluster under the ESG umbrella. (Environmental – how a company performs in the location(s) where it is based. Social – how it manages relationships with employees/stakeholders. Governance – the leadership of an organization etc.)

The landscape now in front of us is comparatively unique:  Thousands of employees have permanently left the office to work from home. Meetings held on digital platforms are here to stay.  How we trade as organizations, groups and nations has changed. Stakeholders expect far more from decision-makers and more than ever the people impacted by decisions taken want to be part of the deciding process.

An informal survey of ESG indicators among some of the people I know suggests that, in the perceived absence of realistic government stewardship or advice in a post-Brexit, part-vaccinated, lockdown world, organizations are often adopting DIY solutions to these issues. With this in mind, it’s worth breaking down just a few of the problem areas we all face, before we look at possible solutions:

  • Being unable to predict the future based on previous patterns – new paradigms are therefore required. Maybe we should treat 2020 as an unscheduled audit of corporate resilience and, more importantly, learn from it.

  • Uncertainty/inability to comprehend/confront the present – in a world with less recognizable landmarks compared to 2019, time is not on our side to wait and see if we are to remain efficient, competitive and worthy of investment.

  • Confusion between managing and leading. The former is about organizing and coordinating activities, whereas the latter is much more about sharing inspiration with others to create a vision of success in situations that are sometimes out of the ordinary (see below).

  • In the absence of a participative, shared and attainable vision of inspired achievement, so called leaders can be reduced to just making futile gestures. An attitude of “There go the people. I must follow them for I am their leader.” (Alexandre Auguste Ledru Rollin) simply will not do. With this in mind, ideas on ‘situational leadership’ are outlined later in this article.

  • Lack of coherence – being logical and consistent is seldom easy in a world full of uncertainties, but the need still remains.

  • Uncertainty about support from those sometimes placed higher in an organization. This leads to fear of making mistakes, which in turn thwarts boldness. With this in mind agility requires the courage to act, the humility to learn and the intelligence to adapt.  It also requires true empowerment that might be conferred or otherwise delegated, albeit for a limited duration.

  • Insufficient / ineffective horizon scanning – if 2020 tells us anything, it’s that human beings are fairly good at overlooking inconvenient truths. Leaders’ failure to anticipate and prepare have left nations and organizations struggling to respond and recover. In particular, BC has not always lived up to the sometimes over optimistic expectations of what it can achieve.

  • Lop-sided Operational Risk Management – hitherto there has been a disproportionate focus on finance/investment risk, rather than on human/cultural factors.

  • Being unable to respond to threats quickly – in other words, failure of Crisis Management (CM – I have taken the definition of a crisis from the British Standard BS11200 on this topic: “An abnormal and unstable situation that threatens the organization’s strategic objectives, reputation or viability”) which has incorrectly been seen only as a subset of Business Continuity Management, or worse still, Security.

  • Decision-making barriers – can’t see / won’t see, being overly risk averse, hoping others will make the decision for you, waiting for things to happen as opposed to making them happen, etc.

  • No advance scenario testing of likely threats – past experience of CM exercises may cause corporate leadership to shy away from testing their capability for fear of embarrassment, lack of knowledge, unfavorable outcomes etc.

  • Outdated Business Continuity Plans – BC is essentially operational and deals with predictable / foreseeable risks where a prescribed response is best. CM on the other hand has to be more strategic and agile.

  • Blame Culture – this is one of the biggest hurdles to effective decision making and can only be dismantled from within.

  • Lessons missed / forgotten – we all know the saying ‘Never waste a good crisis’, but that’s too often the case in practice. There is rarely time for considered reflection and it’s often easier to apportion blame to ‘bad luck’ or ‘others’ than to look in the mirror and admit mistakes.

  • Poor Crisis Communications – untested protocols, plus a misplaced pursuit of (usually elusive) complete data can paralyze leaders and stop them from making decisions or saying anything (compounded by standard legal advice to say nothing) when clear announcements are in fact needed.

The point just made about a misplaced pursuit of (often elusive) complete data before crisis leaders decide to act can be summarized in this diagram where the vertical Y axis shows the need to make an educated guess in order to decide on time, against the horizontal X axis which is the passage of time (which could be minutes or hours):

“A” represents the point where the crisis is first identified (although in most cases the signs of possible crises were already there, but not recognized).

“B” shows the peak where the highest point is reached for urgent decisions to be made, yet accurate data that ideally will be needed is seldom, if ever, available to match the decision time. Thus best guesswork will often be required.

“C” indicates the point where, if the crisis leader is not sufficiently agile to make a workable decision at the right time because all accurate data is first demanded; the decision time has been lost.

The key message in CM is that a workable, but imperfect, decision crucially made at the right time is always better than a perfect decision made later on, as the optimum decision time would now be in the past, rather than present or future.

It is therefore vital to bear in mind that crisis decision-making is typically characterized by dilemmas, for which apparent solutions are not right or wrong, but simply better or worse. 

Also, most choices come with a penalty of some sort and there is seldom an ideal solution.  For example, speed of decision making might be at the expense of accuracy, a short term solution might not provide a long term answer, and so on.


The Need for Agile Leadership

Moving away for a moment from actual crisis scenarios, we might ask whether the brave new world of 2021+ proves to be a blessing or a curse as it depends largely on our ability to assess and react to new realities.

The speed and volume of change calls for unprecedented agility in thought and action; a subtle blend of strategic calm to focus on long-term vision and tactical energy to confront reality and take action. Flexing to changing priorities, agile leaders work on Pareto’s 20% that delivers 80% of the results.

They are courageous in the face of uncertainty and empower others, building a learning culture where mistakes are embraced as stepping stones to success.

Agile organizations depend on leaders at every level – even the individual with no one reporting to them needs a leader mentality and skills in relation to their role. In survey after survey leaders identify the agile attributes of initiative and communication skills as key differentiators they look for when considering candidates for promotion.

Whole libraries of books and articles have been written on the subject of leadership: Is one style better than another? What characteristics are held by all of them? What style is most suited to which environment? How do leaders build successful teams?  There are likely to be many more as people grapple with the challenges currently faced by us all.

Agile Leadership Defined

Given the amount of change, uncertainty and staff expectation that now exists, leaders need to be able to draw on a toolbox of attributes appropriate for the task at hand. The more clearly we understand the distinctions between different aspects of the leader’s role, the greater our ability to deploy the right attribute in the right moment, but sometimes we confuse management, command, authority, and leadership.  So here are my working definitions of each:

  • Management might be described as the organization and coordination of an activity, or series of activities, in order to achieve defined objectives.  It often consists of the interlocking functions of organizing, planning and, controlling. In a business context,  it is often included as a factor of production along with machines and materials
  • Command is a managerial function that might be defined as the direction, coordination and effective use of resources. Equally, the ability to use or control something, as well as a more common application as an instruction causing a computer to perform an intended function.
  • Authority may be based on a formal role (positional power), the ownership of resources (resource power) or on specialist knowledge or skill (expert power) often referred to as ‘thought leadership’ (see below).
  • Leadership is the ability to make sense of, consult with and inspire others in situations that are sometimes out of the ordinary.  Effective leaders may have formal authority, but they rely in large part on informal authority resulting from listening, understanding and delegating. This flows from their personal qualities and actions. They may be trusted and respected for their expertise, or followed because of their ability to persuade, or a combination of both.  Agile Leadership combines all of these. In most cases leadership authority initially comes from his or her (1) Position / Rank, (2) Knowledge and/or (3) Personality.

An example of Agile Leadership that depends on understanding, sharing, and delegating and can be quickly applied in any operational situation, is the UK ‘Gold, Silver & Bronze’ command structure used by all emergency services throughout that country, as well as many private sector organizations.

Gold, Silver & Bronze Command Structure

GSB is a role, not rank, based command hierarchy divided into three simple layers that equate with Strategic thinking, Tactical coordinating, and Operational doing, without overlap. Rather than an entire response organization devoting all possible assets to just one crisis using a routine rank hierarchy, it is possible using GSB to create a role-based setup for discrete situations, perhaps leaving the routine head of the organization (e.g. Chief of Police, CEO) to focus on wider/separate non crisis issues, having delegated complete autonomy to a Gold individual (and/or team) to set the strategic direction for Silver to interpret into operational delivery by any number of Bronzes (e.g. Bronze Supply Route(s),  Bronze Traffic etc.).

GSB is a practical philosophy that determines the shape of the command structure applied to cope with any operational situation (e.g. fires, floods, etc.).  This means the shape always remains the same, but different people might come and go in each layer and simply inherit the title relevant to that role.

It’s important to note that the titles do not convey seniority of service or rank, but depict the functions carried out by particular persons, or sometimes group headed by a specific Gold or Silver and occasionally Bronze.  When activated, it has to be all three layers (occasionally, Gold, having already formulated the strategy in some planned scenarios, might take a back seat).

GSB cannot really be compared to the ICS model, which is a set of policies, procedures, facilities, and equipment, integrated into an organizational structure.  GSB and ICS are therefore not comparable as they are different in purpose, style and application.

The following is a summarized description of each layer within GSB:

  • Gold (Strategic). The person/group responsible for formulating the strategy to deal with the incident that is currently on-going, or will happen soon. At the outset of the incident Gold will determine the strategy and record a strategy statement. This will need to be monitored and subject to ongoing review. It is the ‘I think’ layer.

  • Silver (Tactical). Silver will normally attend at or near the scene, but the key is to be located wherever Silver can properly exercise the level of command inherent in the title. Silver is responsible for interpreting the strategy, set out by Gold, into operational delivery.  This means formulating the tactics required to achieve the earliest return to normality, or ‘steady state’. Silver should not become personally involved with the minutia of operational activities close to the incident. It is the ‘I direct’ layer.

  • Bronze (Operational). Each Bronze will control and deploy the resources of their respective service or function, within a geographical sector or specific role and implement the tactics formulated by Silver.  It is the ‘I do’ layer.

Agility plays an important part in GSB as there is a high level of subsidiarity, meaning decisions should be taken at the lowest level consistent with each layer. For example, a Bronze commander tasked with a defined operational purpose might have to make swift decisions to achieve it, if the situation on the ground suddenly changes.  He/she may call on Silver for extra support if necessary, or conversely Silver, with a wider oversight, might move assets between Bronzes without permission from Gold to help achieve the wider tactical objective.

At each layer a managing or leading style might be applied as required. Where any situation is more dynamic than predictable, leadership will be more relevant, in which case the style of leadership should match the situation now apparent.

Situational Leadership Explained

This is where a ‘Situational Leadership’ (as defined by Hersey & Blanchard) can be especially effective by selecting the best behavior and approach to match the task needs and capabilities of all those who make up the leadership team. That is, all those whose opinions, values and concerns are respected in the process of decision making with delegation, authority and problem solving devolved rather than centralized.

Situational Leadership suits agile leadership as it focuses on the agility of the team leader to adapt his or her style according to (1) the needs of the team and (2) the demands of the situation. Its agility avoids the traditional pitfalls of the single-style approach.

The four styles of leadership, in order of application based on the needs/maturity of the team, are:

  • Directing – Leader provides specific instructions & closely supervises.

  • Coaching – Leader explains decisions & provides opportunities for clarification.

  • Supporting –Team now able to share ideas and facilitate in decision making.

  • Delegating – Leader can now delegate more responsibility for decisions & implementation.

Adding this all up, it is possible to illustrate how this approach integrates by using a ‘bow tie’, or ‘butterfly’ diagram:

Advice for Agile Leaders

I’ve spent 30+ plus years as a CM and Leadership consultant (and before that at the coal face) supporting very many organizations in the private and public sectors, and certainly feel that all this is possible.  Moreover, I suggest it’s vital, especially when agility rather than rigidity is so important. So here is my selection of advice notes for Agile Leaders:

  • Spend time ‘Horizon Scanning’. Identify where risks and opportunities might  come from, noting that some lesser events may be individually insignificant, but collectively might become a crisis – or even an opportunity. Rather than simply responding, work out with your team what systems are at play and identify your points of leverage. Remember, today’s crises are sometimes caused by yesterday’s ill-considered work-arounds, poorly-managed incidents and operational fluctuations that are allowed to escalate to the point of catastrophic failure.

  • Take ownership of situations, but also engage with colleagues and encourage diverse opinions if you can. Agile leaders need the self-confidence to influence the actions, beliefs, and feelings of others. They need the courage to take risks, knowing that in chaotic times, the fastest path to success often depends on making mistakes and learning from them.

  • Be creative and act decisively on partial information, especially when a crisis looms. The sort of data that you would normally like to analyze first will probably be elusive, or might not even exist.  It’s vital to remember that an imperfect but workable plan, critically delivered on time, is far better than a perfect one delivered too late.

  • Develop ‘situational awareness’. This refers to the best available appreciation of what is going on and what the impacts might be, the degree of uncertainty, the degree of containment, exacerbating issues and what might happen in the future.   Attaining all this is inherently difficult because so many things might be going on, the rate of change is rapid and the spread of impacts and potential impacts is unclear. However, achieving a common appreciation of this (shared situational awareness) is the goal where technical knowledge or specialist skills might be required to help interpret some of the information.

  • Use different leadership styles to suit each situation. The millennial workforce is forcing radical change on how leaders relate to and motivate their people. Treat them as individuals, value their differences and involve them in decisions that affect them, ‘selling’ rather than ‘telling’ them your ideas.

  • Avoid data overload and stay goal focused. Agile leaders need an instinct for when to get into detail and when to maintain a 30,000 ft overview. Don’t become distracted by familiar easy-to-solve problems.  Agile leaders keep their eyes on the prize, balancing urgency and importance to achieve maximum value from their time each day.

  • Avoid Burn out. Agile leadership is mentally and emotionally demanding. Having an experienced mentor or executive coach can be hugely valuable in this regard, giving leaders a sounding board for new ideas and a safe space to vent when things get tough.

  • And finally, thank people. The value of sincere, personal thanks, particularly face-to-face, cannot be over-stated. It is a vital component of leadership, yet this simple motivational opportunity is all too often forgotten.

The challenge is great but the benefits of getting it right make it a worthy cause. These include:

  • Greater initiative and responsiveness at all levels.

  • More energy for the most important activities.

  • Better communication between and within focused teams.

  • Less destructive friction and stress.

  • More motivated employees.

Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Enterprise Resilience

About the Author: Peter Power

Peter Power ([email protected]) is an author of the UK Govt. Standard on Crisis Management (BS11200) as well as several other guides and standards. He is a well-known international author, presenter, and workshop facilitator. For many years he was also the most requested return speaker at the Toronto based World Conference on Disaster Management (he eventually became the chairman of WCDM).  See also Peter is currently a Senior Associate with UK based Vondel Professional Development ( ).

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