agile leader

Being Adaptable as an Agile Leader

Moving with the Times

In today’s complex business world, successful leaders must be willing to adapt and change with the demands of the marketplace. Adapting to new business strategies, taking on new assignments, working across cultures or virtual teams all demand the need to be a flexible and agile leader.

By embracing new ideas and innovation, you can maximise opportunities, attract new clients and keep your company modern and relevant. But what does being ‘agile’ actually mean and how do we do it?

Learning Agility

So how do we become agile leaders?

Researchers from the Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL ®)¹ and Teachers College, Colombia University have researched this question extensively resulting in some important conclusions that we help you thrive as a leader even in the most turbulent times by learning agility.

Their research refers to a set of characteristics that help leaders ‘stay flexible, grow from mistakes, and rise to a diverse array of challenges’.

The outcome is that learning-agile leaders share four key skills:

Skill 1: Ability to innovate

The first factor of learning agility involves questioning the status quo and challenging assumptions.  When we have a goal to discover new and unique ways of doing things, we are forced to have new experiences and grow our knowledge.  High learning-agile individuals are talented at generating new ideas, seeking inspiration and being able to step back and see a situation or issue from multiple angles.

Skill 2: Outperform through challenges

The researchers say “learning from experience occurs most when we are overcoming an unfamiliar challenge. But in order to learn from such challenges, the individual must remain present and engaged, handle the stress brought on by ambiguity, and adapt quickly in order to perform. This requires keen observation and listening skills, as well as the ability to process data quickly”.

Skill 3: Reflect on experience and get feedback

To be truly agile we must not only seek out new experiences, but we must also learn from them. By constantly seeking feedback we can better understand our assumptions and behaviours.  This level of personal reflection and self-awareness is a high predictor of success.

Skill 4: Take good risks

The research reports that another core component of learning agility involves taking progressive risks and this was the skill that many leaders found the hardest to enact.

CCL ® and the Teacher’s College state “Learning-agile leaders are pioneering risk-takers. They are resilient and calm. They venture into unknown territory and try new things. They take ‘progressive risks’ that lead to opportunity. Learning-agile leaders volunteer for roles where success is not guaranteed.  They stretch themselves outside their comfort zones in a continuous cycle of learning and confidence-building that ultimately leads to success.”

Damaging Behaviours – ‘Derailer’

As well as positive behaviours the research conducted also investigated the behaviours that ‘block or stall’ our progress.

In another paper on the subject ‘Improve Your Ability to Learn’ published by Harvard Business Review², the authors wrote, “Being open to experience is fundamental to learning. Individuals who remain closed or defensive when challenged or given critical feedback tend to be low in learning agility. By contrast, high learning-agile individuals seek feedback, process it, and adapt based on their newfound understanding of themselves, situations, and problems.”

“While it is difficult to change one’s behaviour, our research has found that these type of leaders stand for their resilience and ability to remain at ease, no matter the situation. They put themselves into challenging situations and are able to cope with the stress of these challenges and therefore manage them more effectively.”

How Can I Become More Agile?

While it is important to acknowledge that these qualities are important, it is not that we can exhibit all of them at the same time.  However, we need to possess and develop each component in order to consider learning agility.

Development Activities


When faced with a challenge, ask yourself two questions:

  1. What is holding me back from trying something new and different?
  2. If these constraints were not in place, how would I approach this situation differently?


  • When faced with something new, look for similarities between the situation and things you have done in the past. Draw on these similarities to frame the new challenge.
  • Ask questions to understand, not to be understood. Really listen to what others are saying and trust that you will have a response when they have finished talking.
  • When you find yourself feeling stressed, pause. Don’t just say or do the first thing that comes to your head—take a moment to consider what is really required.


  • Find someone who you trust to give you open and honest feedback and challenge that person to do so. Show that you are open to the process by only asking clarifying questions. Resist the temptation to explain your actions or make excuses.
  • Conduct ‘After Action Reviews’ where you, and relevant others, reflect on recent projects by asking three questions:
    1. What happened?
    2. Why did it happen that way?
    3. What should we stop/start/continue doing in order to ensure success in the future?

Take Risks

  • Take on a new challenge that scares you; find something that is meaningful but not so important that failure will have serious personal consequences. Most importantly, tell others what you are doing—ask for their help and support.


  • View feedback as a gift that someone is giving you. You may not like it, and it may be uncomfortable, but there is value in it nonetheless. Regardless of the other party’s motivations for giving you feedback, there is always the opportunity to learn something about yourself that you previously did not know.
  • Resist the temptation to respond to feedback, especially at first. Try not to explain your actions to the other person or generate excuses in your own head. Always try to thank the other person.


It is clear that learning agility is a part of a successful leader’s repertoire.  We can all endeavour to become more learning agile, and we hope this guide has helped with your development.


¹ Center for Creative Leadership® and CCL® are registered trademarks owned by the Center for Creative Leadership. ©2014 Center for Creative Leadership. All rights reserved.
² Improve your Ability to Learn – Harvard Business Review. (n.d.) Retrieved from

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