Complexity Requires Agility

Consider for a moment President Obama’s last few weeks: He has been entangled in a critical debate with Congress regarding the deficit. He made an unscheduled trip to Alabama to offer comfort and support after the deadliest tornado outbreak in nearly 40 years killed hundreds of people and decimated towns in six states. He’s been nettled by Donald Trump and those who continue to question the legitimacy of his Presidency. And, of course, he bore the burden of making the decision to proceed with the raid that ultimately led to Osama bin Laden’s death – a decision with global ramifications. All of this against a backdrop of ongoing conflict in Libya and turmoil in the Middle East.

Such is the job of today’s leaders, whether they lead countries, corporations, institutions, departments or teams. They must manage multiple priorities (and manage them well) often within a framework of extremely complex and constantly changing dynamics. The CEO’s and executives I work with tell me that they can’t predict day to day what situations they will be dealing with or what events will be on their calendar, let alone the following week!

Today’s organizations are microcosms of the world in which we live. Leaders must simultaneously orchestrate relationships, engage employees, resolve financial challenges, manage internal crises, navigate market shifts, and address competitive threats. How do effective leaders do this?


Agility is the ability to deal with multiple priorities in a wide array of circumstances and in a rapidly changing environment. Recent research indicates that agility is one of the most important attributes of high performing leaders. Yet according to Bill Joiner, author of Leadership Agility, only 5 to 10 percent of leaders have mastered the level of agility needed to succeed in today’s environment. So what can you do to enhance your agility as a leader?

  • Get some perspective. If you are managing numerous priorities and complex situations, you need to step back and get a broader view of what’s happening. Which situations are truly priorities? What is a real crisis and what can be put on the back burner? How do these situations affect one another? Are there synergies you can take advantage of? What are the consequences of specific actions, as well as inaction?
  • Surround yourself with experts. No leader can be knowledgeable in all areas. Work to develop a cadre of highly qualified subject-matter experts whom you can call on to advise you and provide you with the right information, at the right time, in order to make the best decisions that will produce the best outcomes. Consider aligning yourself with a seasoned executive coach who can serve as an objective sounding board and challenge your own assumptions along the way.
  • Collaborate with stakeholders. Fully engage those around you to leverage the diversity of your employees and leaders in joint problem solving. Collaboration sparks creative ideas, balances perspectives, and generates collective intelligence.
  • Ask different questions. When faced with complex problems and rapid change, it’s human nature to fall back on the familiar. Resist that temptation! This is the time to actively consider new approaches and to ask fresh questions that will guide you in a different direction. Forget the old hammer-and-nail solution; how else might you fix the problem?
  • Communicate concisely. In these information-overloaded, attention-poor times, clear and concise communication is more crucial than ever. It is a must if you are going to keep everyone on the same page and headed in the same direction. Develop a communication strategy, plan your message well, and keep your communication simple and to the point.
  • Stay on the path of integrity. Be intentional about making hard decisions that are best for the greater whole.

One final thought: don’t confuse agility with indecisiveness. If you have considered different perspectives, consulted with your experts, collaborated with your team, and contemplated innovative approaches, then make the best decision you can with the information available and move forward. Stay on the path and don’t waiver, even if the status quo is not in agreement with you.

I’d like to hear from you! How do you effectively manage multiple priorities? How could improving your agility make you a better leader? Leave a comment below.

To find out how SHAMBAUGH can help shape your leadership, please visit to learn more about SHAMBAUGH’s leadership development, employee engagement, and coaching services.

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Rebecca Shambaugh

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