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Leadership Agility: It’s All In Your Head

Ann Herrmann-Nehdi, Herrmann International

Ann Herrmann-Nehdi, CEO of Herrmann International, contributed this article to BusinessNewsDaily's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

In a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world, where change comes fast and unpredictability and complexity are all around us, agility has become the order of the day. As the Forbes article, Agility: The Ingredient that Will Define the Next Generation of Leadership, put it, business leaders have to be “able to handle any curve ball thrown their way.” 

If you’re a leader, you know this feeling all too well. Today’s environment is demanding that we be flexible, adaptable and adept at simultaneously managing diverse, evolving objectives, priorities, people and strategies without sacrificing results. 

But what does it take, in a practical sense? What are the skills and tools that make it possible to be agile?

As Ned Herrmann, a pioneer in the study of thinking and business performance, would say, you already have access to the best tool available: the brain. 

Every leadership competency is being impacted by the need for greater agility and all of these skills and requirements have one thing in common: They’re rooted in thinking. Our research has shown that the way people prefer to think impacts how they approach interactions, decisions, problems and every other aspect of work and management. By understanding and then optimizing their thinking for the situation, leaders can increase their agility and overall effectiveness exponentially across the board.

Thinking as the catalyst for leadership agility

To get more agile, first consider the way you prefer to think and how it impacts your attention and focus, your approach to the job and your interactions with others. A validated thinking styles assessment like the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), which Herrmann developed while heading up management education at General Electric, can be used to identify and evaluate your degrees of preference for different modes of thinking, but you can start by asking yourself a few questions:

  • What are my natural inclinations in terms of how I like to think, solve problems and make decisions?
    • Do I follow the mantra “just the facts,” focusing on data and logical reasoning? 
    • Do I prefer a methodical, step-by-step approach with detailed, clear direction?
    • Do I like a collaborative process, keeping in mind how the decisions might affect others?
    • Do I rely on my intuition, preferring to challenge assumptions and focus on the “big picture”?
  • What styles of thinking do I least prefer and therefore, likely avoid? What might I be missing as a result?
  • How do others approach situations, and when and why might those approaches be useful?

Break out of your mental comfort zones

We tend to spend our time in the comfort zone of our thinking preferences. They’re almost like mental defaults. But when you consider the varying challenges leaders are facing — from meeting key business and project requirements within tight resource and time constraints to addressing diverse customer needs and staying ahead of market trends — it’s clear there is a need for all styles of thinking. The good news is, preferences are just that: While you may prefer certain modes of thinking over others, you have access to all styles.

This isn’t about forsaking your natural preferences; instead it’s about using them more effectively and refusing to allow yourself to be trapped by them. Agile leaders have to be able to see beyond their mental blind spots and know when to bring in the balance of thinking and perspectives they need. 

Use all the brainpower available to you

In a business climate dominated by complex problems with no clear-cut answers and no obvious precedents, leaders need to be able to embrace ambiguity by taking control of their mental processes and shifting their thinking to look at problems, tasks and people in a new way. The need for speed, focus and flexibility all require leaders who can fully leverage their preferences, stretch to other styles when necessary, and adapt to and take advantage of the thinking around them.

Consider these key questions for everyday agility:

  • What are the mental demands of the situation, task or problem?
  • If I need to shift to a different mode of thinking, what does that look like? How will I do it? 
  • How do I “make friends” with that part of my brain so I’m more comfortable using it? 
  • What are the thinking preferences of those around me, and how can I leverage their styles to “fill in the gaps”?

4 quick tips for increasing your thinking agility

Be more conscious of your mental processes and patterns; don’t get stuck in “autopilot.”

Ask for feedback and recognize that when there are complaints or problems, it’s an opportunity for learning — thinking preferences might be getting in the way.

Schedule your thinking time. Too often we take thinking for granted, especially in today’s 24/7 environment. Even if it’s ten minutes a day, make a point to stop and think to get your focus and stay on track.

Practice building your mental muscles and thinking power by finding opportunities to become more conscious of your thinking. Learn a foreign language. Try some brain-teaser exercises. Break out of your mental comfort zones!

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher.