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Adapting Executive Leadership Styles for a More Agile Environment

Author Ella Napata |

May 26, 2023

Adapting Executive Leadership Styles for a More Agile Environment

Due to disruptive technologies, traditional command-and-control structures are less effective. To stay competitive, startups adopt agile methodologies emphasizing flexibility, collaboration, and continuous improvement. This article explores the rise of agile and why organizations embrace this radical change. It highlights its benefits and challenges in transitioning to an agile mindset and leadership style.

Adapting Executive Leadership Styles for a More Agile Environment

The Rise of Agile: Why Companies Are Embracing Radical Change

The business world is changing at an unprecedented pace. New technologies are disrupting entire industries, consumer habits are shifting, and companies must adapt quickly to stay competitive. Traditional command-and-control leadership styles and rigid business practices are becoming obsolete in this changing environment.

What Does Agile Mean to Companies?

More and more companies are embracing agile methodologies to keep up with the accelerating speed of change. Agile refers to a set of practices that emphasize flexibility, collaboration, and continuous improvement. Agile companies operate in a highly iterative way, releasing products and services in short, rapid cycles and continually adapting based on customer feedback.

Agile Transformation

Agile transformation is sweeping through companies of all sizes and across all sectors. According to a recent survey, 97% of organizations today are practicing agile in some form. The agile approach fuels innovation at leading tech companies like Google, Netflix, and Spotify. It also boosts performance at more traditional companies such as John Deere, Barclays, and Ford.

The Benefits of Being Agile

The benefits of agile are clear: faster time to market, improved customer satisfaction, increased ability to pivot, and a more engaged workforce. However, transitioning from a traditional to an agile operating model is challenging. It requires a radical organizational shift in culture, processes, and mindsets.

Executive Mindset Shift to Agile

Executives often need help with the cultural and leadership aspects of agile transformation. To successfully guide their companies through this transition, executives must develop an agile mindset and learn a new collaborative, adaptive, and growth-oriented way of working. The rewards of this hard work are worth it, enabling innovation and business performance that would be impossible in a traditional command-and-control environment. 

The Challenges of Transitioning From Command-and-Control to Agile

The shift from a traditional command-and-control leadership style to an agile leadership approach is difficult for most executives. It requires fundamentally changing how you think about your role and how your organization operates. 

Executives Must Build Trust and Be Versatile

Executives are used to being in control and having a concrete plan and vision that they systematically roll out. Agile environments, on the other hand, emphasize flexibility, adaptation, and emergent solutions. Executives have to get comfortable with more ambiguity and less predictability. They must learn to trust their teams and delegate more decision-making to those closest to work.


This is a difficult transition, and there needs to be a roadmap. Executives must figure it out as they learn from successes and failures. The tendency is to fall back into more familiar command-and-control behaviors, especially when under stress. Adopting an agile mindset and leadership style requires conscious effort and practice.

What are the challenges Executives Face When Transitioning?

Some of the most prominent challenges executives face include:

  • Giving up the illusion of certainty and learning to adapt to change. Agile environments constantly evolve and shift, so leaders must get comfortable with ambiguity and quickly adjust.
  • Empowering teams and trusting others to make decisions. This means delegating authority and avoiding micromanagement, even if it is uncomfortable.
  • Fostering collaboration over hierarchy, breaking down silos and power structures, and encouraging cross-functional cooperation. This can disrupt existing dynamics and politics within the organization.
  • Adopting a growth mindset. Seeing change and uncertainty as opportunities rather than threats. Having the willingness to learn and experiment rather than needing to appear as an all-knowing expert.

The transition to agile leadership is challenging, but for executives who can make the mindset and behavioral shifts, the rewards of a more flexible, collaborative, and growth-oriented organization are well worth the effort. 

Developing a Startup Mindset: How Executives Can Cultivate an Agile Mindset

To lead an agile organization, executives must cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset. This means developing a willingness to experiment, take risks, and accept failure as part of the process. Executives accustomed to command-and-control leadership often need help with this transition. However, agile companies value innovation, creativity, and the ability to pivot quickly.

Startup Mindset

Adopting a “startup mindset” is critical. It requires dropping assumptions and egos to see opportunities. Executives must become passionate advocates for new ideas and help teams overcome obstacles.

Embrace Ambiguity and Change

Another aspect of the startup mindset is embracing ambiguity and change. In dynamic environments, strategies and priorities shift rapidly. Executives need to accept some degree of chaos and unpredictability. They must get comfortable with “making it up as they go along” at times based on imperfect information. This is a very different mindset from large corporations’ typical strategic planning processes.

Keep Up With the Latest Innovations

Executives should immerse themselves in their industry’s latest innovations to cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset. They must ask probing questions about how new technologies or business models could impact their company. Executives should also engage with founders and venture capitalists to understand what fuels them. They may even consider investing in or advising a startup to experience what it’s like to build a company from scratch.

Transitioning to agile leadership is challenging, but adopting a startup mindset helps executives discover their inner entrepreneurs. With passion, curiosity, and a high tolerance for risk and uncertainty, executives can propel their organizations to new heights through innovation and adaptability. 

Fostering Collaboration Over Hierarchy

Traditional corporate leadership is built on hierarchy and top-down decision-making. Executives sit at the top, issuing orders to managers and teams below them. In contrast, agile leadership relies on collaboration and cross-functional teamwork. Instead of rigid silos and chains of command, information flows freely across the organization.

Break Silios and Shift to Horizontal Leadership

Executives must break down silos and shift to more horizontal leadership to cultivate collaboration. This means opening up communication channels across teams and empowering employees to make decisions without micromanagement. It requires executives to trade complete control and authority for shared leadership.

Reorganizing Company Structure

One approach is reorganizing the company structure around cross-functional teams rather than business units or job functions. These teams should have the autonomy and authority to set priorities and determine how to achieve key outcomes. Executives can also rotate managers across different teams to help break down silos.

Transparency and Communication

Another critical strategy is improving transparency and communication. Executives should share strategic priorities, key challenges, and metrics with teams across the organization. Collaboration tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams can facilitate communication and connect across the organization.

Model Collaborative Behavior

It is also essential for executives to model collaborative behavior. They can do this by openly discussing key decisions, inviting input from various stakeholders, and being willing to change directions based on feedback. When executives are eager to listen, learn, and adapt, others can do the same.

The transition from hierarchy to shared leadership is challenging, but by breaking down silos, improving transparency, and modeling collaboration, executives can successfully shift to a more agile leadership approach. While it requires giving up some control, it leads to a more engaged, innovative, and growth-oriented culture—which benefits both individuals and the organization.

Giving Up Illusions of Certainty and Learning to Adapt

Traditional leadership models were built on the illusion of certainty and predictability. Executives were expected to have a vision, set strategic plans, and drive results. Agile leaders must give up the illusion of control and become comfortable operating amid ambiguity.

Be Open to Changes and Feedback

This can be deeply uncomfortable for executives used to structured planning and commanding teams. However, agile leaders view ambiguity as an opportunity rather than a threat. They develop the flexibility and openness to change direction quickly based on new information. Instead of rigidly sticking to plans, they make incremental changes and learn as they go, adapting to feedback and insights from customers and employees.

Empower Teams to Solve Problems

Learning to thrive amid uncertainty also means giving up the need to be the hero with all the answers. Executives must empower teams to solve problems themselves rather than dictate solutions. They should ask probing questions to determine root causes and gain new perspectives before jumping in with answers. Admitting what you don’t know and relying on others for input cultivates an agile mindset.

See Failures and Mistakes as Opportunities

Operating in ambiguity also requires resilience in the face of obstacles or setbacks. Agile leaders see failures and mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow rather than reasons to blame or punish. They maintain an optimistic and growth-oriented mindset, focusing on progress over perfection. With resilience and determination, ambiguity and uncertainty become a source of possibility rather than anxiety.

The transition to agile leadership is challenging but also rewarding. Giving up the illusion of control and certainty is liberating. Agile leaders gain flexibility, openness to new ideas, and the ability to thrive in dynamic, unpredictable environments. 

Why the Hard Work of Agile Leadership Pays Off: The Benefits of a Flexible, Growth-Oriented Mindset

The path to agile leadership is not easy, but the rewards make the challenging journey worthwhile. By cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset, breaking down hierarchies, and embracing uncertainty, executives can position themselves—and their organizations—for success in a fast-changing world.

Leaders can Quickly Adapt and Seize New Opportunities

With a flexible and growth-oriented mindset, they spot trends ahead of competitors and make strategic pivots to stay ahead of the curve. They are comfortable with rapid experimentation and failure, seeing both as a means of learning. This ability to evolve and change direction quickly gives agile organizations a competitive advantage.

Benefit From Collective Insight and Expertise

Collaborative and transparent leadership styles also pay off. Agile leaders benefit from their people’s collective insights and expertise by empowering teams and trusting employees to make decisions. They tap into a broader range of perspectives and the creativity that emerges from cross-functional collaboration. Employees, in turn, feel more engaged and motivated when they have a say in crucial outcomes.

Build Resilient Leadership

Learning to operate amid uncertainty and ambiguity results in more resilient leadership. Agile executives can think clearly in ambiguous circumstances and make confident decisions based on imperfect information. They view volatility as an opportunity rather than a threat. This ability to navigate unpredictability with flexibility and openness to change makes agile leaders well-suited for the increasing complexity of today’s world.

Take the Step Towards Becoming an Agile Leader

Transitioning to agile leadership is challenging, but the rewards are well worth the effort for executives and organizations that cultivate the right mindset and skills. With adaptability, collaboration, and comfort with ambiguity, agile leaders are poised to thrive in a fast-changing and unpredictable business landscape. They have built organizations that can pivot rapidly to stay on the cutting edge.

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