Harvard Business Review: The Best Strategic Leaders Balance Agility and Consistency


The Best Strategic Leaders Balance Agility and Consistency 

John Coleman
© 2016 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.

From Harvard Business Review
Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate CONNECTING

The best performers are, of course, consistent. Consistent leaders work hard and show up on time. They set goals for themselves and their employees and they achieve them. They plan diligently and produce excellent products and experiences for clients, time and time again. Consumers expect consistent products; people appreciate consistent management.

But if organizational leaders are merely consistent, they risk rigidity. In changing environments, they can struggle to adapt and may cling to old habits and practices until those practices become counterproductive, distracting them from the more important new work that needs to be done.

On the other side of the spectrum, great leaders are agile. Markets demand that companies and people adapt and change constantly. The most-successful managers must change similarly as they assume additional or different responsibilities through their careers. Agility requires that they be intellectually curious, ready to learn from others, communicative, collaborative and willing to change.

But just as consistency can become rigidity, agility can become a lack of focus when it isn’t tempered by consistency. Purely agile leaders may be visionaries and change agents but lack the single-mindedness and dedication to execute their visions.

It’s in the combination of consistency and agility that leaders can become strategic, performing an organization’s purpose with excellence but changing course when the situation demands.

Of course, few individuals are equally consistent and agile, just as few people are ambidextrous. So how can leaders hold these traits in balance?

First, to paraphrase Socrates, “know thyself.” Are you more prone to consistency or agility? Do you thrive in situations of chaos and rapid change or in periods that require relentless pursuit of a clearly defined goal? If in doubt, ask a spouse, best friend or close work colleague — they almost always know.

With that understanding in hand, surround yourself with others who complement your traits. For managers, it’s wise to find a strong “number two” who can check your worst impulses and enhance your strengths. Empower those people to speak up and challenge you.

Complement this organization model with operational process. To ensure consistency, develop strong dashboards and balanced score cards to assure outcomes are consistently reached and continually improving. To assure agility, develop a fluid planning model that allows the organization to change outside of the formal annual planning process.

Finally, with these people and processes in place, seek to learn and grow. Make note of those traits you admire in others — those that complement your own — and find ways to practice them.

As leaders, all of us will be forced to balance consistency and agility in our careers and in the organizations we serve. Are you doing so today? If not, do you understand yourself and have you thought about the people and processes around you that can help move you into greater balance?

(John Coleman is a co-author of "Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders.”)

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