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What is an agile leader?


How flexible are your leadership abilities? Emma Oakley from RADA in Business gives us some advice about agility.

Modern leaders are expected to be many things and master many skills. From articulating vision, motivating staff, making difficult business choices, managing teams, strategy planning and leading meetings; the myriad challenges are vast, complex and ever-changing. The ability to think ahead, be responsive and to react well has never been more important so it is no surprise that in recent years the trend within L&D has been to develop ‘agile’ leaders. But what does this mean in practice?

Agile is a physical word and so to develop truly agile leaders we must not only nurture their mind but help develop the physical skills that enable senior managers and leaders to fully embody their leadership role. Leaders need to be flexible not just in thought and strategy, but vocally and physically in order to inspire and instil trust within their staff.

When I talk about agile leadership what I mean is developing leaders who have the flexibility to adopt many different behavioural styles, to become aware of their natural preferences for leadership, and to be confident in their ability to adapt how they communicate depending on the situation or challenge they’re facing. Just like an actor can play many parts, so too must a leader have the ability to be authoritative, intuitive, empathic and strategic in their communication and in the complexity of their leadership roles.

Much leadership training has, in the past, focused on knowledge: ensuring that emerging leaders have the academic resources to do their job well and manage their teams efficiently and effectively. Many leaders are therefore well-versed in what different leadership styles can accomplish but to become agile in using and adopting these it is vital that they practically experience and rehearse what these styles mean for their vocal and physical behaviour.

The vocal tone and posture we use when motivating our team varies greatly to how we would choose to tackle a difficult conversation with an underperforming member of staff. By exploring what it feels like to communicate with empathy and authenticity and then with gravitas and authority, leaders can develop their physical capabilities and skills, giving them more behavioural choices to draw on.

Physical agility in leadership means knowing that how you communicate is just as important as the message you are communicating. It means understanding that the choices you make in your vocal and physical behaviour will impact on others in different ways. It means recognising that listening and responding to the needs of your team and organisation are essential for building rapport and for being able to change your approach as necessary.

These may sound like obvious statements, but the opportunity to put theory into practice is rare. Through the physical rehearsal of practical skills, leaders can ensure that they have an arsenal of communication styles to draw on, and that they embody these styles so that they become natural and habitual rather than forced or ‘acted.’ By focusing on how leaders physically and vocally become authoritative, intuitive, empathetic and strategic, we can develop highly successful leaders who can fully engage with their role and who are able to be authentic and agile whatever the situation may demand.

Emma Oakley is a business development manager at RADA in Business. They offer theatre-based communications skills training, which draws on over a century of experience and expertise from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Through work on the body, breath and voice, they enable business people to become effective and engaging communicators and develop greater personal impact.  For more information on leadership click here

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