Achieving High Performance with Leader Athletes

Jan 24, 2019

By AMA Staff

Today's elite athletes are performing at levels few can hope to achieve, yet with each race, each competition, they consistently demonstrate the capacity to push themselves and reach heights once thought unobtainable. In the business world, it should be the goal of every leader to emulate world-class athletes. This is a reachable objective and we see examples of exceptional adaptability and agility as chief among common traits shared by leaders of high performing organizations.

Outstanding leaders have traditionally been associated with coaches rather than athletes. They guide, teach, motivate and inspire. But they are not usually thought of as demonstrating the dynamic, heroic effort of sports figures in the course of leading companies. But that's changing quickly.

The ability to recognize and anticipate the next challenge is the hallmark of many great athletes, and there's a certain attitude that goes with agile athletes. They thrive on change because that's where they excel. "Agile leaders aren't afraid of change—they embrace it rather than try to manage it and they encourage those around them to do the same," states i4cp's CEO Kevin Oakes. "It really is about being fearless, and some leaders are better at this than others."

The Institute for Corporate Productivity's research indicates that the agile athlete is an apt metaphor for what it takes to execute strategy that results in success. In partnership with Professor Bill Joiner, coauthor of the book Leadership Agility, The Institute conducted the Organizational and Leadership Agility survey in February 2010, finding that the agility of leaders seems to be strongly linked to organizational performance.

In his recent  Webinar, Joiner notes, "Accelerating change and growing inter-dependence are continually raising the bar for the level of agility needed for sustained competitive advantage."  Yet, fewer than a third of respondents in the study ranked their company as being largely proactive in anticipating and initiating changes needed for sustained high performance. Nearly half of companies that have already achieved a level of high performance say the same, however.

Respondents from these high-performance organizations are about twice as likely as those from low-performance companies to report that their top executives set clear expectations for agile executive leadership behavior to a high or very high extent. The same pattern holds true for the statement, "Our top executives model agile leadership behavior" (36% vs. 18%).

The performance disparity is even greater when looking at leadership selection. Study participants from high-performing organizations were nearly three times as likely to say their selection and/or promotion criteria include leadership agility to a high or very high extent. Similarly, those from high performing organizations were over three times as likely to report that their reward systems include leadership agility measures.

In short, high-performance organizations are considerably more likely to model, clarify, select for and reward agile leadership behaviors among executives. Yet, a scant 40% of respondents said their organizations are adept at recognizing and responding to strategic challenges in a timely manner, and just 32% said they are proactive in anticipating and initiating the changes needed for sustained high performance beyond their immediate strategic challenges.

Another driving factor behind the need for leadership agility and ability is the increasingly interconnected nature of the business world. We asked participants about the extent to which their corporate success depends on the collective ability of their executives to work effectively with customers, suppliers, business partners and other stakeholder groups. Four out of five respondents said it was important to a high or very high extent.

To work effectively in a dynamic and interconnected business environment, organizations are trying to develop the equivalent of executive athletes, people who are —organizationally speaking—nimble, strong, quick and smart. These people should be able to cope in a complex work environment filled with many different players, and they should be able to recognize and respond to strategic challenges, largely because of their ability to see patterns and anticipate changes and equip others to do the same.

"Leadership in this new era of rapid change is about empowering others to decide for their selves and empowering others to reach their full potential. Leaders can no longer view strategy and execution as abstract concepts, but must realize that both elements are ultimately about people (transformational leadership)," says Col. Dann Pettit, Director of Operations at the Oklahoma Air National Guard.

Being agile is also about getting the best out of team members, knowing when to "pass the ball," set the tone and provide good direction. In fact, our study shows that participants from high-performing organizations are over three times more likely to say that they "create highly participative, accountable teams where candid dialog and creative problem solving is the norm."

The Institute for Corporate Productivity's (ic4p) Recommendations:

  1. Ensure that your executives set clear expectations for agile leadership behavior. Such behaviors should be clearly communicated and woven into the leadership development process. Organizations should also require executives to model such leadership behaviors, and this should be part of the performance assessment process.
  2. Select and promote based on leadership agility criteria; that is, promotion and succession planning decisions should be based, at least in part, on candidates' display of leadership agility behaviors.
  3. Ensure that your executives do not send mixed messages about the desirability of candid conversation and feedback. Our study finds that such "mixed messages" are the single most widely cited barrier to a leadership agility culture.
  4. Use benchmarking and networking practices to discover what other high-performance organizations are doing to lead change in today's complex environment. For those practices that mesh with your organization's business plan, inquire about executive development programs. Ask questions such as:
    • What are your most effective tactics for developing agile leaders?
    • How do you implement those tactics?
    • How do you encourage and reward agile behaviors?
    • What are the most important lessons you've learned in term of acquiring and developing agile leaders?

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About The Author

American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.