The Five Levels of Leadership Agility

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs

Welcome to business in the 21st century, where accelerating change and growing complexity are now the norm. To make it in today’s global economy, companies need to anticipate and respond to a wide variety of rapidly-changing conditions. Highly adaptive companies require managers who can effectively lead organizational change, build teams, and navigate challenging business conversations. In other words, today’s world requires a new breed of agile leaders.

Research conducted for our book, Leadership Agility: Five Levels of Mastery for Anticipating and Initiating Change (Jossey Bass, 2007, $29.95), reveals that leaders develop agility by moving through five hierarchical stages: Expert, Achiever, Catalyst, Cocreator, and Synergist.

Heroic vs. Postheroic Leadership
Managers at the Expert and Achiever levels of agility have what David Bradford and Allan Cohen (Power Up, Wiley, 1998) call a heroic leadership mind-set. They assume sole responsibility for setting objectives, coordinating subordinates’ activities, and managing their performance.

However, sustained success in an increasingly turbulent business environment requires the postheroic leadership capabilities that emerge at the Catalyst level of agility and beyond. Postheroic managers retain ultimate accountability and authority, but they also create highly participative teams and organizations characterized by shared commitment. Significantly, our research indicates that only about 10% of today’s managers operate at postheroic levels of leadership agility.

As managers grow into each new agility level, they develop new leadership capabilities, yet they also retain the capacities and skills developed at previous levels. The following summary outlines the leadership style found at each level of agility, and it identifies how managers at each level engage in three kinds of leadership practices: leading organizational change, leading teams, and navigating pivotal conversations (discussions whose outcomes either contribute to or detract from achieving important organizational objectives).

The Expert

  • Leadership Style: Tactical, problem-solving orientation. Believes a leader’s power depends upon expertise and positional authority.
  • Leading Organizational Change: Organizational initiatives focus primarily on incremental improvements inside unit boundaries with little attention to stakeholders.
  • Leading Teams: More of a supervisor than a manager. Creates a group of individuals rather than a team. Usually too caught up in details to lead in a strategic manner.
  • Navigating Pivotal Conversations: Style is either to strongly assert opinions or hold back to accommodate others. May swing from one style to the other, particularly for different relationships. Tends to avoid giving or requesting feedback.

The Achiever

  • Leadership Style: Strategic, outcome orientation. Believes that power comes not only from authority and expertise but also from motivating others.
  • Leading Organizational Change: Organizational initiatives include analysis of industry environment. Strategies to gain stakeholder buy-in range from one-way communication to soliciting input.
  • Leading Teams: Operates like a full-fledged manager. Meetings to discuss important issues are often orchestrated to try to gain buy-in to own views.
  • Navigating Pivotal Conversations: Primarily assertive or accommodative, with some ability to compensate with less preferred style. Will often accept feedback, if helpful in achieving desired outcomes.

The Catalyst

  • Leadership Style: Visionary, facilitative orientation. Believes that leaders articulate an innovative, inspiring vision and empower people to transform the vision into reality.
  • Leading Organizational Change: Organizational initiatives often include development of a culture that promotes teamwork, participation, and empowerment. Proactive engagement with diverse stakeholders reflects belief that their input increases the quality of decisions.
  • Leading Teams: Acts as team leader and facilitator to create a highly participative team. Welcomes open exchange of views on difficult issues. Empowers direct reports and uses team development as a vehicle for leadership development.
  • Navigating Pivotal Conversations: Adept at balancing assertive and accommodative tendencies as needed. Proactive in seeking feedback. Genuinely interested in learning from diverse viewpoints.

The Cocreator

  • Leadership Style: Oriented toward shared purpose and collaboration. Believes leadership is ultimately a service to others.
  • Leading Organizational Change: Develops key stakeholder relationships characterized by deep levels of mutual influence and genuine dedication to the common good. May create companies or units where corporate responsibility is an integral practice.
  • Leading Teams: Develops collaborative leadership teams, where members feel fully responsible not only for their own areas but also for the organization they collectively manage.
  • Navigating Pivotal Conversations: Style reflects an integration of assertive and accommodative tendencies. Able to process and seriously consider negative feedback even when highly charged emotionally.

The Synergist

  • Leadership Orientation: Holistic orientation. Experiences leadership as participation in a palpable sense of life purpose that benefits others while serving as a vehicle for personal transformation.
  • Leading Organizational Change: Maintains a deep, empathetic awareness of conflicting stakeholder interests, including their own. Able to access synergistic intuitions that transform seemingly intractable conflicts into solutions beneficial for all.
  • Leading Teams: Capable of moving fluidly between various team leadership styles. Can amplify or shape group energy dynamics to bring about mutually beneficial results.
  • Navigating Pivotal Conversations: Cultivates a present-centered awareness that augments external feedback and supports a strong, subtle connection with others, even during challenging conversations.

While Synergists (just 1% of today’s managers) may represent the long-term future of effective leadership, the vital challenge most companies face today is the need to develop Achievers at the upper levels into Catalysts, and Experts at the lower and middle levels into Achievers. Companies cannot be expected to become highly adaptive if their managers are stalled at twentieth-century levels of agility. In this uncertain era, the most successful companies will be those who provide the training and coaching needed to help everyone develop to the next level. And that is a very agile thing to do.

Ascending the leadership ranks requires being able to adapt to different managerial situations. Find out how to get your foot in the managerial door with this AMA Webinar.

About the Author(s)

Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs are founding principals of ChangeWise, a leadership and organization development firm with offices in Boston and San Francisco, and authors of the newly released Leadership Agility: Five Levels of Mastery for Anticipating and Initiating Change (Jossey Bass, 2007, $29.95.) To reach them and learn more about this topic, visit