At Work

Want to Be an Agile Leader? Be Innovative, Learning, and Empathetic

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In my previous posts (part 1 and part 2), we discussed the importance of having a balance of both hard and soft skills as leaders and employees in today’s job market as a way to develop agility in our leadership at work and at home. We also discussed how agile leaders are aware and generous, the first two letters in my acronym: 

A.G.I.L.E: Aware, Generous, Innovative, Learning, Empathetic

Today, we will explore how an A.G.I.L.E. leader is innovative, learning, and empathetic. 

Developing Innovative Leadership

Innovation is on the rise—or, at least, the conversation around it is. Keep in mind, it’s one thing to look innovative; it’s another thing to actually be innovative. Innovation is not simply reserved for those in IT or building technology. Every industry, company, business, institution, process, system, product, service, and person is ripe for innovation. The question is not, “Will you innovate?” but rather, “Are you innovating?” 

Leaders are no exception. For an agile leader to always be innovating, they must be aware of three days of innovation:

  1. Today: How well are you currently innovating?
  2. Yesterday: Where have you failed to innovate?
  3. Tomorrow: How can you begin innovating with an eye toward the horizon of the future?

Innovative and agile leaders always have a keen self-awareness of the people, processes, and products they are innovating. They ask lots of self-reflective questions about how to do things better, cheaper, faster, smarter. They know that innovation does not survive and thrive in silos but requires creative collaboration. Innovative leaders are not satisfied with “business as usual” but looking to disrupt how, where, what, when, and why things are done.

Jesus is another model for our leadership here. He primarily taught by asking questions. His approach often bucked the status quo, pushed against the “way things have always been” mentality, and led his followers and enemies to ask about the “why?” behind everything. 

Jesus was a cultural disruptor and an innovator not just in what he did but in why he did it, how he did it, and who he did it with. As the Creator made flesh, innovation was in his DNA. If we belong to him, we should pray for the Spirit to foster that in us, too. Jesus was in the people-changing business—he spent his time making people new. We can create and change lives too, if we trust him and empower his people to do likewise.

Being a Learning Leader

I’m naturally curious; have been since I was a kid. Then and now, I have a wondering mind and wandering legs—always moving, always thinking, always in learning mode. This is important for any leader. A leader is only as good as he is curious. A leader who thinks he knows it all… doesn’t.

Learning leaders are always in learning mode. Even when they are teaching others how to learn, they are still seeking to learn themselves. The leaders I remember and respect the most who had the deepest influence on me were those who didn’t always have all the answers and often answered questions with, “I don’t know.” Or they would ask more questions than they would offer answers. This shaped me into a deep thinker and questioner. To a fault, I ask lots of questions including, “Why do you think that?” or “That’s fascinating—where does that come from?” This only piques my curiosity more and leads me deeper into the adventure of learning. Call it “deep learning”: diving into a topic or thought with single-minded focus until I’ve explored all the depths I can. Leaders who lead with curiosity and a genuine desire to learn about other people, other viewpoints, and other ways of doing things become more knowledgeable and valuable to their team and company.

As followers of our master, rabbi, and teacher Jesus Christ, we should have a spirit of “always-learning” as he did. Jesus embodied grace and truth, but he would always place himself in a position to listen, learn, and serve others. It wasn’t because he didn’t know the answer to something, but rather to engage and teach his people in order to best serve their needs in a way that met them in their context and helped them become deeper learners as well. Too often, we chase knowledge and truth at the expense of truly learning others and letting the stories of their lives teach us.

Developing Empathetic Leadership

Empathy means more than just seeking to understand another person. It’s leaning in so close to the life of another person that you can’t help but experience their life as they do: their joys, pains, fears, dreams, strengths, weaknesses, goods, bads, ups, downs. It’s not learning about someone, but actually learning them. Not information but revelation. It’s a genuine desire to truly know another person. 

Leaders who lack empathy in the way they work or function in a team have lost their ability to relate as a human to other humans. This is true in both relationships and in business. If you don’t empathize with your significant other, you won’t know them, and they won’t feel known or loved. If you don’t empathize with your customer, they won’t trust you enough to pay you to solve their problems.

At its core, business is about people. And the essence of doing business is solving real problems of real people—not avatars, not users, not profiles, but human beings who have pains that need relieving.

An agile leader leads with the customer in mind through every decision. A brand is nothing without its loyal tribe of customers. And a tribe won’t be loyal to a brand that doesn’t empathize with their pains, problems, and needs. Good leaders seek to empathize with their people and their customers to make them feel valued, prized, and empowered to do business. This creates trust. Trust deepens loyalty. Loyalty leads to transactions.

Empathy was a major way that Jesus loved his followers and the people he served. Jesus is the greatest human example of empathy imaginable: leaving his throne in heaven to become human, to relate to men and women directly by becoming like us in every way. That is true empathy. 

As the Message says in John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” I love that—moved into the neighborhood! If we want to get to know our friends, neighbors, church community, city, and customers, we ought to be willing to move into their neighborhood. To feel what it feels to be them. To think what it thinks to be them. A healthy marriage and an effective parent alike can learn the power of empathy to love their spouse or child in the most powerful way.

An AGILE Leader

I’ve developed and used the AGILE leader not as a flawless model, but as a guide to lead me and a goal to strive for in my leadership. I have witnessed that leaders who are aware, generous, innovative, learning, and empathetic are able to develop the soft and hard skill and the agility to become better leaders and better people.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on Medium and has been adapted with permission from the author. You can read the original version here.

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