Agile Leadership: personal and organisational state management

A few years ago ‘bespoke’ was the buzzword. Last year it was ‘ramp up’. Nowadays agile is quite the term, but as always with such words, it has a very fuzzy meaning. So let’s be clear, I am not going to be discussing the Agile Movement (an alternative to project management), software development, a management consulting methodology or the SCRUM!

What I WILL be covering is a discussion on what agile leadership is, where it comes from, the role state and the unconscious play. There are many ways to assist a person or corporation to become more agile, so we’ll take a look at three and in conclusion discuss how personal change flows from leadership into corporate agility.

Early in 2017 the McKinsey Quarterly ran an article on the bank ING and how agile it had been in responding to market change.[Bart Schlatmann, COO of ING Netherlands was quoted as saying, “Agility means flexibility and the ability of an organization to rapidly adapt and steer itself in a new direction… It’s about empowering people; building stronger, more resilient professionals.”

That’s a really interesting turn of logic: stronger, resilient and empowered people undergird flexibility, adaptation and agility. Compare Bart’s statement with the definition of agility. Agility is the ability to move quickly and easily; to adapt, and remain strong and resilient through change. Which is exactly what Bart said. However the foundations of personal resilience, strength and speed are not uncovered in the definition. Go deeper and you will have to explore both state management (so that it is optimal to your task) and coherence between the various factions of the organisation so that it can accomplish rapid change. Personally speaking this means coherence between the conscious and the unconscious processes. Visually, we can show it this way:

FIGURE 1: The Agility Pyramid, R Holmes, 2016

Managing State

What we want is agility, but it starts with managing our state. What is state? It is the particular condition that someone (or a group of people) is in at a specific time. State changes from moment to moment, and may or may not be producing agility. It is also a rather complex beast, made up of physical, mental and biochemical elements… which produce physical, mental and biochemical responses in an endless series of feed-forward and feed-back loops.

For example, when you are happy (an emotion word we use to describe the state created by endorphins, serotonin and other neurochemistry) we smile, whistle and walk with a bounce in our step. Conversely, if we smile, whistle and walk with a bounce in our step we change our state, moving toward ‘happy’. Once we get our head around how malleable state is, we can begin to find choice about it.

Ian Snape from the Neurocoaching Institute observes that, “When we have choice about our state, we have the best possible opportunity to achieve our outcomes.”[ii] The outcome in this case is agility, and we wish to find a state that produces flexibility, strength and resilience. For example, we may wish to enhance our company’s agility in responding to increasing complexity in customer orders. In order to create less stress (more resilience) and quicker order-to-send times (speed) we might increase an employee’s autonomy to make choices. Autonomy is a state. The results are in from a live commercial experiment in agility through autonomy… SouthWest airlines past President Colleen Barrett famously empowered their flight attendants to make any decision, so long as it did not degrade the customer experience.[iii] That’s agility for you.

Let’s make this a bit more personal. Let’s say we have a staff member who cannot “do confrontation.” During confrontation he is neither agile, fast thinking or resilient. He goes into a rather unresourceful state manifested in nervousness, laughing, shaking and sickness.

How do we give him control (strength) and mental perspicacity (agility) back?

There are at least three models we can use to help him:

  • The jump to state model
  • Framing and reframing beliefs
  • Three inputs model


1. Jump to State Model

It is absolutely possible to instantly change your mood (state). Just consider the last time you felt amorous toward a partner, and it turned cold when they started discussing the neighbours, the news or your finances. Instant change.

I once saw a mother cleverly handle her child’s state and change it instantly. Her child was throwing a temper tantrum, face down on the ground, arms and legs flailing and yelling at the top of their voice. She stood him up (posture change), lifted his chin (breathing change) and asked him to smile when he yelled. The child fell silent and then giggled.

Anyone who does public speaking can attest to the power of techniques for calming down before going on stage. Power posing (as per Amy Cuddy[iv]), breathing exercises and anchoring state are among the favourites.

Undergird agility with instant state change by:
– Listening to favourite sound tracks.
– Meditation, prayer or mindfulness.
– Going for a walk or taking regular breaks.

Ian Snape’s research into state has found that asking a simple question can help: “Can you imagine the right state for mentoring (or coaching or a performance review)?” The answer is almost always yes, in which case Ian asks them to adopt that state, and they do. When people fall out of that state (which becomes obvious from posture, breathing, skin colour, words and emotions) he asks them, “Is this state helping you?” Paying attention is all that’s needed to go back to where they need to be.

2. Framing and Reframing Beliefs

Every situation and circumstance we have is framed by what’s going on in our head: our expectations, our stereotypes, our past experiences and our internal rules about how life should work and how we should be treated. Because everything is framed, it can be reframed, should we become aware that our state is not optimal.

Framing and reframing is a powerful way to assist agility for an individual, in an organisation and even in a society. Consider the way long haul freight companies and couriers frame our time frames for delivery. Parcel tracking provides us with a sense of control and enables us to inquire with more accuracy.

We can frame and reframe people’s expectations about travel times. For example in Melbourne the freeway system carries digitally updated billboards with “expected times to…” three locations further up the highway. You may have started on your journey expecting to cross town in thirty minutes, wound up in a traffic snarl and started to get angry. Now up come the travel times and your expectations get re-set, and you start to calm down. This is a great example of behavioural nudging at a grand scale.

Reframing can also work by discovering our internal rules. Anytime you hear “should” or “have to” you’re observing someone’s internal rules about the way the world works, or the way things should be. Checking on the validity of those rules helps people reframe, and sometimes dramatically increase their choice in a situation.

Undergird agility with reframing by:
– Providing the why to what people are doing (see Simon Sinek – “Start with Why”).
– Giving strong personal direction (set the boundaries for them).
– Casting clear vision for the group (lay out the roadmap and milestones).

Brazilian business maverick Richardo Semler, CEO of SemCo created corporate agility by turning the rules of business upside down, and empowering his employees.[v] He reframed the way business ran by giving them the power, or as he called it, “treating them like adults.” They were able to review executive performance, set their own salaries, move work units around, split the business up to make it more efficient and even close unprofitable areas.

3. Three Inputs Model

The last model (which you may have seen before in one of my articles), relies on an environmental form of management to build state change. It is also longer term and rarely instant. Individuals and companies can work on state change by altering any of the three inputs to state.[vi]

Neurology: includes our entire autonomic nervous system, brain, perception, stereotypes, psychology and thinking.

Physiology: is our body, movement, energy, eating, breathing and posture.

Biochemistry: the state of our blood chemistry, hormones, neurochemistry and the influence drugs and medications have on us.

FIGURE 2: State Circle, Ian Snape, 2015

3.1 Neurology

What we think about affects us. Being bitter, angry or resentful at work creates a different state than turning up thankful, grateful and happy. Our thoughts affect our state, and our state affects our output. What is the nature of your “water cooler” conversations?

I know one law firm who have a five minute stand up morning meeting every day. The only topic is to celebrate the day before. Everyone is encouraged to talk about something that went well. After working with them for two years I saw a dramatic improvement in productivity, interpersonal relationships, turn-over and stress levels.

Companies seeking to undergird agility with changes to neurology can:
– Investigate how our self-talk is.
– Become aware of the language being used, it belies our beliefs.
– Become aware of where attention is being put. That’s where you will go.

3.2 Physiology

Our state can be profoundly affected by the position and comfort of the skeletal framework, the correct operation of the nerves and autonomic nervous system, the operation of the lymphatic system via movement, macro and micro muscular movements. Think about the way a head-ache or back pain can affect your state. Remember that the physical system acts as an interface and can run both ways. Be happy and smile; smile and be happy.[vii]

Undergird agility with changes to physiology by:
– Employing an ergonomics consultant to check office furniture.
– Getting membership of a gym and consumption of water during the day.
– Spending 30 minutes a day exercising (see Dr Mike Evans 23 and ½ hours).

3.3 Biochemistry

We all come to work with varying levels of neurochemicals running around our body. Endorphins from exercise, cortisol from stress, adrenalin from anxiety, serotonin from our food, neurotoxins like coffee and alcohol all affect our state. Hormone levels from our age, gender and family genetic heritage and other chemicals from our medicine affect state too.

Once again these are two way cycles, being produced as a response to our environment, activity, rest, what we eat and medicines and also producing responses in our hunger, energy levels, attitude, perception and relational adaptivity.

Undergird agility with changes to biochemistry by:
– Helping staff follow the circadian (rest) rhythm (think Spanish siesta).
– Educating on the positive benefits of healthy eating and avoiding alcohol.
– Raising awareness by using a food diary and energy level rating system.

Accessing the Non-conscious

The thing about most of the processes outlined in these three models of state change is that they are almost all ‘non conscious.’

Consider your awareness of self-talk, your stance, breathing, sleep, the language you use regularly or the biochemical responses you are having right now. They are all operating beneath consciousness. You cannot see them, they are buried. To change state, we need to start becoming aware of what’s going on under the hood, to pick up the signals.

The non-verbal parts of our being: the right hemisphere, the heart and gut brain, and autonomic nervous system can’t use words. Those non-conscious processes do communicate with us through our natural reactions to things, the way we filter information based on past experiences, our flight or fight survival instinct, gut reactions and non-specific pain. So are we listening to their signals? Are we aware and trying to interpret the signals? Anyone who has gone through diagnosis of a dietary intolerance (e.g., gluten, nuts or lactose) will understand this process. It takes time to learn to trust instinct. But even organisations can learn to do it.

Consider the Toyota Corporation putting in the Andon cord system in their manufacturing process.[viii] After dividing each product assembly into lines, and each line into 5 workstations they instructed the staff in each workstation to “pull the cord” if they saw or sensed something was wrong. If a person did this, the entire factory production line stopped and the supervisor responded to the issue within 60 seconds. Now that’s agility.

Change Management

Imagine moving from the old way (factory) to the new way (agile and modular with empowered personnel). Such large scale change necessarily requires us to think about change management practise. Whilst this is not a discussion about change management, we must bring it to bear if we want agility to filter down.

Cultural change is most effective when it starts at the top. Indeed that’s where it started for SemCo and Toyota, with executives deciding to trust their staff. “Change leaders often fail to address culture… all successful change management initiatives start at the top, with desired change exhibited personally by leaders.” Lou Gerstner, IBM CEO[ix]

Imagine that we have begun to exhibit a will to change, our leaders are on board and a few people are beginning to take up the change. They will begin to share what they know, and influence those around them. Perhaps one affects three of their closest work mates, and eventually those three affect another seven, but because the message and impact is reduced by distance from the originator, four of those fall away and return to old ways of working. This process unfolds on down the line over time.

Once enough people in the organisation have managed state change (becoming more agile), culture change becomes possible. As culture changes there will be a natural propensity toward systemic change: policy, process and principle set agility in place. As systems set up the organisation for agility, it becomes change ready.

Change readiness is the ability to continuously initiate and respond to change in ways that create advantage, minimise risk, and sustain performance… which results in corporate agility. This self-reinforcing cycle can assist your organisation, and your own leadership to remain agile in the longer term.

FIGURE 3: Corporate Agility Cycle, R Holmes, 2017


[ii] Holmes, R., (2017). Limitless, pp59.

[iii] Hill, C., Jones, G., (2007). “Strategic Management: and Integrated Approach,” pp407.


[v] Semler, R., (1995). “Maverick!”

[vi] Snape, I., (2015). The Neurocoaching Manual, Section 3, pp4.


[viii] Willis, J., (2015). “The Andon Cord.”