Agility is Today’s Most Critical Leadership Competency

A friend who coaches a girls soccer team recently shared, that after a tough loss, one of her 13-year-old players said, “Well, you know coach, you either win or you learn.” Yeah! We really are coming to appreciate the value of failure and experiments that don’t go exactly as expected.

But it’s not just mistakes that have value; there’s tremendous instructive power in successes as well. In fact, what distinguishes today’s most effective leaders is that they learn from everything and everyone they encounter. They demonstrate learning agility.

Why learn agility now?

No one will argue that today’s business climate is more dynamic and changeable than ever before. Many have written about the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world within which we must operate. As a result, businesses must become increasingly agile. This demands flexible, highly responsive strategies as well as leaders who are:

  • Expansive, possibility-oriented thinkers, able to recognize patterns, connect dots, and see changing conditions before others do;
  • Collaborative, inclusive, and curious;
  • Able to act quickly, set new direction, make smart but fast decisions, and engage in focused experimentation; and
  • Equally comfortable improvising as necessary and also translating those improvised moves that worked into codified strategies, systems, processes and tools that help the organization continue to evolve.

Given this expanded job description, it’s no longer viable for leaders to rely exclusively upon today’s knowledge, skills, approaches, and strategies. In the words of author Marshall Goldsmith, “What got you here won’t get you there.” The ability to learn, develop and grow is today’s only sustainable competitive advantage. Hence the importance of learning agility.

Learning agility defined

While definitions abound, two, in particular, paint a vivid picture of what learning agility is and why it’s important.

According to Bersin & Associates, learning agility is a:

Competency or capability which describes a person’s speed to learn. In most businesses, this skill is considered one of the most important factors in great leadership.

Korn/Ferry International builds upon this description, defining learning ability as the:

Ability and willingness to learn from experience, and then apply that learning to perform successfully under new situations.

And since both definitions include a focus on competencies, capabilities, and ability, the good news for anyone interested in improving performance and organizational impact is that learning agility can be learned!

Any dog can learn new tricks

Enhancing learning agility need not be a complicated undertaking. It requires no organizational mandate, initiative, or training. It comes down to a few key practices that leaders at any level can experiment with and implement informally on their own. Want to be a more agile learner? Try the following:

  • Anticipate learning potential in every opportunity. Nearly every encounter, job, or assignment contains the possibility for learning if approached with intentionality. Taking even a moment to pause and consider what you might learn from a situation reinforces your intention and enhances your receptivity to new insights that might present themselves.
  • Invite and appreciate feedback. It can frequently take years of hard-knock experience to come to an awareness that others knew from the start. One of the quickest ways to learn—about ourselves or anything else—is from others. But this only works when there’s a genuine appetite and appreciation for feedback from others.
  • Assume new responsibilities, take risks, and stretch yourself. Different experiences and tough assignments provide the most fertile ground for testing ideas, approaches, and yourself. Whether you succeed or not, you’ll have more fodder for learning and development when undertaking something novel rather than doing the same old thing.
  • Mine experiences for insights. Each experience offers a wealth of information—if we take the time to reflect on it. But, too frequently, we don’t.

We had the experience but missed the meaning.

— T.S. Eliot in “The Dry Salvages”

It’s easy to “miss the meaning” when you’re in the proverbial hamster wheel of activity. That’s why building greater learning agility can be as simple as pausing routinely throughout the day to ask:

  • What did I learn from that?
  • Where else can I use this information/skill?

So, whether you win or lose, succeed or fail, learning can still be the prize for leaders who possess learning agility.


Julie Winkle Giulioni
Julie Winkle Giulioni
Julie Winkle Giulioni is a guardian of growth, defender of development, and promoter of potential in today’s workplace. She’s the author of  Promotions Are So Yesterday: Redefine Career Development. Help Employees Thrive and co-author of the international bestseller, Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want. Named one of Inc. Magazine’s Top 100 speakers, Julie offers memorable and actionable live and virtual keynotes and presentations worldwide. Julie is a regular columnist for Training Industry Magazine, SmartBrief, and contributes her thought leadership around career development and workplace trends to The Economist and other publications. You can keep up with Julie through her blogLinkedIn and Twitter.

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  1. It is a strategic issue of great importance for organizations at a time of profound change, in the midst of the crisis caused by the Covid19 pandemic and the need to cope with a new normality in the company as well.
    The HR Department in particular today has the task of applying the principles of learning agility in the right way according to the specificities of its organization, extracting and re-adapting behavior models, making people and groups develop that propensity for learning that allows them to respond in fast and efficient way to meet the challenges of the future.
    If our goal is to achieve success in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) environment we need to understand our ability to adapt and try to minimize our resistance to change.

    • Well said, Aldo. And I might build upon your thought. While HR may be playing a lead role in this now, I really believe the key is to help leaders promote and enable agile learning and development directly with their staffs. Given that the bulk of learning opportunities are informal and in-the-workflow, imagine the results when leaders can coach and guide people toward the organic development that presents itself day-in and day-out! Organizations that crack the code on this will be the winners in our VUCA world. Thank you so much for commenting. I look forward to hearing more of your thinking!

  2. It is such a sea change that finally soft skills and not just what we know but how we know it gets priority.

    You write leaders need to be
    “- Expansive, possibility-oriented thinkers, able to recognize patterns, connect dots, and see changing conditions before others do;
    – Collaborative, inclusive, and curious;”

    The formidable part is that if leaders truly follow the second of these points, half of the other points may come from the organization. Somebody else may connect dots – and be heard. Somebody else may recognize a pattern – and be heard.

    But unless we allow that not only people with “leader” in their title can think and have have an interest in the bigger picture, organizational agility is hard to come by. Unfortunately, “not invented here” blocks a lot of learning both vertically and horizontally.

    • Really good point, Charlotte. I contributed to a book back in the ’80’s, Everyone a Leaders. Unfortunately the message still has a ways to go in many organizations. But, as you mention, in environments characterized by curiosity, inclusivity, collaboration, and a deep appreciation that everyone at every level has the capacity to contribute, the possibilities are endless! And it all leads back to your opening comment… placing greater emphasis on those ‘soft’ skills (which we know are the hardest to master!) Thank you for taking the time to respond, Charlotte.

  3. Great analogy, Jeff. I particularly appreciate the idea of saying ‘no’ and even stopping. Most of us have cultivated such a bias toward action that pausing is anathema to us. So we scrambling unproductively wasting valuable resources and energy… just so we could feel like we’re doing something. Agile leaders can take a beat, take a breath, and take in the big picture… making their actions more effective in the long run. Thanks for being my first comment on this wonderful BizCatalyst360 platform!

  4. Appreciate your thinking.

    Implied or embedded here is the ability to recognize and say “No,” and I’ll use a sports analogy only because it’s expedient. In American football, runners are trained and coached to run on a north/south line, i.e. forward toward the goal line. But good runners, the agile runner, will move east or west – and sometimes fake east or west – if the north/south route says “No.”

    Agility is a critical skill, but as you say, it’s the ability to recognize patterns and see changing conditions and react that is the underlying quality. In short, sometimes changing directions and even stopping – saying No – to see the forest and the trees are hallmarks of the agile leader.