Agency: The Vital Center of Leader Action

Building capacity for aligned acts of leadership at all levels

There is no more emblematic aspect of leadership, especially in the West, than our freedom to choose, to initiate purposive action, and to persevere and adaptively change our approach to the goal in the face of resistance or opposition. All of these qualities are expressions of human agency and they’re especially vital to anyone in a position[1] to lead.  

It is tempting to stop right here, relishing the power and productive force of this personal quality, but it’s proper expression and systemic effects require us to consider more. As Oliver Wendell Holmes was wont to say, it is simplicity on the other side of complexity that is most valuable! Let me explain. 

Deconstructing Personal Agency for Leaders

First, there is the rational component. Agency implies the rational capacities of self-consciousness, the ability to formulate purpose and goals in the context of means-end problem solving, and the will to choose and act. Let’s call this instrumental reason.  

Second, there is the normative component. Agency implies judgment concerning the “oughtness” or appropriateness of purposes, goals, and actions, usually with respect to some standards of what is good, right, and proper. Let’s call this moral reason.  

Third, there is a social-relational component. Agency as a self-conscious function of instrumental and moral action implies attunement to others (stakeholders in the widest sense) who will be involved in and affected by our actions. Let’s call this relational reason

Fourth, there is a deliberative component, informed, prompted, and guided by two kinds of mental processing, intuitive and ratiocinative[2]. The former is our immediate felt sense of things, the latter is our analytical mind at work. Let’s call the reflective use of both integrative reason

Life-long development yields a broadening and deepening of experience. It advances learning, and creates opportunities to mature holistically in all aforementioned aspects human agency. This is a kind of adult identity development that produces wisdom, prudential judgment, and moral virtue in leaders. It is a multi-dimensional picture of what excellence looks like in mature executive[3] agency. 

Cultivating Agency in Emerging Leaders

You can readily see that a mature state of agency arises from multiple modalities of mind. Although agency is distinguished most directly as initiative, the readiness to act, in its mature form this “bias” or inclination to act is moderated. These moderating influences include moral development, prosocial relational tendencies, cognitive abilities, and openness to learning. So, cultivating a mature quality of executive agency is a complex developmental task, which each person must navigate…but not alone. 

With that in mind, we might conceptualize and design a new approach to emerging leader development. Here are a few research-based design principles (thesis points) that seem essential to this purpose:

  1. Holistic development of the person as leader takes time (we believe six months) for the leader to really get traction, and for it to manifest at the organizational level.
  2. It requires a deeper level of self-examination than is implied by a review of leader competencies alone (thus we developed the Leader Identity Questionnaire™).
  3. It involves a focused application and integration of critical insights and developmental action (this power is realized by means of a special kind of business-relevant action learning).
  4. It requires all to participate (not only HR, but management, supervisor, coach, coachee, and a cohort of peers), and it yields developmental and performance benefits to all.
  5. It requires a simple, practical approach to measurement to validate impact, show management it works, and to bolster engagement of the emerging leader.  

A half-baked approach, one which over-emphasizes action at the expense of insight, or one that promotes EQ without connecting it to consequential action, may help some, but it will miss the mark that we are aiming for. And what is that?

We believe that early-career professionals today must see that all have an opportunity to grow and advance professionally and to mitigate the risks of job insecurity, which they know all too well after witnessing the 2008 financial collapse. Organizations must do more to build real commitment by delivering on these expectations in practical, sustainable, and sincere ways.  

Conclusion

We can’t guarantee lifetime employment to those we recruit and wish to retain. But we can assure them through our actions that they’ll have a fair chance to grown, learn, and advance. We do so by offering a well-designed emerging leader program, which is sufficiently scalable that all have access to it. It should be piloted and validated. Why? Because we then have the credibility to insist that management take an active sponsorship role, and to link action learning to work that makes a real difference to the business. 

Absent these indicators of sincere action, our offer of development will look like window dressing! 

Most organizations will need outside help to build such a project. Those resources should connect with, complement, and bolster your internal HRD resources. During the pilot, you’ll need to adaptively shape the research-based design principles to fit the culture, imperatives, and operating context of your firm. We recommend that you keep these considerations in mind when engaging an external partner to help you build an emerging leader development program in 2017.   

Footnotes

[1] It makes no difference whether one acts from a formal leadership role or as an individual contributor who is simply the best qualified and situated to assert the necessary leadership in the moment. In fact, it is this situational assertion of leadership that would seem increasingly important today given the nature or our “flat” world of commerce and our flatter organizational structures.     

[2] Ratiocinative is a more analytical, logical mode of processing information. It checks for accuracy, consistency, and coherence (e.g., that 2 +2 = 4 and ≠5); it also generates an appraisal that the facts in a complex situation do or don’t support the conclusions drawn. It involves inferential and deductive reasoning, mental activities that are mediated rather than immediate (intuitive) acts of knowing.    

[3] I use the term “executive” here not to denote a position of authority in organizational hierarchy, but to identify a functional capacity of the person to assert effective acts of leadership. It creates positive systemic effects such as a contagion of intelligent, morally virtuous, organizationally healthy, and productive action.