Increased stakeholder expectations, a rapidly changing workforce and digital dominance are just a few of the elements making leadership as challenging today as it has ever been. Through a decade of study, observation and practice — plus hands-on engagement with a wide range of executives — I have explored the question of what leaders need to do differently to be successful in these extraordinary times.
One thing is certain: What got us here — instinctual, command-and-control, non-reflective leadership — is no longer effective. Being intentional about renewing one’s approach is now the gold standard. My work and teaching has enabled me to identify eight core capabilities that, together, define ‘intentional leadership.’
The discovery and exploration of how the ‘Big 8’ fit within leaders’ roles was debated and agreed-upon through 25 weeklong sessions with over 900 senior executives at the Rotman School of Management and BMO Financial Group. In my new book, I describe why leading with intention is so important and explain the Big 8 in detail. In this article I will share insights about two of the capabilities: personal adaptability and strategic agility.
CAPABILITY 1: PERSONAL ADAPTABILITY
Successful leaders are often asked, If you could name the skill that is most responsible for your success, what would it be? It’s a tough but fair question. Every leader should be able to prioritize the one, two or even three most-critical skills within their own context. During my decade of research for the book, virtually every leader I spoke to explicitly mentioned one particular skill: personal adaptability.
Personal adaptability requires specific beliefs, habits and intentions: Are you able to embrace the new or changing dimensions of a problem? Can you tackle unfamiliar territory with an open mind? Can you listen, learn, add value and, even if not in agreement, remain open? None of this is easily done. But such are the demands on the leader.
Due to the diverse range of sectors in which I have led and the varied geographies involved — local, national and international — adaptability has been a key requirement in my career from very early on. I strongly believe that my leadership journey would not have been nearly as successful had I not developed and continuously refined this capability. Two key characteristics of personal adaptability are one’s stance and mindset.
STANCE. Former Rotman School Dean Tiff Macklem, who now heads up the Bank of Canada, spoke to me about the technique of “always checking one’s stance” — sometimes counting on a whole new set of ‘muscles’ to meet the challenge before you: “In handling any crisis or new situation, solutions don’t come from a book. They inherently entail lots of potential risk. But you can’t be paralyzed or rely on old assumptions that worked before. Yes, you can be informed by them; but being intentional, open and adaptable enables you to react to the unanticipated and the unfamiliar.”
MINDSET. To begin or continue striving to be more adaptable, start with a pre-check of your mindset. As a leader, you own your mindset and beliefs — and therefore, the outcomes of your actions and decisions. It’s best not to wait until a difficult situation confronts you. The time to pre-check is now. Every leader can be intentional and deliberate and not leave their actions to pure instinct or gut feeling.
As a leader, you own your mindset and beliefs — and
therefore, the outcomes of your actions and decisions.
In conversation with former Hospital for Sick Children CEO Mary Jo Haddad she spoke about personal adaptability and organizational agility as being critical for every CEO to master. “It comes from seeing opportunities within a crisis; staying grounded on what is essential; and adapting as the situation warrants. When you are leading a large public organization like a hospital, you don’t have control over the demand for service, nor are there resources to support innovations for the future. Leaders must be adaptable, creative and open-minded.”
For former Ontario MPP Mary Anne Chambers, adaptability, open-mindedness and renewal overlap, with one supporting the other: Open-mindedness enables adaptability to occur; and with adaptability, the hope of renewal is possible. She spoke of the premium she placed on her personal adaptability as she worked across sectors, always making sure she opened up her mindset to understand and adapt to nuances in policy and the culture and thinking of others.
When asked where this kind of adaptability comes from, she told me: “It comes from being a lifelong learner, especially on issues related to people and injustice. I’m the daughter of Jamaican parents and grew up in a traditional family. The way I look at life and at others has been inspired by a deep curiosity about people. It’s part of my nature, which my parents supported in many ways. My mother, though very wise, lacked formal education. I realized from an early age that education would be key to my future”.
When asked why she, then a mother of young sons and working at Scotiabank, took night courses at a university, she answered: “I didn’t want not having a degree to be a barrier to my career. Possibilities could arise in my work, and I wanted to be formally equipped to take advantage of them.”
Discussions with senior leaders in the classroom raised some points of debate, including how to reconcile adaptability with authenticity. Authenticity is not a static, unwavering aspect of one’s identity, nor is it an excuse for sticking with what is most comfortable for you. The best leaders combine adaptability and authenticity, which enables them to earn the trust of others. Authentic leaders view adaptability as a true form of continuous learning and critical ingredient in embracing change.
A second point of concern in the classroom focused on the difficulty in shifting from being a ‘strong and unflinching leader’ (i.e. the old paradigm) to an adaptive and open leader who can admit that they don’t know it all and can be open to the possibility of being wrong. Humility — and the lack thereof — allows us to see how easy it is for leaders to lose perspective when they become senior and hold positions of power, where some fall into the trap of believing they are invincible, invaluable — even infallible. For these and other leaders, the incentive for the hard work of adapting is having a positive impact on the organization, being worthy of the privilege of leading — and avoiding irrelevance.
A third point of concern that came up in the classroom related to the increased stress — now more pervasive than ever — of coping with relentless demands while being time-starved and forced to multi-task. This condition is now recognized as Executive Attention Deficit Disorder Syndrome (EADS). Various methods for developing resilience to EADS were discussed; but in the end we agreed that it all boiled down to the mental toughness required to succeed, endure and be a distinctive leader. In short, being adaptable.
CAPABILITY 2: STRATEGIC AGILITY
The Big 8 call for an open mind that enables leaders to be agile in seizing new strategic opportunities. This entails letting go of the comfortable, familiar tenets of past strategic scenarios. For some, this can be even more difficult than personally adapting to day-to-day challenges. But it is not optional: One common denominator between all organizations today is that strategies are short-lived.
The rise of digitization has made strategic agility a true game changer. A lack of it is easy to spot in companies whose strategies are outdated. Those who ponder changes for too long due to a low degree of agility will be quickly outrun. In my conversations for the book, leaders raised the importance of strategic agility without prompting. Bank of Montreal CEO Darryl White was one. He described how the leader’s role has evolved during his own career journey:
Leadership is about navigating turbulence and confronting it head-on. Over my 30-year career, with the last two decades in a leadership position, crisis and turbulence have been a constant. My leadership period began with 9/11; then came the fracturing of the global financial system over three years from 2007 to 2009. Then the COVID-19 pandemic. Compare that to the 55-year period after the end of World War II. Crises were relatively light. With the main financial and social structures generally in place, it was an era of prosperity and predictability. This was the earlier generation’s model for setting the direction for an organization and managing people.
For the past 20 years, leaders haven’t had this luxury. Today, the premium is instead on agility, on building-in a better understanding of what the strategic risks are, where they can be found, and what to do if they materialize. Risk models in the banking industry didn’t exist 25 years ago. Such models have emerged since, almost simultaneously with the advancement of digital technology, and embracing the agility they demand is an imperative for today’s leaders.
A common question is whether a leader who has adapted well on a personal level and exercises an open mind from day to day is likely to also be strategically agile. The answer is yes: Like all of the Big 8 capabilities, these two are mutually enhancing as both call for the underpinning of having an open mind. My conversation with University of Toronto President Meric Gertler reveals how he and his team harnessed strategic agility during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how this was enabled by personal adaptability skills:
If there has been any silver lining to COVID-19, it is the importance of adaptability. Being compelled to adapt has provided experience that will pay dividends. We had to answer, in real time, Can we cope with this? Are we agile and flexible enough? Do we have the necessary dedication, commitment and creativity to adapt, survive and be successful? The answer was yes. We now have proof positive.
Agility and adaptability are required in many areas of university life. Global engagement, for example. How do we provide our students with a global experience? How do we connect our research internationally? We’ve learned that we can’t do things as we once did. Now, everything is being done more remotely. Accordingly, we created the ‘global classroom’ to team up with others in teaching classes together and having students work collaboratively across borders. This has been a real eye-opener. The template for this kind of engagement was developed before COVID-19, but it hadn’t been tested. Today we have proposals for 75 of these setups across the university, and people are embracing them.
The same is true of our global research partnerships. Contrary to expectations, this kind of engagement is going up, not down, with new partnerships emerging. There are questions, of course. Are people trusting these new forms of interaction? Can we build long-lasting relationships through such modalities? We’re not sure yet, but all of this means we will be a more agile institution going forward.
Strategies around digitization are all about being dynamic. Any notion of a static mindset will quickly perish. As a result, strategy has become more dependent on the organization’s vision, market knowledge and critical thinking, combined with a mindset and openness to agile behaviours. Pure IQ and past successes are not enough. Nor are strategies any longer ‘proprietary.’ They are now market-based, with digital underpinnings that won’t wait for leaders who cannot master the agility to act with urgency.
In my executive leadership classes, participants have asked why — with the escalation of digitization and renewed strategies during the pandemic — some leaders continue to lag and fail to embrace this capability. Participants agreed that this can be attributed to the leader’s own mindset — in particular, to how they are adapting to the reality that all strategies now have a shorter shelf life, no matter how successful they have been in the past.
The preponderance of caution we see among some leaders is somewhat understandable, especially if one considers the challenge of moving ahead on strategies while at the same time reducing the uncertainty and instability experienced by stakeholders. Managing the tension between daily, monthly and quarterly actions with what is right for the longer term is difficult, but quick action is now essential: Leaders must be able to ‘see around corners,’ anticipate what lies ahead and prepare for the unexpected. And lest you think this is a passing phase, rest assured: today’s challenging leadership environment is not going to disappear anytime soon.
Tiff Macklem spoke insightfully of “seeing ahead” while anticipating risk:
Both the global financial crisis, and before that the Great Depression, illustrate the knock-on effect of decisions taken during difficult times; they can inadvertently trigger outcomes not intended or fully anticipated. The global financial crisis triggered a sovereign debt crisis in Europe and fuelled a rise in populism in many Western countries. That’s why leaders must think today of what tomorrow’s problem will be. You have to get ahead of crises to stop them.
Janice Gross Stein, founding director of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, added further insights on short-termism and risk signals:
Risk is part and parcel of strategic agility. Thinking ahead means you don’t have perfect knowledge of the future; whatever strategy you pursue will inevitably involve risk. As I learned from a Standard Oil CEO many years ago, the biggest challenge for leaders is thinking two, three or more years ahead, not today. For most of us, thinking five years ahead seems almost impossible. Could anyone in 2018 have anticipated where we are today, in a global pandemic, for example?
Janice also connects strategic agility with problem-solving when those around you are stymied:
A senior CEO in the health sector had an institutional problem: a high rate of falls at the hospital. Some board members proposed an inclusive group from all levels of staff, including housekeepers and maintenance, to try and solve the problem. The group was asked, If you were trying to maximize the rate of falls, what would you do? A housekeeper said she’d wash the floor at 9:00 a.m., when all medical staff were doing their rounds. Within 30 minutes, solutions were found in a dozen areas. Leaders need to move people out of the boxes they’re in. When they look in from the outside, they see solutions.
Every leader can learn to be more intentional and deliberate and less reliant on pure instinct or gut feeling. The principles discussed herein indicate just a few ways you can chart your own path to intentional leadership. The paths are many: You might want to pick one or two of the Big 8 to focus on, or you might vow to do more of the highly effective things you are already doing. This is your personal journey, after all. And while the Big 8 capabilities are not a panacea, one thing is certain: If embraced with intention, the Big 8 will increase your leadership impact.
Rose M. Patten, O.C., is Chancellor of the University of Toronto, Adjunct Professor at the Rotman School of Management, Special Advisor to the CEO and Senior Executives at BMO Financial Group and Honourary Colonel for the Canadian Armed Forces College. She is the author of Intentional Leadership: The Big 8 Capabilities Setting Leaders Apart (Aevo UTP, 2023). This article is an adapted excerpt from the book.
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