Learning agility: Key to leading in a VUCA world

Learning agility has been identified as THE key requirement for successful leaders in a VUCA world. Sona Sherratt elaborates.

Reading time: 4 minutes.

Many managers feel ill-equipped to lead in today’s ambiguous and fast-paced world, often feeling overwhelmed and unable to keep up with the constant changes within their organisation. Leaders are struggling to understand how to lead in an increasingly Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) environment, where planning and forecasting is no longer something that can be relied upon. 

The term VUCA, first coined by the US Army College and brought to business settings by Grint (2010), describes the complex and fast-paced, constantly changing nature of today’s world.

Leading through ambiguity requires agility, necessitating more risk-taking and connections with new knowledge. In today’s complex world, it is not possible for one person to have all the answers; instead leaders must collate ideas, knowledge and experiences from a wide set of experiences to lead effectively in the 21st century.

One way to succeed in a progressively VUCA world is to help leaders develop adaptable behaviours so that they can use past experiences to reflect, make meaning and trial new behaviours. Leading through ambiguity requires learning agility, necessitating more risk-taking and connections with new knowledge. 

Leading through ambiguity requires agility, necessitating more risk-taking and connections with new knowledge.

Lombardo and Eichinger (2000) defined learning agility as the willingness and ability to learn from experience, and subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new or first-time conditions.

So what are the key components of learning agility and what do future leaders need to help them get there? Learning agility is widely deemed to have four components:

  1. Results agility – achieves results under arduous conditions; has presence and competence to galvanise others to perform;
  2. Mental agility – deliberates difficult problems to discover solutions; comfortable with complexity and ambiguity;
  3. People agility – has extensive self-awareness; able to flex to diversity of conjectures and styles; resilient and constructive under pressure;
  4. Change agility – enjoys experimenting with novel conceptions; welcomes responsibility and unfamiliar challenges.

One report concluded that while high performers are three times more likely to be identified as high potentials than employees with average performance, those identified as highly learning agile were 18 times more likely to be labeled as high potential (De Meuse, 2017).

Furthermore, results from a ten-year longitudinal study of sales executives in North America concluded that learning agility was significantly related to promotion rates and average salary increase (Dai et al. 2013).

With strong evidence increasingly identifying learning agility as THE key requirement for successful leaders in a VUCA world where curiosity is increasing hailed as more important that experience to advance to senior role, how do L&D professionals support leaders to develop this skill? 

This increasing need for agility demands constant learning and application of that knowledge to new experiences. Training professionals must ensure leaders are being continually challenged in an environment which not only offers opportunities for risk-taking and trialling new behaviour but also nurtures safe spaces to learn from failure.

Creating a culture in which curiosity and a hunger to learn is fostered is vital to encouraging learning agility in leaders. Numerous studies have shown positive correlation between growth mindset, particularly through teaching interventions, with an increase in measured outcomes (Good, Aronson, & Inzlicht, 2003).

Learning interventions which are proving most successful include four vital strands:

  1. Learning through failure: including opportunities to learn in situations with high emotional impact, especially in being allowed to make mistakes and manage any resulting adverse outcomes.
  2. Feedback: Feedback must be specific, balanced and non-threatening feedback to either change or confirm behavior; this not only allows leaders to correct any mistakes made but also encourages scrutiny of underlying thoughts and assumptions which can stop similar errors occurring.
  3. Psychological safety: the inherent risk of learning and ‘getting it wrong’, particularly within a group of peers must be mitigated through a culture of psychological safety for learners. People tend to inhibit their own learning when they are faced with situations that are potentially threatening or embarrassing. Facilitators should encourage explicit dialogue about deeply held values and beliefs about leaders’ motivation for learning and co-create an environment which encourages trust and collaboration.
  4. Deliberate practice: for learning agility to become ingrained within our leaders we must encourage them to see the link between learning and plentiful practice. Inclusion of repeated opportunities to master a behaviour, should be included within the programme design.

To foster curiosity and agility in the VUCA world in which we live, leaders need to unlearn behaviours which worked for them in the past but are no longer constructive and trial new behaviours.

L&D professions must source experiential training opportunities which not only challenge leaders to learn through failure but also offer feedback and potential for double loop learning. Development programmes must create a trustful culture and provide opportunities for high emotional impact, impelling leaders to take risks which foster agile learning.


About the author

Sona Sherratt is professor of practice leadership at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School


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