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True experts and so-called experts alike have written volumes about what separates great leaders from mediocre ones.

In my experience working with some of the most successful global companies, I’ve discovered it really comes down to agility, or how well a leader is able to balance many choices and challenges simultaneously. Agile leadership is the ability to keep a company running smoothly by successfully navigating efficient and reliable processes, people, and innovation. Too much focus on one area can hinder performance in another. For instance, an obsession with efficiency can lead a company to reduce anything that doesn’t directly contribute to operations, including leadership development and R&D.

In my years assessing and developing leaders who fit this description, I’ve identified five core competencies, or characteristics, that all agile flexible leaders have in common. Here’s a snapshot of each of them.

1. Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is understanding how external and internal events, such as market competition or a merger, can impact a company’s effectiveness. That includes understanding the needs and feelings of those affected by the event, as well as the impact on operations.

For instance, leaders with good situational awareness understand how a merger impacts employee morale and performance and will do their best to reassure employees and keep them updated on the latest developments.

2. Systems Thinking

Complex problems often have multiple causes, which may include actions taken earlier to solve other problems. In large organizations, any action can have multiple outcomes and even unintended consequences. For instance, eliminating employees to reduce costs while maintaining the same level of production may result in more overtime work and outsourcing, which can become expensive enough to negate the intended savings.

3. Ability to Prioritize

Many leaders start the year with a list of key objectives—those big-picture goals that are best tackled a little at a time. However, important objectives can quickly become sidelined by the more urgent “fires” that need to be put out on a daily basis. They must balance long-term goals with short-term needs and requests, never losing sight of what’s really important.

This is a competency that requires exceptional planning, time management, and patience. Even the most experienced leaders struggle to get this right at times.

4. Maintain Self Awareness

While situational awareness requires leaders to have a good understanding of what’s happening around them, self-awareness is the ability of leaders to understand their own emotions and motives.

Having this knowledge of themselves can help leaders keep their own personal biases in check and make better decisions, adapting their behavior according to the situation.

A leader whose primary motivation is to win the affection and approval of others will have a difficult time making tough decisions unless he or she recognizes this tendency and keeps it in check. Or, a leader who is primarily motivated by money may make decisions that cause him or her to lose respect or even violate ethics.

5. Personal Integrity

Without integrity, a leader is unlikely to retain the trust, loyalty, and support of people whose cooperation is essential. Integrity means that a person is honest, ethical, and trustworthy. Important indicators of integrity include:

  • Keeping promises and honoring commitments
  • Behavior that is consistent with values repeatedly expressed to others
  • Taking responsibility for one’s actions and decisions

A lack of leader integrity will eventually have negative consequences for individual leaders as well as for the organization. Studies at the Center for Creative Leadership found managers with high integrity had more successful careers, and lack of integrity was common among managers whose careers derailed after an initial period of rapid advancement.

These five competencies aren’t necessarily naturally occurring tendencies or qualities bestowed upon leaders once they reach a certain position. Rather, they are qualities that can be developed through training and on-the-job experience. For a closer look at these competencies and how organizations can help their leaders develop them, read my book, Flexible Leadership: Balancing Multiple Choices and Challenges. Get a preview chapter for free now.