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Public Administrators: The Relevance of Teaching the Agility Model for Efficacious Sector Leadership

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Janet Thompson
April 9, 2019

Public administrators manage their employees in settings that also require navigating the ever-increasing complexities of that sector.  In this context, professional development administrators deliver leadership training programs to address the varied needs of managers overseeing a broad spectrum of public-facing agencies and departments.  The principals of Agile Leadership are particularly well-suited to enhance the efficacy of individuals in public-sector management roles as they work to address their evolving professional settings.

The Agile Leadership Focus

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines agile as, “Marked by the ability to move with quick easy grace and having a quick resourceful and adaptable character.” This definition is analogous to both the essential requisites of individual character and managerial acumen that leadership roles in the public sector require. The Agile Leadership model relates 9 principles that dually address these areas.

Agile: Principles of the Practice

Great Leadership that Gets Better –A principal hallmark of the Agile model is its focus on the developmental aspects of the leadership role. The significance of individual development is its relativity to professional practice. So, as individuals grow into their leadership roles, they reflect on their applied learning  to consider ways they may further expand their capacities. This mindset perpetuates a strategically progressive approach. Rather than identify with a singular leadership style, the individual considers management as an evolutionary practice and opportunity to continuously expand skillsets to advance in tandem with changes in his or her workplace. In this way, the management professional is constantly seeking to become more Agile.

Agile: Cultivating Criticism

The Agile leader aligns his or her disposition toward perpetual growth and evolution with actively seeking feedback. The manager purposefully seeks critical inputs from leadership, colleagues and staff to glean and assess multiple perspectives.  The Agile manager is situated high on the learning agility scale. This means that he or she considers feedback essential to the learning process. These individuals, “Seek feedback, process it, and adapt based on their newfound understanding of themselves, situations, and problems.” Notably, the agile leader is not only willing to cultivate criticism to derive actionable learning, but also experiences challenging situations with a steadfast demeanor.

Agile: A Scaled Mindset

Improved Thinking Means Improved Outcomes—The purposefully evolving stance of the Agile leader is aligned with the concept and practice of adaptability.  Specifically, a manager does not hold fixed outlooks about his or her nuclear or global workplace contexts. Instead, he or she sees both as being in states of continual transformation. With this view, managers situate their primary leadership stance as one that necessitates fluidity. This capacity extends to advance change-management planning to achieve premeditated outcomes.  

Agile: An Action Orientation

Agile managers lead by example—with a purpose. They exemplify behaviors and actions to effectuate subtle and overt influences over their employees toward strengthening teamwork bonds. For example, the Agile leader is consciously empathetic and demonstrates consideration toward employees. This humanist approach is at the forefront of the leader’s actions to both engage staff and establish a culture of care within the work team.  By cultivating this type of work environment, the Agile leader strengthens the foundation for the development and continuity of effective working relationships.

Additionally, the Agile leader’s action orientation is intended to incite a similar mindset with staff. Along with establishing a foundation of equanimity through compassion, the manager purposefully models  can do and will do attitudes. The Agile leader goes beyond expressing that staff may share ideas and take initiative. He or she establishes a framework for employees to engage. Whether it’s through scheduled meetings or spontaneous conversations, the Agile manager purposefully elicits employees’ inputs and follows up to empower or implement.

Agile: Being Present

Effective foresight and planning are high on the list of requisite leadership skills. A manager’s strategic disposition is considered an essential attribute to successfully carry out the leadership role. However, the Agile leader also equates his or her effectiveness with the ability to be present. As one aspect of managerial agility, being present relates to the depth with which a leader observes, listens to and asks powerful questions to discern pathways for decision making and issue resolution. The Agile leader’s purposeful effort to be present in the day-to-day functional aspects of his or her role serves to complement strategic planning and initiatives. Having an in-depth understanding of operational constructs and dynamics (rather than delegating that aspect of the management role) provides the Agile leader with a well-informed foundation to execute planned initiatives and innovations.

The Agile model provides administrators with a leadership mode of practice that emphasizes a progressive disposition, ongoing growth, flexibility and adaptability. This leadership stance may serve to optimize individual and organizational effectiveness in the ever-evolving context of public administration. Thus, learning and development professionals in public administration settings may articulate the relevance of Agile leadership through training programs that are specifically designed to address the ways sector leadership may effectively adapt the model’s guiding principles.


Author: Dr. Janet Thompson is an Education Program Development Specialist for the New Jersey Civil Service Commission. She develops and edits professional training programs and varied publications for delivery to state employees. Dr. Thompson has over 20 years of combined higher education teaching and administration experience. She is currently an adjunct professor for SUNY Empire State College and Rockland Community College where she teaches undergraduate students in International and Humanities programs, respectively.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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