Mental agility: why it’s a must-have for today’s leaders

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By Serendis

June 29, 2023

Organisational leaders are under more pressure than ever before. At Serendis, we’re constantly hearing – from CEOs, members of executive committees, and People & Culture partners – that their divisional leaders need to “step up”. What does this mean? Divisional leaders are no longer simply technical experts or people managers. Rather, organisations now expect their divisional leaders to shape culture and demonstrate thought leadership, in order to help steer the organisation’s strategy as it adapts to ongoing challenges. These leaders are asking for our help to navigate the new terrain and shifting demands. And one of the key capabilities they are seeking to develop is mental agility.

Although the term mental agility is frequently used in different contexts, it’s not always with the same meaning. In this article, we want to clarify that mental agility comprises three distinct skills, requiring leaders to:

  1. Direct their attention and prioritise tasks so they can be most impactful as leaders.
  2. Manage their mindset to maximise their effectiveness as leaders.
  3. Demonstrate flexibility in their decision-making, perspectives and opinions, in response to other people’s input.

We’ll look at each of these skills in detail and give some guidance as to how leaders can develop them. But first, it’s important to understand why the altered expectations on divisional leaders are so crucial.

Why is the shift in expectations so critical?

Traditionally, a divisional leader was responsible for executing a long-term strategic plan, with teams or individuals to support them. But the increasingly rapid pace of change – due to economic, technological, geopolitical and societal shifts – means companies need to evolve more quickly than their traditional strategy cycles allow.

It’s now tricky for organisations to predict even the short-term developments that will impact their business models, products and customers. So companies’ three – five year strategic plans are often very high level. At the same time, the complexity of challenges means senior leadership can’t be across all issues affecting their business. With executive committees often too removed, not well-informed, or not responsive enough to face into the ongoing disruption, leaders at different levels of seniority need to define and constantly adapt their product or strategy.

To be successful in these new, expanded roles, mental agility is a must-have for today’s divisional leaders. So, as an emerging or seasoned leader, how can you start to bring mental agility to your work? And how can organisations support leaders to develop the skills of mental agility?

Mental agility skill #1: directing attention and appropriately prioritising tasks

In the past, leaders could rely on their BAU work to plan their week. Now, they need to proactively decide how to direct their energy within the endless flow of communication, meetings and demands on their time. Here, we share four questions which leaders should regularly consider:

    • How are you splitting your time between leadership activities and delivering work?
      Management in large organisations still heavily rely on seasoned leaders to deliver work. And many leaders instinctively prioritise their own work above their leadership responsibilities. But that’s the trap: when you’re too focused on delivering work, you’re not stacking up as a leader.We don’t have a magic solution for this problem. But as much as possible, leaders should aim to do the work only they can do. We recommend that leaders constantly ask themselves: What can I delegate? Who can I ask to help? We know that’s hard – it’s often easier to do the work ourselves than to delegate, because training others takes time. But leaders need to prioritise coaching team members to deliver work at a standard the leader would deliver themselves. Although this is more time-consuming in the short-term, it’s vital leaders develop mental agility to direct their energy this way.
    • How much time are you spending with your direct reports?
      As well as equipping team members with the skills to do the work, leaders need to invest time in engaging with their direct reports, and creating an environment where each team members thrives. In a hybrid working environment, it’s even more critical for leaders to spend one-on-one time with their team members to provide the psychological safety and care to discuss each person’s career goals, and how those goals fit with the organisation’s purpose.An ADP Research Institute Study of workers in 19 countries found that the biggest driver of engagement on teams was team members’ trust in their team leader: members of teams with extreme trust for their manager were 12 times more likely to be fully engaged. Other recent research also confirms what seems intuitive: an employee’s positive relationship with their manager is closely linked to increased motivation and performance, while a negative relationship is linked to poor employee performance. So we recommend that as much as possible, leaders prioritise spending time in individual and group conversations with their team, to build trust and foster increased performance, engagement and retention.
    • Are you connecting with stakeholders outside your immediate network?  For leaders to be innovative, they need to understand the broader context in which their business operates. So it’s important for leaders to deliberately connect with stakeholders outside their business line – both internally and externally – to broaden their perspective. We suggest leaders initiate conversations with colleagues and counterparts to share ideas and information at a strategic level (for example, in relation to their broader customer set, or wider industry-related issues). With leaders needing to continuously anticipate the changes that will impact their business model, networking with a range of stakeholders who hold different perspectives – to the leader, and to each other – is a must. Related to this is the fourth and final question, below.
    • What do you need to change in order to be prepared for the shifts of tomorrow?  Today’s leaders need to shape the future of their business and not just respond to existing market conditions. And that means being prepared to challenge the status quo. In her TED talk about what it takes to be a great leader, Roselinde Torres says that leaders need to be courageous enough to abandon a practice that has made them successful in the past. They need to develop what Torres quotes one leader as calling “the emotional stamina to withstand people telling them that their idea is naïve, or reckless, or just plain stupid.” And being comfortable challenging the status quo requires the second skill of mental agility: managing your mindset.

Mental agility skill #2: Manage your mindset

As leaders respond to the myriad setbacks, challenges and opportunities that typify current corporate life, they need to learn to manage their automatic thoughts. That is, they need to be aware of how their mindset affects their emotions, and in turn, their effectiveness as a leader.

Many of us have grown up with mindsets which are unhelpful in leadership roles. For example:A leader’s ability to catch themselves thinking with an unhelpful mindset and to quickly shift their thinking to a more positive mindset is a difficult art. But leaders must learn to observe their own thinking and reframe it when necessary; to have what American psychologist Carol Dweck has coined a ‘growth mindset’ rather than a ‘fixed mindset’. At Serendis, teaching leaders how to understand, recognise and challenge their thinking patterns, and to notice and reframe the stories they tell themselves, is core to our leadership development program. This ‘noticing and reframing’ also helps leaders to build the muscle of the third mental agility skill – being flexible in their decision-making in response to others’ input.

Mental agility skill #3: Flexibility in decision-making and opinions in response to feedback

Even as recently as 10 years ago, effective leaders were those who had experience in the business function they were heading up. But today, subject matter experts don’t necessarily make the best decision-makers. Rather, the best leaders are ones who can harness the collective ideas and intelligence of a range of people, and combine them with their own expertise in order to adapt and innovate. This is a two-step process, requiring leaders to consistently:

    • invite team members to provide their perspectives and encourage them to challenge decisions, and
    • demonstrate they’re prepared to change their mind based on other people’s feedback and contributions.

Similar to the other mental agility skills, inviting challenge and changing our mind isn’t easy. As humans, we’re prone to confirmation bias: the tendency to search for, favour and use information that confirms our pre-existing views on a topic. This means leaders need mental agility to override automatic programs in the brain, so they can truly listen to others’ opinions, discern which are relevant, and still make optimal decisions.

We suggest that leaders imagine what it’s like to be one of their team members, and regularly ask themselves: do my direct reports feel they can challenge me and share their ideas? Am I showing that I’m hungry for their ideas and I’m prepared to challenge my own preferences? And if not, what do I need to do to change?

Looking ahead

Accomplishing mental agility is an ongoing journey for leaders; one which takes time and practice. But all journeys begin with a single step. Leaders can start developing mental agility by reflecting on how they spend their time at work, paying attention to when they’re triggered by an unhelpful mindset, and considering how they’re inviting challenge from their team. Because, as Roselinde Torres says, the great leaders of the 21st century are those who are “preparing themselves not for the comfortable predictability of yesterday, but also for the realities of today, and all of those unknown possibilities of tomorrow.” Without mental agility, such preparation is impossible.