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Can Behavioral Agility Be Learned?

It’s now fashionable to talk about leadership agility. The idea is that it doesn’t matter so much what your strengths and weaknesses are; the trick is whether you can learn to act the strengths you need if you don’t possess them naturally. And it doesn’t matter what your weaknesses are either as long as you can address them in a productive way, even if you still have them naturally. It’s a neat approach and it might even be useful, if not valid.

Of course, this raises some interesting ideological issues. One of the biggest ideological issues in leadership right now is the strengths versus the weaknesses approach. The strengths approach, championed by Gallup and others, is that you need to focus mainly on your strengths. You are wasting time and valuable energy if you focus on your weaknesses which you will probably never correct anyway.

The weaknesses approach posits that it is your weaknesses that will hold you back. It states that everyone has major vulnerabilities which, if not addressed and/or corrected, will end up putting an effective end to them becoming an effective and successful leader.

But the more fashionable approach now is that every set of personality traits has its characteristic strengths and weaknesses. It doesn’t matter whether you are using an assessment like the MBTI, Hogan or the Perth assessments, they can and will show you both your strengths and weaknesses and there will be a particular way to address the strengths and weaknesses of your particular type, whatever it might.

So most leadership approaches will give you a kind of paint-by-numbers answer to what particular characteristics you need to adopt or act out in order to compensate or correct for the weaknesses. That’s kind of nice because then all you have to do it to act out the compensating behaviors or workarounds and in theory all is hunky dory.

However there is a fatal flaw in this approach. What are the compensating behaviors that are appropriate for your particular company, market or profit model? Then what do you do? Sure, you might in theory have neutralized all those bad habits and even strengthened the good ones. But what if neither of these is appropriate to the particular market or business model approach that’s been adopted by your team, company or organization?

There is an answer, but it isn’t for everyone, maybe not even most people. That is that you have to have enough agility to be able to adopt the right characteristics that fit the particular company, business and market circumstances that your company wants and needs and will help you obtain the maximum success in terms of your own particular personal and professional goals.

To start with we have to accept that most people don’t have high mental agility. If we did the human race wouldn’t have a lot of the problems it currently has. And no-one would even need to fulminate about the resistance to change, or hire a change consultant. It’s just the way we’re hard-wired. And it’s nothing (or not much) to do with intelligence.

So if you don’t have high mental agility, what do you do? The answer is that you fake it. It’s kind of like the Turing test. Your computer wins once a real human can’t tell the difference between the response of a human or a computer to a question from a human.

So it is with behavioral agility. You have achieved high behavioral agility, even if you naturally don’t have high mental agility, when most of the people who know you or deal with you, believe that you have a high level of natural mental agility.

So here’s the nub of the issue. Can behavioral agility be learned if you don’t have high mental agility? That’s the big question that is starting to exercise the many kinds of leadership thinkers and analysts, including yours truly, these days. In other words; can you become the Swiss Army knife of leaders, able to adapt to any circumstances, situations and so on not to mention the vagaries of your own personality and behaviors?

Actually the answer is a qualified yes, but you have to look in some strange places to find out how and why. Two of the little secrets behind this idea of acquired agility are what actors do, and the new theories coming out of neuroscience termed embodied cognition, which I have written about previously (see here).

It might seem strange that you would count an actor as an instructor in behavioral agility and a model for aspiring and current leaders. Don’t they just need to look good and pucker on screen in order to earn a quid? Aren’t they just entertainers after all?

But actors are forced to take on numerous roles, most of them entirely different. Their own personalities and traits might not be those that the people they act would need in real or imaginary lives in order to be effective leaders. But that doesn’t matter. No matter what their personality or behaviors, if an actor is to be successful he or she has to act the part.

And not just act it, think it. And feel it. In essence an actor has to train his brain – and body, which we will talk more about below – to think, feel and act just like the brain of the person he or she is emulating. The better the actor can do this, the more people will feel that they are a great actor. Doesn’t this sound like a high level of behavioral agility to you?

Count me amongst the disbelievers when Ronald Reagan was elected President. I believed then that it was demeaning for the US to elect a man who was merely an actor and who, so to speak, had never had a real job.

Boy was I wrong! What I didn’t realize then was that in order to do the job well, it was a great advantage to understand people so well that you empathize with anybody and convince them that you were one of them. That was why he was called The Great Communicator

Reagan. had an incredible ability to be able to put himself in the shoes of many radically different types of people and thus to be able to productively confront situations which he had never confronted before. That’s not to say that I necessarily agree with his political ideology or positions. It’s just to say that he demonstrated enormous behavioral agility that one might never have suspected had he not been vaulted in to the position of POTUS.

The other little secret is embodied cognition. That’s the idea that we don’t just think with our brain. The movements and sense of the relative position of our bodily parts (proprioception) themselves drive cognition; it isn’t just a one-way street where the brain is behind everything. There’s a lot more democracy in our thinking than the old hierarchical model of cognition realized and we are only just starting to understand the radical implications of this finding.

One of the major implications of embodied cognition is that you can change the way you feel and behave just by understanding how to move in different ways. That is, putting your facial expressions into certain positions and supporting this with carefully-thought-out bodily postures, can trigger new ways of thinking, feeling and behaving that can make us think, act and behave like a different type of person and so achieve a higher level of behavioral agility

That sounds a lot like acting right? Actors are famous for being able to use facial and bodily expressions and postures that make us believe they really are the person they are acting.

So the answer is that you can learn approaches used by actors, especially facial expressions and postures to achieve a higher level of behavioral agility than you naturally possess.

But here’s the trick. You have to use facial expressions and postures that are suited to the particular business purposes that you want to become a leader for. For example, in the Perth Leadership Outcome Model, one sort of leader is called the Project Engineer. I think the title is self-explanatory enough that I don’t need to explain what it means here.

So maybe we identify that a certain CEO role needs a Project Engineer type in the position, and you are not one of those. But if you have enough behavioral agility you can emulate this leadership type. The ways you do it are by adopting what we call the State-of-Mind of a Project Engineer and support this with the right facial expressions and bodily postures. Voila, people see you as one of this type of leader. If you’re good enough, that will fill the bill for the need for this particular type of leader.

Of course, you have to know what a Project Engineer thinks, her motivations, feelings and the facial expressions and postures that go along with all this. So it might not be easy for everyone. But if it was that easy, we wouldn’t need to be writing about it here right?

So what does this mean for strengths and weaknesses? You might believe that the behavioral agility idea is bunkum. But if you give it any credence whatsoever it changes the terms of the debate on strengths and weaknesses, as well as many other leadership issues.





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