Agile leadership

agile leadership

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There is no radical innovation, or innovative company without mental agility. I am not talking about agile methods, but agility as a mindset. When I started working with innovation back in 2008, innovation was nice to have. Today, most leaders confront a situation where innovation is need to have and many have experienced the difficulties actually turning innovation ideas and projects into business value and tangible results. Often because there is a lack of mental agility in the organisation. 

Agile as a method was firstly introduced (starting this millenium) in a business context as a project management method for innovation and IT development projects. Later, the concept of agility became about emotional agility in a leadership development context. To become truly agile requires leaders who has an agile mindset.

Examples of agile leaders exist in many places and you probably recognise the traits. With an open mind, agile leaders can navigate uncertainty, act appropriately under pressure, take calculated risks in unknown territories, innovate and create steady momentum in rocky waters. Through my experience as an executive coach I got to know a great agile leader from Novo Nordisk. 

Agile Leadership in Novo Nordisk

As an Executive Coach, I have the privilege of accessing some amazing and agile brains. An example of an agile leader is Lars Arnoldsen, who was the Corporate Vice President of Local Manufacturing at Novo Nordisk A/S. Novo is a leading pharmaceutical company. The area is responsible for building factories in collaboration with local partners.

Agility at Novo Nordisk

When Lars Arnoldsen was in his prvious role as a Corporate Vice President, he and his people had redefined several processes and the way in which they have built factories in collaboration with local partners around the world. The redefining of the process often consisted of removing processes and requirements, so the organization became more LEAN and agile.

For example, they minimized reporting requirements when they found that many of the numbers needed already existed in their systems. There was no need to ask the markets to use resources to report it themselves. The total changes resulted in a concrete saving of 200 billion.

Like the software engineers who wrote “The Agile Manifesto”, Lars Arnoldsen wants to minimize bureaucracy, business procedures and hierarchy, so that the individual employee has the freedom to act when and where it is needed to respond quickly and easily to challenges.

Storytelling in strategy rollout

One of the tools that Lars Arnoldsen used in his role was to give space to local managers through stories and metaphors. At the office in Bagsværd, Denmark, he had an artist paint a picture of the metaphors to visualize their strategy.

When Lars back then and now rolls out a strategy around the world, he uses different images of aspirations to both visualize and explain the stories. Then, whether in Russia or Algeria, it is up to the local managers to interpret the strategy themselves to suit their context.

For Lars, it is the dialogue about the metaphor that creates the value, not the metaphor itself. And it can be interpreted in different ways. And, the trust-building relationship that is developed in the dialogue is fundamental to the implementation.

There must be courage

Like the other agile leaders, Lars Arnoldsen must exert bravery to be driven by something greater than himself. He often meets resistance when he implements his progressive ideas. But Lars is not driven by positioning himself, he is driven by creating value, even if it means putting himself at risk.

What you do and the way you set the tone of your organization, including your ability to handle change, innovation and stress are critical for what your organization will be able to achieve.

Individual agility

Although the organizations where we work create the frameworks for us to succeed or fail, and even though they frame very much for how you can succeed, you can also do something yourself. The higher in the system you sit, the more critical your agility is to the rest of the organization. Courage, security in oneself (rather than in position and status) and the ability to keep one’s brain at rest is a decisive ability for an agile leader. Although, when we feel threatened or stressed, the brain becomes hijacked by the reptile brain.

In my book, Power Barometer – Manage energy, not just Time and Money, I explain how you can practice to be mentally agile. 

You can read more about my inspirational speech on agility here. If you are interested in the lecture you can contact me by phone: +45 26 361 199 or, by e-mail: We unlock the power of personal energy in organizations to increase mental capacity and create long-term value in a sustainable way. If you would like to be updated with new articles and videos, sign up for our mailing list. Your mail is not shared with anyone and there are advantages to being on the list e.g., getting a mini course in your personal leadership. 

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David, S. (2016): Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. New York: Penguin Random House LLC.

Den danske ordbog. (2018) The Danish Dictionary. Available from:

Dweck, C.S. (2006) Mindset – The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House Publishing Group.

Hamel, G. (2012). What Matters Now: How to Win in a World of Relentless Change, Ferocious Competition, and Unstoppable Innovation. UK: Jossey-Bass.

Hochstein, L. (2017) Chaos Monkey. Available from:

Mintzberg, H. & Waters, J.A. (1985) Of Strategies, Deliberate and Emergent. Strategic Management Journal. 6(3), 257-272. Available from:

Netflix Technology Blog. (2011) The Netflix Simian Army. Available from:

Rigby, D.K, Sutherland, J., & Takeuchi, H. (2016) Embracing Agile. Harvard Business Review

Weick, K. (1976) Educational Organizations as Loosely Coupled Systems. Administrative Science Quarterly. 21(1), 1-19. Available from: doi:10.2307/2391875.

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