What does it mean to have/exercise agency? This is a question I have thought of and worked with throughout my life and career. So when I was recently asked to write the foreword for a forthcoming book titled: The Power of Agency: Cultivating Autonomy, Authority and Leadership in Every Role, by the bestselling authors and scholar-practitioners in the field of Organization Development, Fred Miller and Judith Katz, I said yes without hesitation. The exercise of writing the foreword was focused on agency within organizational life and exploring how every individual, regardless of role title, can be supported to exercise agency, and by extension leadership, as an act of radical inclusion. That got me thinking and reflecting on my own experiences in organizations, whether as an individual contributor or in leadership roles. I particularly started thinking about how agency and leadership intersect. My inquiry led me to reflections on agency in leadership, building on my foreword in the Power of Agency book.

But first, what do I mean by agency and leadership? There are many definitions in the literature on both, which I draw inspiration from, along with my experiences, to define them as follows:

  • Agency—the self-motivated ability to take action towards achieving individual/collective visions/futures.
  • Leadership—the ability to galvanize positive influence, towards achieving individual or collective vision/futures.

From these perspectives then, agency and leadership are intertwined. They must both be exercised by individuals with the desire to achieve positive outcomes for themselves and others. One is about galvanizing/influencing action with/through others (followers) and the other is about taking direct action.

Why does this matter?

Nothing happens without this sense of agency and self-efficacy. Agency is what moves people from reflection, analysis, ideation, visioning, strategizing and so on…into taking action towards that vision/future possibility. It is through actions that arise out of agency that we learn what works, what doesn’t, what to amplify and what to let go of. It is ultimately how change and transformation happens, when people feel responsible for creating the futures they want.

But agency isn’t always easy to exercise and therefore is deeply developmental. It is influenced by both personal and social/environmental determinants. Agency can also be exercised to impact individual as well as collective outcomes. At the intersection of agency and leadership, therefore, innovation, change, transformation, and envisioned futures can happen, for both individuals and a collective, when leaders see themselves as change agents. Mapping the two main forms of agency (individual agency and collective agency) against the domains of influence for change (personal and societal), gives insights into the forms of leadership that support each type of change. The leader who is focused on personal change/growth and exercises individual agency to achieve personal/professional change outcomes and can be an inspirational leader for others. This person’s actions position them to be a role model. The leader who is focused on personal change but relies on the power of collective agency to achieve their goals is a charismatic leader. They rely on personal characteristics and strengths to influence others to take actions towards their vision. The leader looking to make a social impact using their personal agency is a transformational/servant leader. They lead by example and serve others in such a way that their leadership can activate collective action as others follow suit. Lastly, those looking to make social change through collective agency are those working to galvanize collective action to achieve desired outcomes. They are collaborative leaders that leads across a network of interested parties to achieve shared futures, especially for complex problems. Knowing what leadership style is most appropriate is essential to understanding how to support/influence/lead individual and social change.

Figure 1: Agency and Leadership Styles Quadrant

Now What?

There are several important points to bear in mind with the Agency and Leadership Styles Quadrant.:

  1. All leadership styles have value and it is important to understand the ethical and responsible use of power in all of the styles so that one’s leadership influence remains positive. This is particularly important for the charismatic leadership style which is often associated with the dark side of leadership, prone to the emotional manipulation of followers.
  2. The leadership styles are interdependent and intersectional. Context and form of agency may indicate a primary style is required, but this does not mean other styles are not at play. For example, the collaborative leader can also be galvanizing change through their own inspiration as a role model and transformational leadership for social change, for which some charismatic characteristics (e.g. public speaking) are necessary.
  3. Agency works through both direct influence and proxy influence. Where a leader does not have direct authority/access within there sphere influence, their individual change action, role modelling and indirect influence, still has an important role to play in change agency.  This is especially so in an age of ubiquitous communications mediums that can reach many, including those with direct access. This proxy influence cannot be underestimated because social modelling and conditioning has always been an important aspect of agency. Therefore all forms of agency, both visible and less visible have impact.
  4. Conditions necessary for agency can be cultivated through leadership. It is important to understand that factors influencing agency are both internal and external. Agency can be cultivated and encouraged through our personal/internal factors such as personality, identity, beliefs, values and external factors such as social conditions, education, systems and structures. However, even when conditions for agency are in place, the decision to exercise agency is self-motivated. We must take action to create the lives we want.
  5. What about when those conditions are not present or nurtured? This is the ultimate power of agency. Agency is self-motivated and grounded in self-efficacy, the belief that each one can achieve the outcomes they have self-determined to pursue. This is where people overcome background, identity, trauma or adversity. For example, my work on the Transformative Development of Global African/Black peoples illustrates the centrality of agency to help people from marginalized communities self-differentiate from social narratives that do not support their growth and development.

So now what for you? What action do you feel called to? How might you develop your leadership to exercise agency to achieve your own as well as collective/social change goals?  As I wrote in the foreword to the Power of Agency: “Individuals must exercise agency as actors who shape their own futures and large-scale change, and transformations are only successful when collective agentic action is undertaken at every level. Individuals and teams must choose agency.”