High Agency: Accepting that we shouldn't wait for perfect conditions

I am fascinated by airports. In a typical year, over 40 million people go past the largest airport in Brasil. Thousands of flights a day, thousands of people trying to get from one place to another, sometimes facing over thirty hours of travel. The logistics to get this all to work is absurd. We all get mad at delays, but a large number of things need to go as planned to get you on your plane on time. Sometimes I forget this and underestimate what can go wrong. This happened on my last flight.

I had checked both my girlfriend and me in one day before the flight, and we wouldn't dispatch any bags, so we got there fairly close to the boarding time. But, when trying to board, I saw that the app didn't show my boarding pass, and I had to rush to fix it. After waiting what seemed like an hour in a queue (but was<5 minutes), I was helped by Sara, an employee from the airline who would be vital to getting me on the plane.

As soon as I explained what happened and which flight I was in, Sara rushed me to her supervisor and a different area in the airport. The supervisor was very quick to tell me that "It's impossible. You won't get in that airplane. Check-in is closed, and your check-in is not here. You should've been here earlier to be able to deal with this kind of situation." I wasn't pleased to hear this. I was 100% sure I reached the end of the check-in process. I had picked out my seat, filled everything out. Sara and other employees all confirmed it was a weird situation.

All the employees that took care of boarding said the system wouldn't allow them to check me in and that I would need to buy a ticket to another flight. The one person that seemed focused on trying to solve my problem was Sara. She talked with other airlines while around three people were trying to explain to me why it was impossible. Then she returned and asked them: "What if we close the flight and open it again with everyone in the same state they're here?" After that, in about 5 minutes, they checked me in and got me on time inside the flight.

Sara is an example of a person who has High Agency. The conditions seemed dire, but she was so focused on helping me, she went beyond and didn't accept the conditions. She left her station, talked with the supervisor, went around the issues they brought up, got info from other people, and found a solution. She knew that getting on that flight mattered to me and what it would mean to have to get another ticket. It might've been just one thing, but from that interaction, I'm sure Sara will grow and be a solid leader for any organization she comes to lead.

Why it matters

As Shreyas Doshi defines it: "[High agency is] an attitude I've seen in every successful leader I've known. Some people are born/raised with High Agency. It can also be developed later in life. High Agency is a prerequisite for making a profound impact in one's life and work.

High Agency is about finding a way to get what you want, without waiting for conditions to be perfect or otherwise blaming the circumstances. Instead, high Agency people either push through in the face of adverse conditions or manage to reverse the adverse conditions to achieve goals."

When working on new and challenging things, there's no way we can anticipate all the problems and have a smooth journey. Conditions will never be perfect, and many times they will seem dire. So we need people who will nevertheless break ground, tackle challenges of all sorts. Who take extreme ownership for their goals and don't sit idly by waiting for conditions to change. We need people who don't make excuses, take the lead in innovating, and do what's necessary to get things done.

Be Relentlessly Resourceful

People with High Agency are relentlessly resourceful. They:

  1. Are Resilient: They accept challenges and setbacks as a reality they need to deal with and don't stop when things get hard;
  2. Accept that it's all on them: They have extreme ownership for their goals and their mission. They don't say, "It's not my job";
  3. Focus their careers on increasing their circle of influence: They constantly invest in their knowledge and networks. Developing new resources, they can call upon to solve challenges;
  4. Are creative: They thrive in any given condition because they work on innovative ways to use all the available resources. Like Sara, they can break procedures in favor of the higher goal.

Talented people with High Agency are game-changers. However, talented people who don't have High Agency fail to accomplish meaningful results consistently in fast-changing environments. As a result, they're bound to be frustrated in the long run. They fall prey to excuses.

Avoid the six deadly excuses.

Excuses are comfortable. They prevent us from having to make bigger efforts and challenge ourselves. And look, I do not doubt the hurdles you have to face. Anyone that ever achieved anything meaningful at some point thought to themselves, "Well, this might not work"—many thought of giving up. The path is bound to be filled with difficult situations and especially difficult people. But excuses will only make it harder for us to go through those hurdles.

In his book: Leadership without Authority, Keith Ferazzi lists six deadly excuses that keep us from taking ownership of things we can influence:

  1. Ignorance: Some people don't understand they can be leaders in their jobs now. Instead of only when someone tells them they can be leaders.
  2. Laziness: It's very common to fail to follow through and go beyond the initial hurdles because it just seems like too much work. Having difficult conversations is, well, very difficult. Dealing with unexpected conditions and uncertainty is not trivial at all. So many people look at their jampacked calendars and think "I don't have time for this." I expected you not to. You make time for things that are important.
  3. Deference: This usually looks like a version of "It's not my job." "It's not my job to be my boss's coach." "It's not my job to teach him how to do his job." "It's not my job to fix this mess." So often, we forget the goal in favor of deference. I understand that, ideally, it would not be your job, but if it stands between you and your goal, it is.
  4. Playing the Victim: It's hard to go from thinking that "life happens to us" to think that "we make life happen." People and events will disappoint you. If they don't, you have meager expectations. When they inevitably do, we need to think of the situation as it is: a reality to be dealt with.
  5. Cowardice: Uncertainty is scary. Doing new things is scary. But if the situation scares us, there's probably something in it calling us to grow. Often we stop ourselves from doing something because we are afraid of conflict, of what others or even ourselves will think of us, or even because we fear failing or getting rejected. In doing so, we end up losing some of the best opportunities to develop and go beyond what we thought we could do.
  6. Indulgence: We are often reluctant to relinquish our anger, our resentment, or our frustration. Ego keeps us focused on "being right" and getting things our way. But these feelings have no place if they're holding us back from our success. When we insist that things go your way, that we need to be right all the time, and that the other person needs to reach out first, we're sabotaging our chances of success.

For a list of manifestations of these excuses, check out this thread by Charles Lee.

Take ownership of your relationships.

We work with people, so naturally, many of the most complicated challenges are linked to relationships and how people interact. It's easy to hide behind the "They just don't get it" or "They're too hard to work with." So we find clever ways to go around these people or force them into doing things our way instead of working on the relationship.

Improving our relationships start with recognizing that we're responsible for doing this ourselves. We need to own the decision and take action. Relationship work is hard. It requires difficult conversations, which in turn require deep work on ourselves. Most of the time, we have contributed significantly to the difficult situation we have at hand.

One of the main ways we damage our relationships is by assuming we know other people's intentions. Worst yet, when we don't know their intentions, we assume they're bad by default. We project our insecurities in the other person. This is so common it has a name in psychology: Fundamental Attribution Error. These assumptions keep us from being truly curious, change our behaviors toward the other person and keep us from seeing our contribution to whatever issue is going on.

A lot changes when we give up being right and "having" to win. Our relationships improve drastically when we instead listen to the person's point of view with genuine curiosity, acknowledge it, and only then try to move on and problem-solve.

Working on our relationships and how our teams interact with other teams, developing them into trusting relationships, and focusing on mutual growth will push us forward in our careers and make our work way more meaningful.

In Conclusion

High Agency is a crucial trait if you want to achieve meaningful things. It's a key defining trait of successful leaders of any kind. However, developing it requires work, especially on:

  1. Becoming Relentlessly Resourceful
  2. Avoiding the six deadly excuses and
  3. Taking ownership of our relationships

This is hard work, but anyone can do it, and it pays off. It pays off in how meaningful our work is, in how fast we grow, and in how good our relationships are. It's remarkably rewarding for us and everyone around us.

Good luck and all the best!