Episode 91: Agile Leadership With Jonathan Reams

Agile Leadership.

The word “agility” has many meanings. As kids, we prided ourselves on being physically agile at sports–or disappointed by our lack of agility. In software, agile is a methodology and set of principles for producing products and engaging teams. What about in leadership?

This week’s guest, Jonathan Reams, joins me to explore agile leadership.

Over 15 years ago, Jonathan and I met when matched together to organize “integral gatherings” in San Francisco involving several hundred people. He soon moved east to Norway, and I moved north to Portland. His move was much farther!

Jonathan once drove a dump truck. Now he teaches at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, edits the online journal, Integral Review (which I’ve read for years), and is co-founder of the European Center for Leadership Practice. I’m not sure whether his first career or his current one require more agility, but clearly the forms of agility are very different.

What is agile leadership? How can we use Ken Wilber’s four quadrants, developmental stages, and the Goldilocks Zone to understand it? How is elegantly simple different from simplistic? What happens when great cognitive agility causes harm?

Please share with friends and let me know what you think.


As the saying goes, “this space intentionally left blank.”

This week. As an experiment.

Do you wish this included time-stamped topics? Then shoot me an email at amiel@amielhandelsman.com and tell me why. I love feedback!

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Episode 75: Stomping the Blues, Reimagining American Identity with Greg Thomas [The Amiel Show]

Fasten your seatbelts. This week, we’re going on a rollicking, rhythmic, high-minded, and heartfelt ride through the core of the American experience.

Greg Thomas, our guide through the True but Partial Challenge on race, joins me again to steer us through this week’s journey.

Or should I say: journeys?

That’s how much territory we cover. Greg even coaxes me to steer out of my “interviewer lane” and riff on my own experience stomping the blues.

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The focus of our conversation is Albert Murray, the great 20th century American writer and close colleague of Ralph Ellison.

Haven’t heard of him? Neither had I until a few months ago.

But since when did lack of fame mean anything about a person’s wisdom?

Like me, you will learn to take Albert Murray seriously. Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Toni Morrison does. She wrote, “Murray’s perceptions are firmly based in the blues idiom, and it is black music no less than literary criticism and historical analysis that gives his work its authenticity, its emotional vigor, and its tenacious hold on the intellect.”

Like me, you will get mesmerized by the ideas in Murray’s first book, The Omni-Americans. Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates wrote in his New Yorker profile of Murray (“The King of Cats”) that the book was “so pissed-off, jaw-jutting, and unapologetic that it demanded to be taken seriously.”


  • 6:00 Albert Murray’s influence on American culture and art
  • 13:30 American identity synthesizes multiple roots
  • 20:00 Murray’s devastating critique of “ghettoologists” and “safari technicians”
  • 35:00 Decoding ancient fairy tales and applying them to life today
  • 39:00 The blues idiom as life compass
  • 43:00 The hero’s journey in American cultures, e.g. Harriet Tubman
  • 46:00 Hero’s journey is an alternative orientation from Ta-Nehisi Coates and James Baldwin
  • 55:30 We fear difference and are attracted to it. Can we integrate this into ourselves?
  • 59:00 The Jazz Leadership Project
  • 1:10:00 Apprentice, journeyman, and master


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The Year Ahead [New Post]

Thank you all for listening to my podcast, reading my posts, and sending kudos, queries, and quirky questions. As we close out 2017 and step into 2018, I want to share a few words about what you can expect from staying in conversation with me.

  • Growing as a leader and human being in organizations. This remains the primary focus of my podcast, blog, and client work. What can we learn about this process from different teachers, studies, experts, traditions, and organizations?
  • In-depth interviews. I’m committed to providing high-quality, in-depth interviews that make you think. I pick guests whose work I admire and ask them to dive deeply. These folks have a lot to say, so I give them the spotlight and challenge them to stretch their own thinking an extra inch.
  • Accomplishing work together by managing promises. My clients are reporting a great deal of benefit from an approach to collaborative work that I call “managing promises.” I’m using it with teams and individuals to produce better results with fewer headaches. (If you’d like to talk about using this with your team, send me a note). You may recognize this theme from past interviews with Elizabeth Doty about making only promises you can keep, Bob Dunham on listening for commitment and executives’ new promises, and Chris Chittenden on real accountability. Why do so many handoffs between people go awry? Why is it frustrating when people don’t give you what you ask for and yet so challenging to talk with them about this in a way that improves future results? What happens when you make more powerful offers in your organization, and what specific steps are needed to do this? How can you raise the performance of your entire team by learning the real anatomy of action? I’ve taken many of these ideas (originally from Fernando Flores’s “conversation for action”) and fleshed them out into a comprehensive model called the “promise cycle”. I’ve written a short yet fairly technical playbook about this called Reliable Results. In the coming year, I’ll be doing more interviews and Jedi Leadership Tricks on this topic, posting more diagrams like Fuzzy Promises, Fuzzy Mittens, and continuing to share it with teams. I think there is great potential to do for managing promises with others what David Allen has done with managing agreements with yourself.
  • The American experience with race—a new series. Most conversation about race in the United States is simplistic, polemical, and poorly grounded in history. We are arguing past each other rather than listening to each other, focusing only on the latest outrages, and not sufficiently integrating different perspectives. To me, it’s a huge leadership topic, something that can inform how we understand ourselves and the people we work with even when the topic at hand is not about race. That’s because to talk with wisdom about race is to talk about what it means to be human beings in all our beautiful complexity. I’ll be asking podcast guests to explore this topic with me in an integral way. We’ll delve into individual beliefs and behaviors, culture, and societal structures.
  • Synthesizing key concepts. Several listeners have recently challenged me to share my own understanding on the many ideas I explore with guests. To synthesize and illuminate what I’ve been learning. Expect to see at least a couple forays in this direction in the coming year.

Once again, thank you for walking with me on this journey. Anything in this note strike you as particularly important? Have any other suggestions for me. I welcome your emails!


Fuzzy Promises, Fuzzy Mittens

Mitten weather is a few months away in Oregon. Promises, on the other hand, are year-round.

In rain, shine, and snow, clear promises improve trust and results.

And fuzzy promises?

Example 1

“Can you meet the rest of the team outside the lab tomorrow at noon?”

“I’ll try.”

Example 2

“I really need that report by October 1. Can you do it?”


Example 3

“If I go out on a limb this afternoon, would you be willing to back me up?”

“Sure” [in a soft and uncertain voice]

The Basic Equation

Request + Acceptance = Promise

The Fuzzy Promise Equation

Request + Ambiguous Response = Fuzzy Promise + Confusion + Resentment


That time he didn’t cancel his request [New Post]

When historians look back at my son’s outburst after I wiped his nose with a Kleenex (described last week), they will highlight his rage and my awkward response. A classic case of resenting unwanted help.

But what if things had turned out differently? What if I had found a way to put the mucus back in his nose—and keep it there? (You managerial experts know why: first attract, then retain). And what if, during the time I was prototyping this innovation, my son had changed his mind yet not informed me?

“Daddy, I don’t want the mucus in my nose!”

History books would have recorded this incident differently. Chapter 7: An Uncanceled Request Starts a War. In this rendering, my son would be the villain, and I would be the furious one.

Sound familiar? It’s the most frustrating thing. You get something done for another person. You take care to deliver “to spec.” Then, when you give it to them, they say, “Thanks, but I didn’t need that after all.”

People give this different names: “He’s jerking me around.” “She’s doesn’t care.” “I don’t trust him.” “She is oblivious.”

Or simply WTF!

These responses are understandable yet unproductive.

Ascribing motivation to the other person in this situation has two flaws:

  1. You don’t know their intent, only what they did.
  2. It’s not actionable. What are you going to do, say to them “Stop jerking me around?” How’s that going to turn out?

I prefer to call their behavior failing to cancel a request. It’s both more accurate and more actionable.

Here’s what I mean by canceling a request: They ask you to do something, then change their mind. The responsible thing for them to do is immediately reach out to you and say, “You know that thing I asked you to do? I just learned that I don’t need it any more. I’m canceling my request.” They can apologize, add a bunch of niceties, and so on, but the key is to say “request cancelled!”


Canceling a request has three benefits:

  1. You can redirect your energies to other commitments.
  2. You know they respect your time so you feel better—maybe not happy, but also not resentful.
  3. They don’t have to avoid you in the hallway.

The same holds true if you are the one canceling the request.


  1. If people fail to cancel a request to you, don’t call them names. Ask them to cancel their requests in the future.
  2. If you do this to others, stop. Instead, as soon as you know you don’t need something, let them know.

Why people resent your help [new post]

Helping others succeed in their jobs requires more than generosity. You need to understand what matters to them. For example, have you ever started counseling a direct report about his career and then noticed that he wanted to bolt the room? Or given a peer resources for her big project, then found yourself on the receiving end of a stiff arm?

That’s not fun. Surely, there is better way to give people the help they actually want. What is it?

The Case of the Runny Nose

I got a clue to this mystery a few months ago with my then four-year-old son. His nose was running, but he wasn’t doing anything about it. Like a good parent, I grabbed a Kleenex and gently wiped his nose. Easy peasy, right?

Not according to my son.

“Daddy, I want my mucus back.”


“It’s in the tissue.” I opened it up to show him.

“No, Daddy. I want my mucus back in my nose!”

That’s a new one, I thought. How do you get mucus back in the nose? I starting racking my brain for possible methods.

“Daddy you are stupid!”

Could you simmer down? I’m trying to figure out a way to defeat gravity and reverse your body’s natural physiological processes?

“Daddy why are you so stupid?

“Look, Z, I know you’re upset. Give me a minute.” Doesn’t he know that I’m working hard on his original request? I don’t have time for new questions. Plus, I haven’t yet figured out why I am so stupid.

“Daddy why are you a butt face?”

“Z, you know that in our family that’s not how we talk about people.” This isn’t going well. And I’ve lost my train of thought.

“Daddy I don’t like you.”

No good deed goes unpunished. 

I grabbed the Kleenex, marched into the kitchen, and threw it into the trash can.

Surely there is a better way to give people the help they want.

My mistake in this situation (one of many) was to wipe my son’s nose without first asking him. I acted physically without first making an offer. My son had no opportunity to signal whether or not he wanted my help. Because I didn’t make an offer, he had no freedom to accept my offer, decline it, or make a counteroffer (“Hand me the tissue. I’ll wipe it myself”). He experienced me as acting on him unilaterally rather than with him in a spirit of mutuality.


I was reminded of five principles of helping people through offers.
  1. People like to choose whether or not to receive help.
  2. Making an offer gives them an opportunity to choose.
  3. To make an offer powerful, ground it in what matters to them—something they actually want or care about.
  4. There is no promise without an acceptance. Offer + Acceptance = Promise
  5. The other person has four legitimate ways to respond to your offer: accept, decline, counteroffer (a different What and/or When), and promise to reply later.

So the next time you are tempted to counsel someone about their career—or wipe their nose—ask yourself: what is a powerful offer I could make right now, and do I think they will be open to it?