Organization & Leadership Consulting

What is Agency and How Does it Benefit a Team?

man taking agency up stairs into sun
“Agency is the human capacity to choose and do, to move towards life.” – Gary Gunderson

Gary Gunderson, a pioneer in the field of faith in public health, explored many theories, research papers, speeches, and presentations about the causes of death. Medical science is continually focused on the causes of death and preventing them. For instance, if obesity is a leading cause of death, we focus on avoiding obesity. The same is true of smoking, consuming too much sugar, living in highly polluted cities, and driving without seatbelts.

Gunderson began to ponder … Instead of focusing solely on the causes of death and how that impacts faith and public health, what if we placed focus instead on the causes of … life? 

From this mental and spiritual exercise, Gunderson penned his book entitled, Leading Causes of Life: Five Fundamentals to Change the Way You Live Your Life. This book identifies five concepts as leading causes of life:

  1. Connection
  2. Coherence
  3. Agency
  4. Blessing
  5. Hope

While I highly encourage reading the entire book, today let’s talk about item three– Agency.

What is Agency?

Here is what Gunderson told Tom Peterson in an interview for Stakeholder Health:

“I was in South Africa while I was thinking through the leading causes. I was reluctant to talk about it in this context of the catastrophe of HIV/AIDS because it sounded too positive, too cheerful. But the Africans grabbed it, saying it’s a very African idea. That’s where I learned the language of agency—in the radical disconnection of apartheid, the shattering of families from HIV/AIDS, and the incoherence of apartheid using religion against people. Even in that setting people made choices to move, to do. They worked, healed, and resisted. Those are all expressions of agency.

Agency is the human capacity to choose and do, to move towards life. The medical method is to identify a pathology and defeat it. What’s actually going on in any human is more complex than that. These causes of life were innate to humans before we began researching and writing anything. They are essential to the human capacity to thrive.

We’re merely giving language to something that’s already there. That’s five words more than medicine usually emphasizes. Sometimes agency is all you have to work with. Life may be incoherent; you may be disconnected. But you still can get up in the morning and move. It’s a fundamental capacity to choose to move toward life. It’s not resisting death, it’s an expression of a seeking of life. It’s a positive choosing.”

How Does Agency Benefit a Team?

No matter how carefully you plan, strategize, train, mentor, and lead your team, some out of the blue event will send you spinning. The disruptions of 2020, 2021, and so far in 2022, reveal a stunning array of circumstances we could not foresee or prevent. It is within such scenarios that Agency proves invaluable.

Pre-paring to Take Action

Agency means moving forward; taking action; doing something to make a positive difference. However, when your team takes a hit, give them some time to adjust. It’s a bit like grief – allow time to pause, take stock of thoughts and emotions, and regroup. Beware of languishing in a state of shock and inaction. Provide time and resources to process the disruption(s), and before momentum turns backward, bring them together and call them to collaborative action. They will appreciate both the care and the call.

Plan Action Steps

After taking stock of personal matters, help your team assess its losses and opportunities before  formulating a plan. Some will want to take action now. Others will want to gather more information before even considering a planning discussion. Have the team acknowledge where its members are atin regard to pace, discuss a pace that’s best suited for the moment, and make decisions on how to line up immediate action with long-term outcomes.

There is much healing in merely keeping on keeping on. Like the hard-hit but resilient Africans during times of confusion and suffering, anyone can find strength, resilience, and normalcy in getting up every day to live one’s life.

Moving Forward

By leveraging Agency, you’ll motivate and inspire your team to regroup, face the facts, and forge ahead. Often, you’ll be moving forward in a much different environment than before. Identify an external New Normal and how internal functions need to adjust.

For further reading, I recommend reading Gunderson’s book, The Leading Causes of Life

TurningWest exists to help leaders and organizations through planned and unplanned disruption. Whether you’re facing a turnaround scenario, a next-level up change, or some form of realignment issue we can guide you through it. To learn more, contact us today.


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