Not many of us in 2019 would ever have predicted that a medical virus would change life so drastically that our businesses would be affected. Yet here we are. Sociologists and medical experts are all telling us the impact of the coronavirus will be felt indefinitely, and that it will likely never quite be “business as usual” again.
That’s why flexibility in leadership is more essential than ever before. Flexibility is the willingness to adjust your approach to the context and environment and be able to adjust your style to match the people without lowering your standards in order to achieve your objectives. That is an exacting definition.
This is important in our changing times, that we are able to flex. Rigid things break easily—so do people. Rigid leaders are thrown off by little things and derailed when things don’t meet their expectations. They are unwilling or unable to adjust, and too stubborn to change in their position.
On the other hand, people who exhibit flexibility operate with a full understanding that the world is always unpredictable and variable, and at times a volatile place. Leaders who are flexible realize that there will be situations and circumstances that don’t completely align with their wishes. They are aware that they will interact with people who don’t match their style; there will be scenarios that simply don’t stack up, and standards that do not make sense to them.
Flexible people understand and accept all of that. Rigid people have a hard time moving forward, let alone leading anyone else, because they are always focused on how it was supposed to be according to their personal preferences and standards. When circumstances or people derail what they prefer, they struggle to handle reality.
On the other hand, flexible people understand that the world does not operate according to our preferences, that everyone else has them as well. When circumstances or people take them off their preferences, they are willing to adjust their preference and style without lowering their standards. They are able to see beyond the immediate context to meet the demands of the situation.
It is vital to be self-aware and realize when we are being rigid and in a fixed position with an unwillingness to look beyond our own perspective. Once it becomes emotional it is hard to let go. It will deliver consequences that you do not want.
Flexibility comes from self-awareness. So, what does a flexible leader look like? Flexible leaders change plans as situations change. This results in an ability to remain productive during times of upheaval or transition. They embrace change, are open to new ideas, and enjoy working with a wide spectrum of people.
The challenge comes in keeping management and leadership in balance. If management is overemphasized, then taking risks may be discouraged and bureaucracy can be created, which may not serve any purpose. When leadership is too strong, without the balance of management, there can be disruption in order and the risk of creating impractical change. Richard Lepsinger, in his book Flexible Leadership,offers guidelines for integrating the leader and manager roles.
1. Increase Situational Awareness. Understand the external factors that can hurt or help the effectiveness of your organization, and determine what strategies have the best chance for success given your internal processes and resources. You need to obtain accurate, timely information about the organization, its members, and the external environment. As the manager, you measure these important key variables and understand how they change over time.
2. Embrace Systems Thinking. Leaders need to understand how making changes in one area can affect others. Every organization has many interlocking systems, and alterations to one system can have a domino effect on the organization as a whole. Anticipating these effects helps leaders compensate for any impacts.
3. Coordinate Leadership Across Levels and Subunits. No one leader has absolute control over the success or failure of a change initiative. To achieve lasting commitment to change, every leader at every level of the organization needs to coordinate efforts to manage the change. To achieve seamless coordination across the organization, managers must have shared values and beliefs that guide their decisions.
4. Lead by Example. Modeling the behavior that is needed for success is one of the most important tasks for any manager or leader. Equally important is avoiding setting a bad example by falling into old habits when you are implementing a change.
5. Maintain Focus. As new challenges and situations arise, flexible leaders need to avoid letting these things distract their attention and decrease their commitment to meeting their objectives.
In the Strategic Finance article, “Keys to Flexible Leadership,” Jeanette Landin tells us, “In some situations, you might have days or weeks to consider courses of action; in others, you may have minutes or perhaps even seconds.” She suggests using the following questions to guide your action:
What do my followers need me to do?
What are appropriate alternatives?
What’s the best course of action for all involved?
Research has already shown that the inability to develop or adapt was the most frequently cited reason for career derailment among North American managers. It is vital to consider your personal approach to change. How do you respond when facing change? Do you…
Accept the change as positive?
See the change as an opportunity?
Adapt plans as necessary?
Quickly master new technology, vocabulary, operating rules?
Lead the change by example?
Consider other people’s concerns?
Sort out your strengths and weaknesses fairly accurately?
Admit personal mistakes, learn from them, and move on?
To survive change, you have to first lead yourself. You need cognitive flexibility—the ability to use different thinking strategies and mental frameworks. You need emotional flexibility—the ability to vary one’s approach to dealing with emotions and those of others. You need dispositional flexibility—the ability to remain optimistic and, at the same time, realistic, defeatist. Ambiguity is well-tolerated. Flexible leaders see change as an opportunity rather than as a threat or danger.
As leaders we not only have to respond to change, but we also have to steer change. Here are a few suggestions as you adapt to change and guide your team through change.
Be curious. Ask lots of questions before you decide.
Don’t get too attached to a single plan or strategy. Plan A may not work. Have Plan B (and C) ready to go.
Create support systems. Don’t be a lone ranger. Look to mentors, friends, coaches, trusted peers, professional colleagues, family members, and others to serve as your support system in times of change. Encourage employees to do the same.
Understand your own reactions. You have to be clear about your own emotions and thoughts about changes, so you can be straightforward with others.
Immerse yourself in new environments and situations. Do this when you are confronted by change—but practice it by joining activities, meeting new people, and trying new things on a regular basis.
Flexibility is vital for the future. You can do it.