GREAT LEADERS ARE FLEXIBLE
Let no one think that flexibility and a predisposition to compromise is a sign of weakness or a sell-out.
– Paul Kagame
Flexibility is an increasingly important trait in an economic and social environment that is marked by rapid change. Flexible leaders are those who can modify their style or approach to leadership in response to uncertain or unpredictable circumstances. In addition, flexible leaders can adapt to changes as they come, revising their plans to incorporate new innovations, overcome challenges, and still achieve their goals. Flexibility is not only about surviving and thriving in new situations. Adaptable leaders are also able to implement new behaviors into old, existing situations, allowing them to express creativity in their work and find new methods of solving problems. Flexibility is the willingness to try new behaviors, regardless of whether one is currently undergoing a time of change in their organization.
However, just being open to new behaviors is not enough to make an effective flexible leader. Leaders need to recognize situations in which their old behaviors are not working. From there, they need to decide how to approach the problem, including what new behaviors or approaches are feasible, and which will accomplish their goals within the restraints of their situation. Once a new path is decided upon, flexible leaders need to be able to assess the current success and progress of their new behaviors, and re-evaluate or further modify behaviors that are unsuccessful.
In assessing your flexibility, ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I depending too much on any one behavior?
- Have I considered alternate approaches to solving a problem?
- Am I open to trying new suggestions or strategies from others?
- Can I recognize when changes to my behavior are needed?
- How often do I stop to assess the success of my behavior in a situation?
- Do I encourage my employees to be flexible in times of change?
Improve Your Flexibility
Appreciate the versatility of flexibility: The ways in which a leader can be flexible are infinite. Different leaders will face different challenges, and each leader will need to recognize and seize opportunities for flexibility within their own sphere of influence and action. Here are only a few cases in which flexibility can improve the performance of leaders. First, flexibility can aid in solving difficulties in communicating or connecting with employees. Everyone will have different listening, learning, or comprehension styles, and the flexible leader can not only understand this concept, but act on it by identifying how an employee needs a leader to communicate and changing their approach to fit this model1.
On a broader scale, leaders need flexibility in interacting with individuals from different fields, industries, or cultures. Global organizations and interdisciplinary teams attempt to capitalize on the differences in education, experience, and knowledge of diverse individuals. Leaders must be able to let go of their usual routines and embrace the styles of others when working with individuals different from themselves. Finally, on the broadest scale, large changes in tools, technology, or work styles are common as technology advances and organizations seek greater efficiency. Leaders need to be able to roll with these changes, keep up with changing trends in their work, and adapt new behaviors to match the rate of progress. Many individuals are hesitant or uncomfortable with change. But an effective leader needs to be able to recognize, accept, and welcome change to stay at the top of their game.
Foster flexible employees: Leaders aren’t the only individuals who need to be flexible for an organization to be successful. Encouraging employees to be more flexible in their own work will aid in developing their flexibility skills. Followers who are more flexible understand the need for changing behaviors with changing circumstances. If employees understand the value of flexibility, they will be more open to any changes suggested by their leaders. Fostering employee flexibility also allows individuals to try new behaviors in their own roles, improving their problem solving and increasing their sense of control over their own work. Employees given the trust and freedom to try new approaches feel a greater sense of ownership in their work and are generally more productive2.
Lean on your other leadership characteristics: The actual expression, implementation, and success of flexibility will depend on a leader’s ability to use their other leadership characteristics in new situations3. For example, leaders who are creative may be better equipped to brainstorm new ways to problem solve. Leaders who are persuasive may be better able to convince their employees to try new behaviors in times of change. Similarly, employees who are effective communicators can explain why their new behaviors are important, encouraging employees to trust in the leader’s changing plans. Having strength in some, or all, of these other skills will allow a leader to be flexible in their own behaviors while also encouraging followers to be more flexible and open to change.
Start Doing These 3 Things Now to Become More Flexible
The following steps can help you become more flexible:
- Look for opportunities to be more flexible. It is easy to fall into routine in many parts of daily life. And often, the opportunity to be flexible is overlooked or unrecognized. Leaders can learn to identify situations in which flexibility might be a valuable resource. An example of this could be when a familiar situation changes or when new problems arise. Before facing new situations or challenges, consider what your initial response to this challenge would be. Is this behavior chosen because it is the most effective approach? Or is it chosen because you often approach new situations in the same way? Try to tailor your responses to the actual situation at hand. Over time, leaders can become more comfortable with ambiguity. This allows them to not only display flexibility, but to do so with ease and comfort.
- Listen to the advice of others. While flexible leaders are open to trying new approaches, it is not necessary for the flexible leader to generate all the new solutions themselves. The experience, knowledge, and skills of individuals can be leveraged to help leaders consider, evaluate, and implement new approaches to problem solving. Flexible leaders should be open to the input of others. They should also understand that the best solutions don’t need to come from the top.
- Check your progress. As leaders have more responsibilities assigned to them, or multiple deadlines approaching, it can be tempting to fall back on behaviors or strategies to problem solving that have been successful in the past. Remember to pause before making decisions or starting new projects to consider if the path you’ve outlined is really the best approach for your current project. Reflect on why you chose the strategy you did, and consider some alternative methods. Building in this time for reflection can encourage leaders to be not only more flexible, but also creative and innovative in their work.
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Interested in a hard copy of this handout? Download your PDF copy of our Leadership Series Handout: Flexibility.
1Zaccaro, S. J., Foti, R. J., & Kenny, D. A. (1991). Self-monitoring and trait-based variance in leadership: An investigation of leader flexibility across multiple group situations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 76(2), 308-315.
2Cerasoli, C. P., Nicklin, J. M., & Nassrelgrgawi, A. S. (2016). Performance, incentives, and needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness: A meta-analysis. Motivation and Emotion, 40(6), 781-813.
3Yukl, G. & Mahsud, R. (2010). Why flexible and adaptive leadership is essential. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62(2), 81-93.