Feeling adrift in a business world where uncertainty is the norm? Where complex problems bubble up quickly and defy conventional leadership thinking? Where, as CCL’s Nick Petrie writes, “Hindsight does not lead to foresight since the elements and conditions of the system can be in continual flux”?

If so, it’s time to hang up on heroic leadership — the notion that a single person has all the answers — and embrace a new orientation to leading yourself and others: flexibility.

Scott Yorkovich, adjunct faculty at Capella University, defines flexible leadership as the “ability to receive and process diverse and potentially conflicting sources of information, the openness to implement a variety of strategic solutions, and the ability to adapt to changing conditions.” Getting comfortable with ambiguity is a must in a turbulent business environment filled with perpetual transitions. Having a boundary-spanning mindset is crucial for successful personal and professional leadership.

Try one or more of these tips for putting the Chinese proverb, “The wise adapt themselves to circumstances as water molds itself to the pitcher,” to work in cultivating a more flexible leadership style.

  • Be the water. The past’s linear lessons have questionable applicability in today’s hyper-connected, technology-driven, multiple-generations business world. The mental scripts we’ve written based on our past experiences can limit our ability to think and respond creatively, a performance gap that can render us obsolete. Flexible leaders are fluid — managing to drive change and innovation while still preserving a core of stability.
  • Transcend ego. Agile leaders naturally think less of “me” and more of “we,” having long ago abandoned command-and-control power trips. As Ben Dattner, adjunct professor at New York University, advises us, “Twenty-first century leaders might benefit from thinking of themselves as being in the center of a web rather than on top of a pyramid.”
  • Keep the number of rules, policies and procedures to a minimum. Four-inch-thick policy binders foster rigidity and stifle innovation. Flexible leaders know when to go by the book and when to take a risk. “If you want to encourage more risk-taking in your company or your unit, you’ll need to reduce the conflicting signals and create an environment where the benefits of taking a risk outweigh the costs,” writes Ron Ashkenas, an organizational transformation consultant.
  • Embrace the contrarian. We’re rewarded for and conditioned to rely on our strengths, a default position that sometimes prompts us to marginalize ideas generated by those with whom we disagree or discount. The trouble is that over-reliance on a strength can become a weakness. Flexible leaders seek out those with alternate points of views and listen closely to what they have to say before things go wrong.
  • Think paradoxically. Managing contradictions and opposites are the power breakfast of flexible leaders. One’s leadership focus may be on task completion, yet there is still an understanding that building and maintaining relationships is equally important. Flexible leaders are both strong and vulnerable, provide both structure and managed chaos, and value hard and soft skills equally.

Jane Perdue is a leadership-development maverick, speaker and writer and the founder of Braithwaite Innovation Group. Perdue is @thehrgoddess on Twitter and blogs at LeadBIG.

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One Response to “How to develop a flexible leadership style”

  1. Jane Perdue says:

    Well said, Leann!

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