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Determination/Flexibility: Two Sides of the Same Coin

To stay on course, you have to let others contribute along the way.

Key points

  • Compromise is not a form of giving in; it’s an effective strategy.
  • Effective leaders display empathy with their constituents.
  • Leaders work within the norms of the groups they lead.
  • All energy, with no ability for adapting to change, will eventually produce burnout.


Chessmen 32 and board

Just as leaders should be flexible in defining a vision (why risk being overtaken as life changes?), they must be flexible as they pursue it (change affects the resources they can call up, as well as their support team). Determination by itself, therefore, is not enough. It must be accompanied by the capacity to respond to change, and to people whose support for us may be qualified.

Thus, when we set out to lead, determination and flexibility are two sides of the same coin. You cannot be all energy with no ability to adapt. What matters is how nimble you are in the moment—you don’t want to squander an opportunity—and over the series of crucial moments that will define your career.

Sometimes, people in leadership positions think (if only to themselves) that “If I got here, I must be doing something right. So why should I compromise?” But, as I’ve learned, that’s the best way not to remain a leader.

Leaders must retain the loyalty of the led. They must convince people that whatever interests are at stake, are shared—maybe not 50/50, but close enough so that people remain involved, supportive, and willing to weather hard times on the leader’s watch. A flexible leader is better able to retain people’s trust.

There is a vast literature on how trust develops between people, ranging from intimates to colleagues and employees. What remains constant is that no one wants to feel unheard, unappreciated, discounted, or even abandoned. Leaders develop trust by listening and displaying empathy.

Flexibility arises out of empathy—when we understand how someone feels, and why they feel that way, we can address what they feel are their legitimate needs. We do not have to agree that these needs are justified; they may not be what we need. But we should demonstrate concern and a willingness to take account of what people are saying.

Of course, what people do not say may sometimes be more compelling than what they do. The most successful leaders analyze any situation broadly, so that they can take account of a community’s norms, its history, and social composition. These leaders literally inhabit the place that they seek to lead.

One of my clients, a musician, successfully appealed to other musicians because he had literally walked in their shoes—and, to a degree, continued to. He understood where they are coming from figuratively but also literally, since he had come from the same place. He displayed emotional awareness (which only someone who had been-there-done-that could have had), allowing those other musicians to make positive assumptions based on what they knew that he knew. In this context, “awareness” (beyond mere knowledge) is key, since it implies an actual connection between a leader and his or her constituency.

Still, leaders (and potential leaders) will face obstacles and setbacks. Their progress is nonlinear. They get discouraged. But the most successful find enough in their previous experience to just keep going. They understand that they have shown promise in the past and are capable of personal growth.

Perhaps the most important element of determination is a conviction that what we hope to achieve is possible or, at least, that we have the background and psychological mettle to take on the challenge. Of course, we will need energy, but energy is frequently a product of belief in ourselves—not pollyannaish, naive belief, but a clear-eyed assessment of our own capabilities. Leadership often requires quick-wittedness. We can’t stop to ponder whether we have the right stuff.

We can also give ourselves a boost by finding influential allies. We must learn to interest them in our objectives (even, perhaps, by giving them a stake in our success). Allies are crucial when we seek to lead a group with an entrenched culture, where members may be skeptical of anyone who represents change. To a degree, therefore, a leader will concentrate on—and impart momentum to—avatars of change already developing in a group but who, for some time, have remained directionless. The leader assimilates with these elements, provides them with a definition. They reciprocate by providing support.

So, as you begin to think about how determination and flexibility may play out in your own leadership challenges, think about these issues:

  • A leader is prepared to deter opposition before it gets organized. Can you detect emerging challenges, and are you able to put in place a plan to meet them?
  • Leaders sense the avatars of change already present in a group and can utilize elements of that change to advance his or her own objectives. Can you?
  • Leaders make their past count in the present; they make the most of what they have. Are you conscious of your experience and transferable skills, and can you readily draw on them?
  • Flexibility enhances a leader’s credibility; it tells people that you are determined to lead. Are you willing to bend sufficiently? Can you gauge how much bending is sufficient?
  • To be flexible, leaders should empathize with those they lead. Can you draw on your work/life experience to develop empathy?
  • Leaders make change incrementally, based on what their constituency can tolerate. Are you sensitive to all your stakeholders? Do you listen creatively—i.e., do you think while you listen and formulate tactical as well as more long-term responses?
  • Are you able to locate influential allies, especially within groups that have their own culture?
  • Are you sensitive to cultural factors within groups that you seek to lead?

Leaders are always a step ahead. These are mental steps, since leaders think about how to respond even before the need arises. They make plans. They are always looking around, since it is never possible to know exactly where a challenge will come from.

When they sense a challenge, they switch into strategy-mode, deciding how to meet it. But they remain flexible, since no plan is as ineffective as one that is rigid and boxes you in.

Yet even at their most determined, great leaders know that unless they understand their challengers, and really know where they’re coming from, they won’t succeed. Most of the time, such understanding elicits a creative compromise. So, don’t think of compromise as a form of giving in. Instead, use it creatively as a strategy.

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