Dynamic Leadership: 3 Useful Tips to Boost Your Flexibility
Leaders must prioritize flexibility to navigate change and globalization.
Posted December 13, 2020
Leadership is about behavioral flexibility, a concept that means adapting your style to the circumstance. Research shows that executives are more effective when they can play a variety of roles when leading people and making decisions. In fact, as suggested by the famous sociologist George Herbert Mead, the essence of social skill is being able to see things from another’s perspective, and then using this information to adjust one’s approach to match the situation.
Think about globalization. Today we are living in a world that is beautifully diverse; we are no longer isolated from other cultures. To be sure, most leaders are in charge of multicultural teams and, if they aren’t, they have direct reports with different values, personalities, and expectations of them. In psychology this is called Implicit Leadership Theory (ILT), and the main idea is that followers have preconceived notions of what makes for an effective leader.
Consider research conducted by the Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE) program. In this research, Mansour Javidan and colleagues found consequential differences in leadership around the world, demonstrating that good leadership is “in the eye of the beholder.” They identified culturally contingent leadership attributes that “may work effectively in one culture but cause harm in others.”
For instance, in Brazil followers expect to be included in business unit decisions; acting without consensus causes colleagues to perceive the leader as incompetent. Conversely, in the United States leaders are expected to be collaborative but get dinged harder for a lack of independence, cautiousness, and relying too much on others to make decisions. These followers expect an opportunistic, quick-moving innovator that makes decisive decisions.
But here’s the problem: People are not naturally flexible, hence why expatriates have difficulty leading in other countries. Humans have distinct personalities, based on genetics and childhood experiences, that result in leadership style differences. Take for instance the negative correlation between conscientiousness and creativity. Conscientious executives, and prudent employees in general, follow organizational rules, processes, and procedures while oftentimes failing to think about big picture innovation. Creative executives, on the other hand, sometimes get so lost in ideas that they fail to follow-through, prioritize resources, and effectively manage projects.
So then—how can you amp up your leadership flexibility? Or, as Aristotle would say, how can you leverage your leadership virtues and minimize overdoing them to the point that they become a vice? And how can you turn vices into virtues?
1. Have awareness of your potential and current performance
Potential and performance are not the same. Potential is future-oriented, whereas, performance is what is happening right now. A good measure of potential is enduring personality traits, for they determine a person’s natural leadership tendencies. Anyone can be a strategic leader, but some personalities have a head start and thereby require less development.
On the other hand, performance is a snapshot in time. If potential is the entire movie of one’s life, performance is a single scene in the movie. A good measure of performance—outside of objective goal attainment—is 360-degree assessment. In 360 assessment, leaders receive feedback from direct reports, peers, and supervisors to create a targeted development plan.
Performance evaluations can sometimes be biased and inaccurate, of course, but in the words of Carl Jung: “It all depends on how we look at things, and not how they are in themselves.” Your reputation is your reputation, regardless of truth, and the goal of assessment is strategic self-awareness—knowing your potential, natural inclinations, and reputation with others. Clever people use this information to get along, get ahead, and shape their reputation at work.
2. Create an actionable development plan
Leadership assessment always results in development opportunities; I’ve never conducted an executive assessment and afterwards said: “You’re actually the perfect person; just keep doing exactly what you’re doing. In fact, focus on your strengths—forget that whole admitting mistakes and humility thing.”
But creating a plan to become more adaptable is very challenging, especially if you do it right. It is insufficient to set broad goals such as “influence more” or “be more confident and have less anxiety.” Leadership goals must be specific behaviors with a timeline and evaluation strategy: how and when are you going to influence more? What strategies are you going to use to manage your anxiety? What does success look like? A robust development plan takes a few hours to create, so if you spend 30 minutes you’re probably heading in the wrong direction.
3. Obtain social support
You might be surprised to hear that people don’t follow through with New Year’s resolutions. The reason is that change is hard. People are designed for habits, order, and predictability—which comes from the underlying need for a structured, safe, and knowable life. The science of change shows that people don’t change and, when they do, they become more like themselves over time. A psychologist friend of mine likes to say: “People are like fine wine; the good ones get better with age and the bad ones worse.”
Nevertheless, people can change. And these rare occasions are almost always galvanized by social support. People are social primates; everything consequential happens between people, not within us. Consider the success of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 Step programs (e.g., Gamblers Anonymous, Nicotine Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous). The 12 Steps are deeply psychological; to inspire transformation, they use group coaching, sharing stories, self-expression, celebrating success, being cared for by others, and many other social techniques. The same is true in business: successful people leverage mentors, coaches, and a strong network; whereas, unsuccessful leaders try to do everything themselves.
Nietzsche wrote a philosophical novel called Thus Spoke Zarathustra. While talking about the nature of life, he said: “…commanding is harder than obeying. And not only that the commander bears the burden of all obeyers, and this burden easily crushes him.” Leadership is a tough job, and with all the complexities of globalization, technology, and uncertainty, leadership is more important and challenging than ever. The key to success is fighting against our natural tendencies to thread the eye of a needle in hopes of balancing opposing but complementary tensions. Make sure your plan includes an in-depth assessment, clear development goals, and social support.
Javidan, M., Dorfman, P. W., de Luque, M. S., & House, R. J. (2006). In the eye of the beholder: Cross-cultural lessons in leadership from Project GLOBE. Academy of Management Perspectives, 20(1): 67–90.