by Paul Casey

How to be a Flex-Leader

“Blessed are the flexible, for they will never be bent out of shape.” I saw this on a bumper sticker once and thought how true that is for leaders—and, what I want out of my employees. Change is the “currency” for leadership. This skill entails:

  • Leading change by example 
  • Accepting change as positive
  • Adapting plans as necessary
  • Taking into account people’s concerns during change
  • Effectively involving key people in the design and implementation of change

The first step of change management: the awareness you as a leader need to have about changes that are coming down the pipe so that your business can make changes before things get so urgent that you can’t adjust in time to handle them. Head-in-the-sand leadership only causes emergencies for everyone in your business. However, if you live in a perpetual state of readiness for the unexpected, you never get startled. You are in a posture of adapting and can turn on a dime.

There are two kinds of problem-solving in leadership: technical and adaptive. Technical leadership is when you solve a problem with your own expertise and experience; you have been in a situation like this before and know a solution to fix it. You have the tools in your toolbox already.  Managers excel at this. Adaptive leadership is rarer to find because it deals with solving problems in never-experienced situations and requires good judgment and intuition and innovative solutions with no guarantee of success. You make the best call you can with the information you have and then respond to the results.

Seth Godin talks about this in his book Poke the Box. He reminds us that when we were small children, when a toy was given to us that we didn’t understand, we poked at it and man-handled it and threw it around until it lit up or beeped or delighted us in some way. But then as adults, we shy away from change or taking the leap into uncertainty out of fear. Seth says to keeping poking the box and then pivoting and iterating on what happens next. Make it just a part of your leadership life; it just is.

What you resist, persists. And it affects you and the team negatively. It’s time to bounce! To master change, your paradigm must switch from what you will lose to what you will gain.  Don’t waste any time yelling at the closed door (the path you wanted to take, but now is blocked); instead, go toward another door (of opportunity) that might be opening and lead your team through it.  You have probably seen people never able to let go of a disappointment or loss, and they stay stuck in the place for years. How sad!  It has become part of their identity. A creative solution I heard of was a parent who actually gives his children five minutes to whine and complain after a negative circumstance, and then shuts off that “faucet” and says they no longer can bring it up; it’s in the past. Try that in a staff meeting!

Instead of blaming and blowing up, wouldn’t you rather be known and respected for being an agile leader? Wouldn’t you love for everyone on your team to score a “10” in agility?  Leadership learning agility is the ability and willingness to learn from experience and apply that learning to perform successfully under new or first-time situations. It’s embracing the new situation as best you can as a way to learn and grow. Learners actually find joy in the process of change because there might be some renewal right around the corner. You can have what Warren Bennis describes as an “almost magical ability to transcend adversity, with all its attendant stresses, and emerge stronger than before.”

Sometimes you have to adapt to a much-different personality style on your team than you. Sometimes, agility comes into play when you must interact with public officials or regulatory officers. I like to say, “Just be nice!” Adapting and keeping your composure gives them nothing at which to shake their finger. You are true to yourself and your core principles, and a little like a “chameleon,” so that everyone wins.

When it comes to agility in looking forward, I still recommend strategically-planning every year in an off-site retreat and pursuing that course of action intentionally. What “brung” you here won’t get you there. But in my opinion, I wouldn’t scope out in detail too much more than one year ahead, for there is just too much change in the world to shoot out farther than that. It’s more like improvisation comedy, where the actors play off each other and the crowd to create something on the spot that’s hilarious. You may be a control freak, but you can’t script out everything.

Ron Heifetz says adaptive leadership is like being on the dance floor for a while and then running up into the balcony for a while. You must observe what’s going well (to praise it, encourage more of it, make it into an SOP) and what’s not going well (to change the procedure, correct the employee, apologize to the customer, research a better way). It’s tempting to always stay on the dance floor, in the trenches, because that’s where the urgent actions are, and you want to be there for your staff. You want to feel like a fixer because it makes you feel needed. But your team needs you more in the balcony running recon and staying ahead of problems before they occur or fester. With your inner circle of leaders, have those balcony conversations regularly.

Tell your team what’s not changing—to avoid the Sky-is-falling reactions. There are some things in your business that are like marble (mission, vision, values) about which to be dogmatic, and others that are like sand (always subject to change) about which you become collaborative in adjusting to the new reality. You want to do what Jim Collins recommends: Preserve the Core and Stimulate Progress. Be like a missile, which is off-line 85% of the time and its internal guidance system is constantly course-correcting until hitting the target.

Your team is looking to you for a sense of calmness when the status quo gets altered or a new regulation gets dictated or a nasty customer interaction happens.  Effective leaders don’t detach or react; they take a versatile perspective on change and confidently lead their staff to respond to it with a “C’mon, get up; let’s keep fighting” and a “we’ll get through this” approach.

Pick up a copy of my book Leading the Team You’ve Always Wanted to keep learning on your leadership journey. You’ll find 11 inspirational actions within your control that will shape your group into a high-functioning team. And it’s only $10!


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