By Ron Price

From The Complete Leader Podcast Episode #64

When I think about flexibility, I often think about trees. Trees show off their flexibility in the way they endure storms or handle wind, ice, and snow. For many trees, their flexibility is a combination of strength and their ability to bend but not break—their deep root systems offer leverage, balance, and a great capacity for holding on in the midst of challenging circumstances.

Sometimes as a leader, you need to be like a tree. Flexibility is one of the most important skills you can have, especially during times of constant change and disruption.

While you likely have no control over much of what’s happening in the world around you, flexibility can help you see the differences between what you can’t control and what you can influence with your response. If you can understand how to adapt the way you respond to opportunities, challenges, and shifts, you can learn to take advantage of those things you can control as well as learn to leverage what you cannot.

Where to incorporate flexibility to succeed

I believe anyone can and should develop the capability to be a flexible leader. Often, your ideas, visions, and plans will get you started along the path to success, but if you stay rigidly committed to those plans without recognizing all of the possibilities you could have to adapt to, there is a high chance of underperforming. No matter what, you are going to run into obstacles and endless situations in which flexibility will help you succeed as a leader.

To determine when is best to use this skill and when to stay the course, I envision it as a continuum. While you need flexibility as a leader, you also don’t want to compromise your core beliefs in the process—something an old colleague of mine called being “rigidly flexible.”

On the rigid end of the continuum, envision your mission, your vision, your core values, why you exist as an organization or as an individual, how you want your organization’s culture to function, and how you want to live your life. You don’t want to compromise who you are, why you do what you do, or where you’re going without being very thoughtful and intentional.

In the middle of the continuum, think about your goals, priorities, and strategies. Sometimes, you need to be more firm on these and other times more flexible. This is where you have to be discerning about the best way to respond to the changing realities around you. Tactics, roles, how you allocate resources, and schedule your day-to-day are all on the more fluid end of the continuum.

In order to recognize potential obstacles to success, you have to be aware of your circumstances and recognize when you should bend and when you should hold steady. Being more flexible in the way you organize and execute around your priorities, in responding to customer needs and requests, when new opportunities or threats arise, and in your relationships are all excellent times to exercise the skill of flexibility.

Steps to build flexibility as a leader

A lot of the skills you grow as a leader are developed intuitively as you manage different circumstances encountered during your career. But as a Complete Leader, rather than simply reacting to everything, you are more intentional, thoughtful, and reflective—broadening and deepening the skills you are focused on. As you work on any of these core competencies, keep in mind how they play into your leadership, and use these three activities to further develop your ability to be flexible.

  1. Write down three successes. What role did flexibility play in achieving those wins? Did you adapt along the way, bend a little bit here or there without giving up your values? Analyze what worked well and where you can see flexibility playing a part of that success journey. As you become more aware of how you use flexibility in your work, you’ll become more attuned to opportunities to be flexible.
  2. Write down three setbacks. What if you had been a little more flexible then, whether in the way you organized things, in your goals, in the way you assigned roles or allocated resources? Could you have succeeded where you underperformed? Thinking through past setbacks will help you see situations in which you could be more flexible in the future.
  3. Think about three current or future challenges. Ask yourself, where can you apply the skill of flexibility to be more successful in the face of future challenges or threats? An exercise I often use in strategic planning is to ask leaders to imagine four scenarios of the future: a utopian scenario, a doomsday scenario, a preferable scenario, and a probable scenario. Doing this exercise helps you to expand your thinking about how you can approach that future challenge and allows you to anticipate and plan for flexibility. As circumstances change, you’ve already conditioned yourself to be more flexible.

The more you learn to exercise your flexibility muscles, the more strength you have to endure the storms ahead.