We live in constant whitewater. Uncertainty and ambiguity are the new normal. Today’s business environment is in a continual state of change.

This is just everyday life in our modern business world. New processes, technologies, regulations, industry fluctuations, customer demands, political changes and cultural shifts require companies to adapt their business model to adjust to the change. To respond to this turmoil, we need flexible leadership at all levels of an organization, from the CEO to the frontline employees.

What does a flexible leader look like? In this context, flexibility is having the agility and ability to readily respond to changing circumstances and expectations. Flexible leaders change plans as situations change. This results in an ability to remain productive during times of upheaval or transition. They embrace change, are open to new ideas and enjoy working with a wide spectrum of people.

In a B2C article entitled “Flexible Leadership: Learning to Lead and Manage,” Rick Lepsinger tells us that in these fast paced times, to be truly flexible, we must wear two hats: that of the leader and that of the manager. “Huh?” you say. You always thought that managing and leading were mutually exclusive roles that required different skills and values. Well, it turns out that you are half right. According to Lepsinger, while they are distinct roles, they can and should be enacted by the same person. Both roles are necessary for success. Both roles produce vital outcomes for the organization. Managing produces predictability and order, and leadership produces organizational change.

The challenge comes in keeping the two roles in balance. If management is overemphasized, then taking risk may be discouraged and bureaucracy can be created, which may not serve any purpose. When leadership is too strong, without the balance of management, there can be disruption in order and the risk of creating impractical change. Lepsinger tells us “the importance of leading and managing depends in part on the situation.” Management increases in importance as organizations grow in size and complexity. When the external environment is dynamic and uncertain, the need for leadership increases. While one person needs to be able to perform both roles, “few executives are effective at both leading and managing.”

To help with this delicate balancing act, he offers guidelines for integrating the leader and manager roles.

  1. Increase Situational Awareness – Understand the external factors that can hurt or help the effectiveness of your organization and determine what strategies have the best chance for success given your internal processes and resources. To maintain high situational awareness as a leader, you need to obtain accurate, timely information about the organization, its members and the external environment. As the manager, you measure these important key variables and understand how they change over time.
  2. Embrace Systems Thinking – Leaders need to understand how making changes in one area can affect others. Every organization has many interlocking systems, and alterations to one system can have a domino effect on the organization as a whole. Anticipating these effects helps leaders compensate for any impacts. Typically, this type of strategic thinking is associated with top leaders, but it is also an important skill set for managers at all levels within the organization.
  3. Coordinate Leadership Across Levels and Subunits – No one leader has absolute control over the success or failure of a change initiative. To achieve lasting commitment to change, every leader at every level of the organization needs to coordinate efforts to manage the change. To achieve seamless coordination across the organization, managers must have shared values and beliefs that guide their decisions. Top management ensures the organization has a core ideology, but leaders at all levels must support that ideology and use it to guide daily actions.
  4. Lead by Example – Modeling the behavior that is needed for success is one of the most important tasks for any manager or leader. Equally important is avoiding setting a bad example by falling into old habits when you are implementing a change.
  5. Maintain Focus – As new challenges and situations arise, flexible leaders need to avoid letting these things distract their attention and decrease their commitment to meeting their objectives.

In the Strategic Finance article “Keys to Flexible Leadership,” Jeanette Landin tells us, “In some situations, you might have days or weeks to consider courses of action; in others, you may have minutes or perhaps even seconds.” She suggests using the following questions to guide your action:

  • What do my followers need me to do?
  • What are appropriate alternatives?
  • What’s the best course of action for all involved?

To enhance your flexible leadership skills, be open to experiences and seek the learning opportunities that each situation presents. As you become more flexible, you will become more effective. Remember that becoming a flexible leader takes time and patience. The Council’s Leadership Academy has many resources to assist you. Just reach out. We are here to help you navigate the turbulent water!

McDaid is The Council’s SVP of Leadership and Management Resources. elizabeth.mcdaid@ciab.com