We have established that leadership is a complex, demanding and thoroughly challenging undertaking where those who describe themselves as leaders will be required, from time to time to manifest certain qualities. Another quality or characteristic found amongst many effective leaders relates to their ability to be flexible. It is neither strange nor uncommon for the first image to pop into your head upon hearing the word ‘flexible’, to be that of someone bending or folding him/herself into seemingly uncomfortable positions – after all, we are usually amazed by such physical feats. However, flexibility in leadership has very little to do with our physical flexibility.
It is said that if a branch is too rigid, it will break and with that, nature once again provides fertile ground from which we can harvest significant lessons. Under normal, everyday conditions, most trees will appear very similar in their most basic of attributes – they have roots, a trunk, branches, and leaves – but when examined in the glare of the unusual eventuality of a storm or hurricane, some trees do differentiate themselves from others.
Category 5 hurricanes have been known to produce winds with speeds that have snapped some of the biggest and longest standing oak trees across the globe. On the surface, these trees appeared solid and unbreakable but it is these very characteristics that often times played a role in their ultimate collapse in the face of tempestuous circumstances. In contrast, palm trees have time and time again shown themselves to be one of the most hurricane or storm-resistant trees around.
Observations reveal that when the mighty oak tree (and others like it) stands rigidly fixed in the face of the powerful wind forces pressing against it, the end result is often the breaking or uprooting of the tree. However, palm trees exhibit a high degree of flexibility in the winds – sometimes bending to the point where they are parallel to the ground beneath them – and when the winds cease, they often pop right back up to their original position.
Absolute rigidity in leadership will often lead to a breaking point – either for the leader or for the organization or group being led. Effective leaders have mastered the art of being flexible and know when to stand tall and firm and when to bend. We are living in a time where situations in our organizations are changing rapidly and our success as leaders will be commensurate with our ability to adjust our plans to align with those changes.
Say you are the manager of a youth football club with a star player who has scored all of your team’s goals for the season. You know that this individual is your secret weapon and once there, your team has the best chances at success for the upcoming final game of the season. Unfortunately, the day before the big game, you receive word that this star player is seriously injured and will not be able to play. Your team is now in chaos. They too understand the value and contribution made by this player and they believe that their chances of winning are now slim to none. A rigid leader may be unable to refocus him/herself and the team in the face of such a challenge and may even go so far as to withdraw the team from the final game out of fear of losing. On the other hand, a flexible leader will exude confidence in the team as a unit and will readjust it to make room for new stars to come to the surface.
Flexibility is not only required when facing trying circumstances, I dare say that it is needed now more than ever as we work with and lead the multiplicity of personalities which come through our doors. Policies are essential and procedures provide frameworks within which daily activities can be executed in consistent and effective manners, but equally critical must be our focus on ensuring that our people are well taken care of. Flexibility allows us to tailor-make our handling of each individual in the way (s) which works best for them; in other words, there can be no ‘one-size-fits-all’ in people management. Rigidity in leading others is a thoroughly unappealing attribute, and it often results in atmospheres characterized by fear, low productivity and lacking in creativity and initiative.
Like the palm trees, we must endeavour to be flexible in dealing with our trying circumstances and our people. In doing this, we will find that our organizations are more capable of weathering any storm that will come their way.
(Davidson Ishmael holds a MBA in Leadership and Innovation and is an operations manager in the financial services sector.