News & Insight
January 2012

The Flexible Leader: First, Know Thyself

Liz Bywater

There is just no getting around it. Flexible leadership is an absolute must in today's ultra-demanding whitewater environment. To be truly successful, one must be limber, adaptable and ready to try new ways of getting things done.

If you find yourself bristling at this notion and digging in your heels at the prospect of twisting yourself into a metaphorical pretzel, take heart. Flexibility does not require losing your identity or letting go of what's most important to you. In fact, it all starts with knowing exactly who you are and what you stand for. Self-examination and self-knowledge are essential for making deliberate, conscious and authentic adaptations to your leadership style.

Here's an approach I offer to my clients:

Take inventory. Who are you as a leader? Think about your style and your strengths. Are you a visionary, with a keen interest in what's to come? Are you operationally oriented, with a well-developed knowledge of how to get things done? Do you take a hands-on approach to the work being done by the people in your organization or do you tend to empower, delegate and step back from the details? Do you take a one-size-fits-all approach to managing your team, communicating your vision and working with key stakeholders? Or do you adapt your approach as you go, calling on a variety of skills and approaches in order to be most effective in a variety of circumstances?

Reflect upon core values. What's most important to you? Reflect upon your consciously held beliefs and then do some soul searching to uncover what lies beneath the surface. Be aware that your belief system is a key driver in the work you do and the decisions you make.

Assess your effectiveness. Think about your current role and what's expected of you. Make a list of your key responsibilities and the various stakeholders with whom you must engage. Where is your prototypical style working best? Where might you need to make some changes? Do you need to be more communicative, collaborative, forceful, persistent, engaging, inspiring, empowering…? With whom and in what circumstances might you tweak your approach to be more effective?

Validate your self-perceptions. Solicit feedback from a variety of sources. Find out how others perceive you – including your boss, peers, business partners and direct reports. As you obtain candid input from others, you will begin to see quite clearly where your style and approach are having a positive impact. You'll also learn where you may need to try something new. Of course, you may not agree with everything you hear, but as the saying goes, perception is reality. Find the key gaps between your own self-assessment and others' perceptions. Then you can determine where a style change may be in order.

Keep an open mind. Remember, flexible leadership isn't about changing who you are or abandoning what's most important to you. It's about adapting what you do to better address the shifting demands of leadership - while always, always remaining true to who you are. It's about being open, authentic and adaptable. And that's the hallmark of the flexible leader.

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