Servant leadership. Coaching. Transformational. Democratic. Bureaucratic. Becoming a manager is as much about discovering your style of leadership as it is learning to oversee people’s workloads and guiding a team towards a shared goal. 

You might even like to cultivate a reputation as one type of leader or another. Being known for a particular style can attract people to want to work with you, or give you recognition with the C-suite. 

However, there is a problem with settling down one managerial path and honing your style with a single-minded focus. You lose out on the power of flexibility. Flexible leaders are able to change their style or approach strategically and with relative comfort in order to meet challenges or unpredictable circumstances.

What Flexible Leadership Looks Like Today

Given the world we now work in, flexible leadership might just be the key to not just surviving, but thriving as a people manager for the long-term.

With the global shift to remote work, we are currently witnessing some of the most impactful examples of flexible leadership at scale. Companies like Atlassian, Salesforce, Spotify and so many more are instituting permanent changes to their work location policies as a result of widespread remote work. Teams have learned to execute on projects and collaborate in the midst of children joining Zoom calls, people taking unexpected days off, or power or internet outages causing major disruptions.

Without key leaders at these companies recognizing this shift and making significant policy changes to meet the changing landscape, their companies might not have been able to adapt and find success amidst the chaos. 

Resilience is the ability to adapt in the face of change, and now more than ever, this is an essential skill for leaders and managers.

The Theory Of Flexible Leadership

Stick around a little longer while we delve into the theoretical structure of flexible leadership. Research into flexible leadership has been on-going for decades. According to “The Importance of Flexible Leadership,” a 2008 research paper by Gary Yukl, the theory identifies three factors needed to build strong performance inside a business:

  1. Efficiency: A productive operating model that keeps output high and costs low.
  2. Innovation: An adaptable and forward-thinking ability to provide products and services customers want and need.
  3. Connectedness: Strong teamwork and human resources support that encourages retention and collaboration. 

All of these are vital to running a successful company, and are intertwined in complex ways. A great leader can observe and analyze these factors and make the right decisions at the right time. 

The importance of each of these factors changes at any given time or situation: During COVID-19, prioritizing staff resources and teamwork might take priority over a heavily scheduled product release schedule. If competition heats up, producing an innovative new product on a tight deadline might disrupt the ability for operating costs to be as efficient (read: low) as possible. This balancing act is what flexible leadership is all about.

Being A Leader Means Being Uncomfortable

We are each drawn to different types of leaders and managerial support. We might like a helpful coach or a visionary that is hands-off when it comes to getting things done. 

But as we’ve seen, volatility needs leaders who can change to meet new challenges and balance the factors that create a successful, thriving team and business. Yukl highlights specific traits and skills in his research that make for an adaptive, flexible leader. Here they are at a high level:

  • Systems thinking: This is about learning your business ecosystem, rather than operating in a silo. Internal systems thinking involves understanding how your organization works, and how each part connects, relates, and affects the other. External, on the other hand, refers to engagement with external factors and understanding how the surrounding environment will impact the organization.
  • Social intelligence: Being aware of how different situations work, the social norms and internal politics needed to build valuable connections and have influence. 
  • Emotional intelligence: Successfully recognizing and addressing emotional and interpersonal relationships to build identity and trust with your team.
  • Openness to learn new ideas: This includes your ability to accept and improve from feedback, and being comfortable with needing to gain new skills and knowledge in order to improve and achieve as a leader.

But how does this look like in practice? The best leaders welcome change, and, in fact, are always looking for opportunities to lead their team towards productive change. Here are a few quick ideas for how to start building your flexibility:

Adapt Your Style To Fit Your Employees

Managing is not a one-size-fits-all job, and you may find that even small adjustments to your approach may drastically improve the response from your team. Whether that’s learning how to optimize your communication style for remote work, understanding how to lead makers vs. managers, or being able to read the emotional state of your team and how that affects collaboration, the first step is to just ask. Talk to each member of your team and ask them to define their preferred style of management. You might be surprised at what you find out.

Don’t Stick With A Process Out Of Habit

“This is the way we do things here” is an overlooked bias that might seem like it’s preserving a good thing, but it can easily dampen your team’s productivity and engagement. Staying critical of your team’s processes and not being afraid to break things down or change them up if they’re not ideal is the key to sustaining strong performance. Think about scheduling a bi-annual review of new technology and trends as a team to have an open discussion what improvements can be made.

Be Curious, Not Skeptical

Change is the only constant as a manager, from team restructuring and hiring, to the constant influx of new and adjusted goals and targets. Dr. Bruce Tuckman’s model of group development stages identifies that most teams cycle through four basic stages: Forming, storming, norming, and performing. Ascending through these levels leads teams to higher performance, but the journey is far from linear. 

If you find yourself often intaking new company news with a large dose of skepticism and concern, using a framework like this can help you look at the agent of change as simply cycling your team into a different state, which is cyclical and temporary as they onboard and acclimatize to the new inputs and information. 

Ask Your Manager For A Stretch Assignment

Sometimes, the reason a manager is not as flexible as they could be is simply because they’re too comfortable. Maybe your team retention is high, everyone is performing at a high level, and all we need to do is keep everyone aligned and happy. This is a great time to talk to your manager about getting put in charge of a new area of the business, a major quarterly report, or a research project that will test your skills and put you in a safe place to learn and, possibly, fail. 

Identify a skill that you want to hone with this new assignment and have regular check-ins with your manager. (But you already knew that, didn’t you!)

Stay Bendy

By working flexibility in the core of your managerial model, you’ll also guide your employees to embrace change and develop the same skills. With increased flexibility, you and your team will foster a stronger sense of ownership, increased productivity, and greater resilience to factors outside your control.

Bend before you break: the secret of great leaders everywhere