Flexible leaders are those who are able to diagnose the requirements of a situation and shape their leadership approach accordingly.
Flexible leadership is particularly fitted to sustain effectiveness in global, complex, dynamic, and changing environments[1a].
Here is a detailed beginner’s guide to leadership flexibility, covering its definition, importance, and an evidence-based three-step guide to develop flexibility in leadership.
Table of contents
- Flexible leaders are socially perceptive and self-monitored
- Flexible leaders show behavioral flexibility
- Leadership flexibility has multiple manifestations
- Leadership flexibility follows a functional approach
- Leadership flexibility is important to deal with changes in the external environment
- Leadership flexibility is important to lead followers from around the World
- Leadership toolbox: Guidelines on how much a leadership approach should be adapted based on culture
- Leadership flexibility is important to lead followers with different occupational backgrounds and personalities
- Leadership flexibility is important to deal with opposing demands
- Leadership flexibility is important to deal with the dynamics of life at work
- Step 1: Diagnosing situations correctly
- Leadership toolbox: Exercise to improve the ability to diagnose situations and to apply leadership flexibly
- Step 2: Mastering different leadership approaches
- Leadership toolbox: The three main sources of behavioral flexibility in leadership
- Step 3: Looking for enhancers or substitutes of leadership
Definition of leadership flexibility
Leadership flexibility is the ability to correctly diagnose the requirements of a situation and to respond accordingly with a viable leadership approach.
There are four key points to this definition.
Flexible leaders are socially perceptive and self-monitored
Socially perceptive leaders are those who are particularly aware of and sensitive to their social environment. In doing so, they are able to:
- Detect and anticipate internal problems that may block goal achievement;
- Understand the functional and dysfunctional dynamics that emerge among followers;
- Look for and proactively pursue opportunities for growth.
Self-monitored leaders keep an eye on and are in control of their leadership approaches. In doing so, they are able to:
- Identify the leadership approaches that are appropriate for a given situation;
- Assess how well they can activate and perform a leadership approach;
- Process and incorporate in their leadership response the social cues that emerge over time;
- Fine tune a leadership response in response to new social cues.
Flexible leadership, thus, starts from within – either by enriching over time a natural tendency to be socially perceptive and self-monitored or by continuously learning to effectively understand social settings and to adapt leadership approaches in response to others and situations.
Flexible leaders show behavioral flexibility
In order to respond to a situation with an appropriate leadership approach, it is not enough to understand social events and to self-monitor. Flexible leadership also entails behavioral flexibility.
Leaders with behavioral flexibility[5a]:
- Master a broad repertoire of leadership styles and approaches;
- Are able to activate the leadership approach that better aligns with the demands of each situation;
- Are able to adopt different leadership approaches as the situation changes.
While social perceptiveness and self-monitoring are the foundations for the accurate understanding of social dynamics, behavioral flexibility is at the forefront of influence and allows leaders to collect further information from the environment.
Leadership flexibility has multiple manifestations
Beyond behavioral flexibility, leadership flexibility also encompasses multiple, more specific, flexibilities[1b]  :
- Cognitive flexibility
- Being aware that there are options and valid alternatives to virtually all situations;
- Having the will to act in a flexible manner;
- Having the competence to be flexible.
- Being able to vary coping strategies in line with the requirements of the situation.
- Learning flexibility
- Being able to learn equally well from multiple sources, such as observation, personal relationships, theoretical frameworks, and practice.
- Communication flexibility
- Being able to adopt different communication strategies, depending on the needs of the situation.
In the video below, BBC and Open University go through the benefits of cognitive flexibility, an important aspect of flexible leadership.
Leadership flexibility follows a functional approach
The functional approach assumes that leadership is a resource for collective effectiveness.
As a resource, leadership entails identifying obstacles to goals, finding solutions to those obstacles, and putting forward a course of action.
Flexible leadership fully endorses this approach as flexible leaders are expected to correctly diagnose situations and to do whatever is necessary to enact a viable leadership approach.
As a resource, flexible leaders are expected to[1c]
- React to change;
- Proactively anticipate trends and opportunities;
- Build potentially useful systems and operations, regardless of changing situations.
Importance of leadership flexibility
Leadership flexibility is important to deal with changes in the external environment
Abrupt technological shifts, demand and competition oscillations, and political fluctuations are examples of changes in the external environment that have important implications for organizations.
Although these changes are beyond the control of most leaders, flexible leaders tend to have a head start on coping with these challenges by, for example[22a]:
- Monitoring the environment;
- Having a clear and deep understanding of how the organization/unit works, its dependencies, and how it interacts with the external environment;
- Collecting reliable information from multiple sources (on, for example, trends, resource availability, preferences of costumers, and supply chain disruptions);
- Identifying patters in the information collected and anticipating changes;
- Elaborating and implementing strategic plans that minimize the impact of unforeseen changes (such as relying on multiple suppliers, planning ahead the acquisition of resources, relying on adaptable and competent teams).
In the video below, the author and speaker Simon Sinek illustrates the importance of leadership flexibility for dealing with shifts in the environment, using examples from Apple, Blockbuster, Netflix, and Kodak.
Leadership flexibility is important to lead followers from around the World
In every country there are shared cultural values that define, to some meaningful degree, leadership expectations and the leadership styles people prefer .
Almost all of us are now working, on a daily basis, with people from many different countries, who hold many different cultural values.
To deal with the complexities of today’s diverse workplaces, leaders benefit from understanding the leadership expectations of each culture and from being competent with a large repertoire of leadership styles, behaviors, skills, and traits.
In the table below, you can see how leadership styles are differently endorsed by people from around the World.
Table 1. Leadership styles endorsement by World region.
|Leadership style||Regions that endorse the leadership style|
|Charismatic/transformational leadership (being visionary, inspirational, self-sacrificing, decisive, performance oriented, and trustworthy)||
Endorsed in all regions, particularly in:
|Team-oriented leadership (being collaborative, diplomatic, integrative, administratively competent, and non-malevolent)||
Endorsed in all regions, particularly in:
|Participative leadership (being participative and nonautocratic, and involving others in decision-making)||
Endorsed in most regions, particularly in:
|Humane-oriented leadership (being modest, supportive, considerate, generous, and sensitive of followers needs)||
|Autonomous leadership (being independent, unique, and individualistic)||
|Self-protective leadership (being procedural, internally competitive, status conscious, self-centered, and concerned with face saving)||
Likewise, the characteristics and personality traits that people expect to see in leaders vary significantly from country to country. Below is a table with the leaders’ traits and characteristics that people most value in ten different countries.
Table 2. Most valued leadership traits and characteristics in ten countries.
Most valued traits and characteristics
Guidelines on how much a leadership approach should be adapted based on culture
If you are going to lead a team or a company in a different country, take a moment to learn which leadership styles, skills, and traits are most effective there. The same applies if you are going to lead people with cultural backgrounds that you are not familiar with.
The GLOBE project shares important insights on the leadership styles that work best in each country. There you can also find insights on the culture of each country and even compare your culture with another one to learn the key differences.
Nevertheless, be conscious of how much you adapt your leadership style based on the culture.
Major leadership adaptations can be problematic. For example:
- Both you and your followers can change behaviors, creating incompatible adjustments;
- You may not fully understand the other culture and therefore miss important nuances;
- You may not fully master a leadership style or skill and go out of character;
- Most followers expect some cultural variation in leadership, and major adaptations can be disappointing.
Frequently, moderate adaptations work best   . For example, if you are not familiar with the other culture you can:
- Identify the key differences between the cultures and fine-tune your leadership style accordingly;
- Avoid behaviors and actions that are offensive to your followers’ culture;
- Engage in a respectful and understanding interaction, regardless of the specific leadership style you use.
Leadership flexibility is important to lead followers with different occupational backgrounds and personalities
Each person has a unique image about what leadership entails. Some see a leader as someone powerful who is in charge; others see leaders as facilitators who are warm and caring.
Research shows that these leadership images depend not only on culture, but also on our professional occupation  and even on our personality and beliefs [35a].
- Autocratic leadership styles tend to prevail in the construction industry;
- Transformational/charismatic leadership tends to be welcomed in educational settings ;
- Participative leaders that seek consensus not only dominate the health care system but also boost the quality of care;
- Although there is not a prevailing leadership style in law enforcement leaders, transformational leadership appears to be perceived as the most effective.
Regarding personality and beliefs, researchers have found that, for example:
- Transformational/charismatic leaders tend to be more accepted by extroverted than by introverted followers[35b];
- Dominant and autocratic leadership styles tend to work well with non-proactive followers, but to hinder the effectiveness of proactive followers;
- Transformational/charismatic leaders motivate creativity in followers who value tradition and security, but hardly affect followers who are creative by default;
- Supportive leadership only enhances innovation when followers have confidence in their competence at work[43a];
- Authentic leaders motivate non-proactive followers to speak up in teams, but do not affect the level of participation of proactive followers[44a].
Most leaders interact with multiple followers on a regular work day. For optimal performance at work, leaders benefit from adopting different leadership styles, skills, and traits throughout the day, depending on the person they are leading.
Leadership flexibility is important to deal with opposing demands
Leadership entails dealing with opposing demands. For example, many leaders are expected to let followers experiment with different ideas, while sticking to plans and guaranteeing uniform task accomplishment[46a].
Leadership also entails finding common ground among stakeholders with different priorities, such as followers, suppliers, customers, and community members.
Flexible leaders with a large repertoire of styles, traits, and skills are more capable of fulfilling all their leadership functions and to stimulate multiple facets of effectiveness.
In fact, researchers have found that those who combine opposing but complementary leadership approaches lead more effective teams. For example:
- Encouraging independent and creative thinking as well as monitoring goal attainment and consolidating routines leads to innovative change[46b] ;
- Planning strategically to increase the likelihood of sustainable growth while also cutting costs and being efficient leads to enhanced performance ;
- Articulating a vision for what is to be achieved and giving followers autonomy and decision-making power boosts performance.
Leadership flexibility is important to deal with the dynamics of life at work
Nowadays, almost all aspects of our life at work are dynamic. They change with time.
Let’s take a closer look at two dynamic aspects of work: teams and our own career.
Teams and organizations are dynamic and have different needs depending on what they are dealing with or working on.
For example, in the beginning of a project, developing a clear vision and a plan is critical. But later, when a team is already actively working on the project, creating an environment where everyone is helping each other is paramount.
Thus, being a visionary leader might be useful in the beginning of a project; and being a supportive leader may be important at later stages.
- Task-focused throughout the entire project;
- Change-oriented only in the beginning of the project;
- Relations-oriented from the middle to the end of the project.
Likewise, a study found that teams with autocratic leaders tend to start performing quickly but plateau over time, while teams with empowering leaders start performing slowly but improve over time. This suggests that:
- In situations where quick performance is required, autocratic leadership may be an efficient route;
- When there is time for team learning and coordination, empowering leadership may lead to a more sustained performance.
Social life in organizations is complex and can be ambiguous. Flexible leadership sustains a more nuanced understanding of teams and of their needs at a given point[4b].
Careers are also dynamic and the challenges leaders face throughout their professional lives change substantially.
A study found that successful leaders continue to adjust their leadership approach as their career progresses and the demands of their functions change.
Specifically, they found that the progression from supervisors to directors of successful leaders is accompanied by a reduction of autocratic leadership and an increase of participative leadership.
Autocratic leadership works for supervisors as it allows them to run a team smoothly and efficiently. Participative leadership works for directors because it gives them access to information that is critical to come up with viable strategies and plans.
Leadership styles that were strengths in a previous position can easily become weaknesses in a new position because the requisites of the function have changed.
In fact, most leaders who fail in new positions are those who are not able to flexibly change their preferred leadership style according to the needs of the new function.
A 3-step guide to develop leadership flexibility
Developing a large repertoire of leadership styles, traits, and skills is more easily said than done, as there are many roadblocks when you try to do so.
For example, our personality defines, to certain extent, how comfortable we are with a given leadership style[51b] .
Here is a three-step guide to develop flexible leadership.
Step 1: Diagnosing situations correctly
Most situations leaders face are complex and nuanced. As such, recipes that link a particular type of situation to a specific leadership approach have limited benefits.
Thus, being able to carefully diagnose situations is critical for flexible leaders to correctly tackle challenges at work[22b].
Diagnose accuracy for flexible leadership can be developed with didactic, experiential, and intensive experiences:
- Didactic experiences
- Reading evidence-based books, online platforms, and papers;
- Attending leadership training (in-person or online);
- Looking at previous leadership experiences and reflecting on what worked and on the improvement opportunities;
- 360º feedback (from supervisors, colleagues, and followers) on leadership.
- Experiential experiences
- Individualized coaching or mentoring on flexible leadership;
- Short-term development assignments (for example, working with a colleague who has a different leadership approach, or attending meetings where different leadership approaches are likely to emerge);
- Attending immersive and experience-based workshops and training on leadership and leadership flexibility.
- Intensive experiences
- Rotational programs where each new project likely entails new leadership challenges;
- International assignments (expatriation or bringing leaders from other countries to headquarters);
- Leading multidisciplinary and/or multicultural project teams.
These experiences have been shown to enrich our ability to diagnose a situation correctly because they tend to[65a] :
- Help us notice subtle clues in situations and increase our awareness of the complexity of most situations;
- Boost our confidence in being a flexible leader, and motivate us to accept the situation as it is and to move forward from that point;
- Increase the amount and the quality of knowledge we have on situations, surroundings, others, and ourselves;
- Give access to a more rich and nuanced set of leadership approaches that can be used and adapted as needed.
Exercise to improve the ability to diagnose situations and to apply leadership flexibly
- What were the main sources and consequences of the situation?
- When did the situation start; was it new or has it been foreseen for a while?
- Where did the situation start; inside the unit, outside?
- Who was affected by the situation and to which degree?
- Why was this situation important for all parties involved?
- How is the situation likely to unfold as time passes?
We have also found that thinking about the following questions helps structuring learning on assessing if a leadership approach was effective in a given situation:
- To which effectiveness dimensions (performance, innovation, viability, reputation, personal growth) was a given leadership approach helpful/detrimental?
- Was the success/failure of a given leadership approach the result of noticing clues in the situation, or of selecting and implementing a leadership approach?
- Was the intensity of a given leadership approach appropriate to the requisites of the situation? (A leadership virtue can become a vice when taken to far, and not make an impact when not taken far enough).
In the following video, Gillian Charlesworth (BRE Group’s CEO) highlights practical ways to adapt leadership styles to new situations, relying on her leadership experience.
Step 2: Mastering different leadership approaches
After appraising the situation, flexible leaders check if they master a leadership approach that is likely to tackle the situation, and finally they implement the selected leadership approach[1d].
To do so effectively, it is important to keep learning new leadership approaches.
- Abstract conceptualization
- Collecting information (for example, evidence-based lectures, training, and readings) on the leadership approach;
- Reflecting on the extent to which the leadership approach can produce results in a given context.
- Active experimentation
- Putting the leadership approach to the test in a safe environment (for example, in a simulation, with a trusted team of people who are aware of your efforts);
- Thinking about different ways of using the leadership approach (for example, “what if I do X when Y happens” and “what if I do X with person A”).
- Concrete experience
- Applying the leadership approach to real-life situations;
- Assessing the outcome of the leadership approach in a given situation (for example, successful, failure, improvement opportunity) and applying modifications to the leadership approach accordingly.
- Reflective observation
- Thinking about previous experiences with the leadership approach (reflecting on why the leadership approach failed or succeeded, and on what could be done to improve its effectiveness);
- Reflecting critically on the extent to which personal assumptions and beliefs affected the effectiveness of the leadership approach in a given situation.
In the context of flexible leadership, a leadership approach is learned when the following three outcomes are present :
- Affective learning
- Having higher motivation to accept the relative strengths and limitations of the leadership approach;
- Being capable of performing the leadership approach effectively, when the situation calls for it.
- Being aware of the ways in which situations influence the effectiveness of the leadership approach;
- Being able to plan, monitor, and revise the use of the leadership approach.
- Being able to apply the leadership approach to a new situation;
- Being able to fine tune and adapt the leadership approach to the requirements of the new situation.
The three main sources of behavioral flexibility in leadership
Behavioral flexibility, the core aspect of flexible leadership, can be achieved when leaders:
- Master different leadership styles;
- Activate free personality traits and suppress the manifestation of stable ones;
- Rely on complementary skills, knowledge, and capabilities.
Let’s take a closer look at the different ways to behave flexibility in leadership.
Mastering different leadership styles
Being able to perform different leadership styles equally well is the hallmark and the most visible manifestation of flexible leadership. Flexible leaders master a rich and complementary set of leadership styles.
In order to engage fruitfully with different leadership styles, leaders benefit from
- Understanding the set of behaviors that define each style;
- Knowing when a leadership style tends to be effective and when it backfires;
- Mastering the nuances of a leadership style in order to regulate how intensively it will be displayed.
Those who master large repertoires of leadership styles tend to be more capable of switching styles when the situation requires it. In contrast, leaders with small repertoires of leadership styles may find themselves in a position where none of the styles they master are adequate to deal with a specific situation.
Activating free personality traits
Personality tends to be seen as a deep and stable root of leadership behavior, with pervasive effects on leaders and followers effectiveness.
Nevertheless, about half of our personality is flexible, depending on the goals and projects we are pursuing . Therefore, leaders can activate or suppress traits (and consequent patterns of behavior), when the situation requires it.
For example, an introverted leader can act as extroverted if it is important to engage in a leadership style that asks for extroversion. Likewise, when pursuing important goals, a leader may learn to control and regulate emotions, so that the emotions expressed are in line with the requirements of the situation.
Relying on complementary skills
Developing skills important for leadership also contributes to the enrichment of the repertoire of behaviors a leader can flexibly use.
Among the most important skills for leaders aiming at flexibility are:
- Problem solving skills
- Correctly identifying the nature of the problem being faced;
- Formulating valuable solutions for problems.
- Social capabilities
- Negotiating and persuading others to follow a path to solve a problem;
- Controlling and regulating emotions, so that the emotions expressed are in line with the requirements of the situation;
- Managing conflict that may emerge during the implementation of a solution.
- Understanding the people with whom they are working;
- Understanding how the organization works, what are the typical reactions and roadblocks that emerge, and where to find support for implementing solutions;
- Understanding their role within the organization and their range of influence.
When these skills are not in place, adopting new leadership styles or activating new traits are of little avail, as these manifestations of flexibility are most likely grounded on erroneous assessments and strategies.
Here is a video, from the executive level coach Jennifer Jones, with some additional traits and competencies that can aid in the development of flexible leadership:
Third step: Looking for enhancers or substitutes of leadership
Mastering multiple leadership approaches can be personally demanding and time consuming. Some of us might choose not to do it, or simply not have the resources at a given moment to pursue it.
Also, it is unrealistic to think that a person can master the full range of leadership approaches necessary to effectively cope with all situations at work.
A more balanced approach is to keep an eye for aspects of the situation that can enhance or substitute a leadership approach [79a] .
Leadership enhancers are aspects of the situation that boost the effect of a leadership effort. For example:
- Servant leadership enhances followers’ satisfaction, particularly in loosely structured work environments;
- Benevolent leaders enhance team performance, particularly when followers are committed to the team;
- Ethical leadership enhances followers’ effectiveness at work, particularly when all followers agree that the leader is a role model for ethical behavior;
- Transformational leadership enhances followers’ thriving at work, particularly when they are curious, broad-minded, and open to divergent ideas.
Leadership substitutes are aspects of the situation that replace the effect of a leadership effort. For example:
- A strong culture for innovation lessens the need of transformational leadership to promote innovation at work;
- Experienced followers with extensive task-related knowledge are able to perform well at work without empowering leadership and initiating structure leadership[79b];
- Followers with an internal locus of control (who believe they are in control of their outcomes) do not need supportive leadership to be motivated and innovative[43b];
- Authentic leadership barely influences how much proactive followers participate in team discussions[44b];
- Followers with a tendency to experience pleasant feelings tend to develop strong ties with their organizations, regardless of how transformational their leader is.
Overall, leadership substitutes give us the opportunity of withdrawing a leadership approach, without effectiveness costs. In turn, leadership enhancers maximize the effectiveness of a leadership effort.
Flexible leaders are able to evaluate a situation, assess which leadership approach will be more effective, and switch between approaches in a smooth and efficient manner. This adaptability will likely lead to enhanced results at work.
Adopting a more flexible approach can be important to work with a diverse workforce, to face unforeseen challenges and changes, and to deal with the dynamics of our life at work.
While leadership flexibility can be learned, it is also important to proactively create or pay attention to leadership alternatives that replace or boost a leadership effort.
As always, we thank you for trusting your time with ManagingLifeAtWork.com. Until next time, keep enriching your leadership repertoire and improving your leadership flexibility.
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