It is reported that someone once asked the Duke of Wellington how he defeated Napoleon. He replied, "Napoleon’s plan was made in wire, but mine was made in string.” Wellington recognized the value of flexibility and as a result, was successful.
Leaders have to handle the unexpected. While some are prone to rigid, uncompromising plans, others realize that planning is a continual process. That ability to flex is often the difference between a leader and a manager. Managers usually have set routines and rules by which things are governed, but leaders learn to live with an ever changing landscape.
In most organizations you find some managers who fill the role of leader and some leaders who fill the role of manager. A pure manager, when confronted with a problem outside the normal routine, is generally unsure of how to respond. A pure leader, when faced with the same situation, thrives on the challenge and generally responds with innovative and successful answers. The manager tends to rely more on accepted and approved procedures and therefore avoids risking the creative and more innovative solution. Great talent can be wasted by a lack of boldness.
Leaders also tend to search for answers “outside the box.” They are willing to experiment with new and untested approaches, relying on their innate leadership ability and instinct for solutions more than on historic patterns of activity. Carpe diem – “seize the day” – is their mantra.
Leadership is a complex undertaking that involves steadfast determination. With this resolve, your followers can have confidence and a secure path to follow when accompanied with thoughtful flexibility. Together, you remain alert, constantly searching for the best alternatives and appropriate solutions.
Rigid adherence to a plan coupled with an unwillingness to change has caused a myriad of leadership failures. Just ask Napoleon. Quality leadership almost always requires strategic adjustments and at times, even retreat or as the Marines put it, the need to regroup.
Finding the right balance between inflexibility and flexibility is not an easy task but a crucial one. Books that chronicle the lives of political presidents reveal that followers judge leaders to be effective who remain true to their stated convictions even if the final results are not what they expected. In a similar vein, they tend to view as ineffective leaders who vacillate and rapidly agree to change, depending on the advice of the moment. This is not an endorsement of stubbornness but reveals that consistency in purpose, manner, convictions and beliefs can keep necessary flexibility from becoming counterproductive.
When a leader considers seriously the core values and beliefs upon which they base their decisions and commits to be consistent in their decisions and behavior, their followers tend to have a great deal of confidence in them. When a leader is easily influenced by contending ideas and advice and is quickly swayed from one viewpoint to another, they are viewed not as flexible but lacking courage and thoughtful convictions. We need to make sure we major on the things that are true and enduring, while remaining relevant, open and informed about the needs of our people and our organizations. Leadership requires independent thinking and the courage of one’s convictions.
Gregory K. Morris, Ph.D., is the founder and president of Leadership Dynamics, a non-profit corporation committed to the training and development of Christian leaders and their organizations and is available for new clients. He has authored the book, In Pursuit of Leadership, a study of leadership principles in the life of Moses.
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