The Tie Between Flexibility & Relevance

3 Reasons Leaders Struggle with Flexibility

“Think about a tall tree when the wind is blowing. The tree, which looks rigid on a calm day, moves and bends with the wind. It is flexible when under stress but not so flexible that it blows over.” The Complete Leader: Everything You Need to Become a High Performing Leader by Ron Price & Randy Lisk

I appreciate this metaphor of flexibility because it inspires our thinking about leadership flexibility. When Randy and I were writing “The Complete Leader” we realized that flexibility and resilience are closely tied together in effective leadership. There are two factors that allow trees to survive constantly changing and, sometimes volatile, environments. The first is the depth and integrity of their root systems. Rodger Price, owner of Leading By Design, refers to a “Do-Know-Be” tree: our roots represent who we are as leaders. The trunk and main branches represent what we know and the smaller branches and leaves represent what we do. In Rodger’s metaphor, if we are leaders of strong character and developed knowledge and skills, we are more likely to know what to do when confronted with a variety of environmental factors around us. In other words, out of character and skill we should have more flexibility.

The second insight we can gain from watching the flexibility and resilience of trees is to understand the longevity and strength of the mighty redwoods. In fact, their root systems are not as deep as we might expect. Instead, interlocking their roots with similar trees around them, they draw on an exponential resilience to thrive in times of great stress. The implications for leaders are obvious.

To realize the value of flexibility as a leader, please consider the following consequences of inflexibility:

  • The U.S. railroads had a near monopoly on transportation into the 1950s. Because they lacked the flexibility to recognize they were in the transportation business (not the train business), today they play a marginal role in our economy. What changed? The interstate highway system, the advent of commercial airlines, and so on. What was once one of the greatest industries in the U.S. has been marginalized when contrasted with the percent of GDP they once represented. And the primary reason was their inflexibility, which lead to a blindness to future opportunities.
  • The record companies of the ’50s through the ’90s. The concept of digital delivery of music could have been their next generation of dominance in the entertainment industry. However, inflexibility cost them their relevance as a major distribution source for entertainment. We could also say the same of Blockbuster, the three major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) and many other distributors of entertainment.
  • The taxi industry has been virtually destroyed in many cities because of the emergence of Uber and Lyft as new business models. I ride with many drivers, including taxis and limo drivers.   Without exception, everyone I talk with explains the #1 reason for the success of these new models: flexibility.

We could look at many more cases of failure because of a lack of flexibility. In almost every instance disruptions emerged and displaced the market leaders because of a lack of flexibility on the part of leaders. Less we assume the a lack of flexibility is merely a “bad attitude,” there are a number of understandable reasons we can fail in our leadership because of a lack of flexibility:

  1. We have expertise syndrome. The problems with experience and knowledge are that we unwittingly close ourselves off to new ideas and possibilities. Though experience and expertise are good things, in a fluid, fast-changing world, they can easily work against us. We miss the obvious because we have become too smart in our areas of expertise.  
  2. The second reason we struggle with flexibility is because it is not an altogether intellectual or analytical skillset. Instead, flexibility also requires exercising discernment and wisdom. We have to understand a plethora of details and identify factors invisible to the five senses in order to understand how and where to be flexible. As Wayne Gretzky was fond of saying, “It is never a straight line to anticipate where the puck is going to end up.”  Flexibility is part science, part intuition.
  3. Finally, flexibility is easier to learn when we are humble, curious and continually learning from others. The truly flexible leader never believes she is the smartest person in the room. Instead, she recognizes that listening to a diversity of thought will often stimulate new, important insights. Unfortunately, too many leaders believe the key to maintaining or increasing their influence is to be authoritative, directive and teaching others.

Of course, flexibility is not always the right response.  When politicians are overly flexible, we call them “flip floppers.”  The complete leader understands what is most important in a situation, how to reflect strong character or guiding principles, yet learns how to sway in the breeze in order to get done what matters most.

For more on flexibility, read:

“The Innovators Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail” by Clayton Christensen, PhD

“Anti-Fragile: Things That Gain From Disorder” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

“The Effective Executive” by Peter F. Drucker

“The One Thing You Need To Know…About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success” by Marcus Buckingham