The world we live in demands flexibility. Things are changing quickly, and our world is more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (or the handy, ubiquitous acronym VUCA) than ever. What worked yesterday won’t work today.

As organizations are increasingly trying to do more with less, attempting just to keep doing the same things but faster is a fool’s errand—more likely to result in employee burnout than impressive results. Organizations need to be agile, which also means that the individuals who make up that organization need to be flexible themselves.

However, there is a downside to being flexible. Too much change, too quickly can erode time spent on high priorities, and pull individuals away from the work they’re great at. It can also cause confusion or frustration for the team. When it’s not clear who owns any one project or deliverable, or if someone is jumping into something new without the full context, it can result in work being duplicated, or not being as effective as it could be. We lean on hierarchies, job descriptions, processes and policies, and quarterly plans. And for a good reason—we need a degree of structure, or else things would get chaotic.

Flexibly Rigid Leadership: Finding the Balance

flexibly rigid leadershipSo on the one hand, the world of work demands flexibility. On the other hand, the structures created for and by our organizations are often in place for good reason. What’s a leader (or team member for that matter) to do?

First, we must recognize that flexibility must not come at the expense of our values or principles. It’s tempting for organizations to reward results above all else. However, those attitudes can be a breeding ground for the type of bad behavior we’ve heard about in the news (I’m looking at you Uber).

A colleague recently shared the idea that “you endorse what you are willing to accept”: and organizations that sacrifice values for “productivity” are going to struggle with the negative impact on their cultures (not to mention the fact that negative cultures have a direct impact on productivity).

If you accept that a high performer is a jerk (that’s just their personality!), then you are contributing to a culture where people view aggressive or abrasive behavior as not only acceptable but encouraged. If you focus on rewarding employees who deliver on budget and on time, you are discouraging the employees who faced some disruption (pick a letter out of VUCA), and decided to pivot a project based on circumstances in the market, or needed a few days off to recover from an illness. This attitude will create a culture of cutthroat competition, where delivering is more important than asking critical questions and pivoting when needed.

In both of those examples, I can see how it would be tempting for an organization to let their values slide a bit for the sake of outcomes. In these cases, flexibility comes with a huge downside. It will be much more difficult to repair the cultural damage that occurs than it will to make up the extra few leads in the pipeline, or accommodate a slight delay in implementing a new process.

Navigating the Tension Between Agility and Structure

We need to be able to navigate the tension between being flexible and being rigid—to recognize what is possible to change and adapt, and just as importantly, to understand what must not change. We need to be willing to interrogate the structures around us, and to tear them down if they’re no longer working. We also need to be ready to defend the structures that are working, and not make radical changes just for change’s sake.

Great leaders create cultures where team members feel safe to try new things and question the status quo.

I think that the mark of a truly flexible leader is a willingness to interrogate the status quo. A flexible leader asks team members to poke holes, and ask what feel like obvious questions at the moment (which have the potential to lead to some breakthrough thinking) and responds thoughtfully and constructively.

The truth is that the lines we draw and structures we create are imaginary. We lay them down arbitrarily, and then treat them as law. A process that was designed to solve a particular challenge three years ago might be causing problems today. A job description drafted at the time of hiring that is still used as a benchmark for evaluating performance, even though a job has evolved and changed significantly is problematic. Often, the only reason we use a particular process or rely on an antiquated “annual plan” (even though it was drafted a full year ago, and plenty of things have changed since then) is because “this is the way we’ve always done things.” Those norms become entrenched to the point where we don’t even think to question them.

How to Encourage a Team to be Flexibly Rigid

Here is where the power of fresh eyes can be a revelation—a new team member or someone from another department can only see what is presented to them. She is blind to the months or years of entrenched norms that become a blind spot to those who are inside them.

Effective leaders need to be working toward cultures where questions are welcome—even if the answer feels obvious (to them). They need to be willing to explain the answer in more depth than “well, we’ve always done it this way.” And they need to be willing to be flexible if it is revealed that there is a better way.

Leaders must also be willing to defend and uphold the structures that are necessary. They need to be willing to confront that high performer who is actually a jerk—to place principles and values above results. They need to protect the priorities of their teams to keep flexibility and changes to tactics from interfering with the overall strategy.

Flexible + Structured = Good Leadership

We all need to be flexible, perhaps most often at work. Things pop up—the quiet Monday morning we aspire to might get derailed by a flood of emails, a last-minute change to the meeting schedule bumps project work down the priority list, a new start-up shows up on the market overnight and starts eating into our client base. The challenge for leaders then becomes managing that flexibility, being willing to challenge the status quo, and being inflexible about the values and principles that guide a team or organization.

Great leaders balance the demand for agility with the need for structure. They create cultures where team members feel safe enough to try new things, to question the status quo, and to pivot away from project plans where necessary. And they protect the strategy and priorities for their teams—keeping the group moving in the right direction. It’s no easy feat, but I believe that leaders who can balance flexibility with structure will enjoy happier, more resilient teams, and the results that come with them.

Featured Photo by Alex Lehner on Unsplash
Is it more important for a leader to be flexible and agile or structured and resolute? Maybe the answer is both. Here's what it takes to embody flexibly rigid leadership.