Why Leaders Are Not Flexible

Why Leaders Are Not Flexible by Dr. Scott Yorkovich

Photo by Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty Images, Available at National Geographic – Rhythmic Gymnastics

Recently, someone told me they had a goal to be more flexible in the practice of their leadership. I felt this was a laudable goal, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that flexibility is probably not the issue this person needs to work on. The lack of flexibility in leadership is really a symptom of one or more other issues. Until the root issues are addressed, this leader will not realize any long-term change in flexibility.

For this conversation, it would help to define flexibility. In this context, I’ll define flexibility as “the ability to receive and process diverse and potentially conflicting sources of information, the openness to implement a variety of strategic solutions, and the ability to adapt to changing conditions.” Notice the emphasis is on cognitive processes and that therefore flexibility of the mind determines how flexible a leader is in action.

If a leader has a goal to be more flexible, this suggests there is a current lack of flexibility. Using my definition, such a person has a problem with one or more of the following:

  • Not considering a wide variety of information and information sources, especially if the information is conflicting,
  • Not being open to different ways to solve problems and pursue goals, or
  • Not adapting as the situation changes.

If I were forced to put a one-word label on all of this it would be “openness.” A flexible leader needs to be open to conflicting information, open to ideas from others, open to changing perceptions of reality, and open to changing plans. Openness is the key to flexibility.

So what about the leader who does not possess openness? What are the “other issues” that limit flexibility? As I considered people I know who are not flexible, three themes came to mind: pride, tunnel vision, and lack of self-awareness. Each is a root issue that will most certainly undermine openness and flexibility. Let me briefly deal with each one:

Pride: Pride causes all sorts of trouble in a person’s life. Its only effect is not lack of flexibility, but it most certainly does limit flexibility. A prideful leader is focused on their own ideas and perceptions of reality. There is not openness to others’ ideas because that would require considering the possibility that someone else’s perception, ideas, or information might be more valuable.

Tunnel vision: This is the habit of looking at problems and opportunities from a single perspective. Sometimes leaders get lazy and use the same “filters” and “lenses” for every situation that comes along. Other leaders have lost or never developed an inquisitive nature. Leaders with tunnel vision are not be able to examine the many facets and perspectives on a given situation.

Lack of self-awareness: Specifically, I refer to a lack of self-awareness in leaders who are highly discerning or tend to view the world through black and white extremes. If you are familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator tool, these are people who prefer the J type. There is nothing inherently wrong with these personality qualities. In fact, people who are strong in these ways tend to be very organized and conscientious in their work. The issue comes, though, when these tendencies are very strong and the individual is not self-aware of the impact on work and relationships. Black and white perspectives on the world can certainly lead to a lack of flexibility.

So what about you? How is your flexibility? Ask people in your office, “How would you rate my flexibility as a leader?” Or, it might be better to break it down further and ask three questions:

  1. Am I open to diverse and potentially conflicting sources of information?
  2. Am I open to different ways to solve problems?
  3. Am I open to reassessing situations as they develop and to changing my approach?

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