In his 30 years of asking this question, Wharton Business School Professor Stew Friedman has heard one word become increasingly common: Flexible
Elements of Flexible Leadership
What does it mean to be flexible as a leader?
capable of bending easily without breaking; able to be easily modified to respond to altered circumstances.
What context do we need to know in order to easily adjust our plans and strategy to altered circumstances?
Flexibility requires Context
In order to be consciously flexible as a leader, you must have clear the relative value of different aspects of your life. As a leader of teams, you need to help others develop their own clarity and explicitly use it in your decision making.
Dr Friedman says that too many people take a binary approach. They take for granted that professional and personal are two ends of a weighing scale. Increase one, reduce the other.
This is not a straight trade off. This trade-off approach leads to unnecessary sacrifices.
In Vistage, our stated mission is to increase both profesional effectiveness and enhance quality of life. We place both at the core of the question. We don’t want your life quality sacrificed for professional effectiveness, nor vice versa. We want a conscious integrated decision.
The key of flexible leadership for yourself and for those around you is to get clarity in 3 ways:
This summer I played a lot of tennis (for me): I played 5 hours each week.
Initially, I played with my family, but then was encouraged to hire a tennis coach. I haven’t had a tennis lesson since I was a kid. Rackets have evolved in the last 30 years and so have techniques. I booked 10 lessons with the clubhouse. They put me in contact with Victor.
Victor today is in his fifties, but as a younger man at various times he was the #1 Portuguese tennis player.
Victor was the best coach that I have worked with in years.
There are a couple of things that Victor did that made the time we spent together valuable for me – not just for my tennis, but also as a general improvement in my approach to life.
100% Focussed on Tennis
On our third session, I asked Victor about his recent trip up to Lisbon. He said “we are here for tennis, not for conversation. Conversation when we finish.”
I was surprised, but rapidly saw that this was Victors approach. I started to enjoy the freedom to not have to be “friendly” but to focus 100% on tennis. He was focussed for the hour on how to make me a better tennis player, not for friendly chat.
As soon as a lesson would finish, he would happily share about his life… but not when we had work to do.
Always Assertive with a Clear Plan
At all times, Victor had a plan for our time together. All lessons started immediately with tough warm up drills. All lessons moved through a sequence of practices that build up to full rallies towards the end of the hour. I could ask questions and ask for specific improvement tips, but Victor remained in control of the sessions at all time.
This is a balance I find difficult as a teacher and as a coach. There is always an element of friendship that emerges between the students and me, and between those that I coach… I sometimes feel it to be rude to not engage in some friendly conversation.
Victor showed me that there is a time for friendly conversation, and there is a time for doing the work.
Mentally and Physically Challenging
Victor ran the sessions as if I was preparing to play at Wimbledon the following week.
I play tennis as a fun social game, but not something that really improves your fitness. Lessons with Victor left me feeling as if I had done a 6 mile run. I finished each session physically exhausted.
Victor never treated me like a 47 year old weekend social player. Initially I felt like telling him that it was too much, that I only wanted to improve the technique on my forehand and backhand… but once I accepted that this was not just technique coaching, but challenging me to be able to play against the toughest players, even when physically exhausted… I started to get into the idea of taking tennis more seriously.
Victor expected me to act at all times like a serious player. If he was ready to hit and I was walking slowly back to the baseline, he would shout “come on, get into position!”
As I got tired and I felt frustrated that my technique was falling apart because of total exhaustion, he was clear that it is vitally important that you continue to play well at the end of games when both players will be tired.
I find this balance between challenge and fun a difficult one. My approach to teaching business leaders has changed dramatically since my first classes in the IESE MBA program back in 2005.
Initially I taught like a kind friend who shared information and jokes with students. After 5 years I had a radical change of approach.
This shift was caused by the bankruptcy of a company that I had founded. As I led the company in the financial collapse of 2008, I just wasn’t emotionally, spiritually or financially prepared for the challenge. I asked myself “How can I have an MBA… and 8 years experience as a management consultant… and yet be totally unprepared to face real difficulty?”
Class should be tough. Training should be harder than real life. If leaders are not facing the hardest challenges in training, then we are not preparing them for life.
How I showed up, how I gathered the tennis balls, how I stood in the ready position were all aspects of my game that Victor challenged me on. Everything mattered. Everything was coached towards the mindset of excellence as a tennis player.
Given the intensity of the sessions, I had more little muscle injuries than I have had in years. Sprinting from side to side and from the baseline to the net put stresses on my knees and legs that I haven’t faced since my days playing squash in my 20s. Even here, Victor was unrelenting. “Sore leg? Can you play? Then let’s play…”
Tennis and Life
What’s true of success in tennis, is also true for life. I found that the 20 hours with Victor not only improved my tennis, but shifted my outlook and approach to life.
Victor was a great coach for me not because he was a great tennis player. He was a great coach because he didn’t coach the 47 year old social player, he coached me as if I was an excellent player. This attitude more than anything shifted my mindset and attitude.
As I return to Barcelona to refocus my energies on our CEO development at Vistage and to my teaching at IESE, I hope to take a bit of Victor into these interactions.
Just listening to Stuart Lancaster deliver a webinar for IIBN. He shared his path to head coach of the England rugby team, the hard blow of falling out of the home rugby world cup, and his current role as part of the leadership of Leinster rugby club.
Create and align people to a cause – you need every member of the team to move beyond their own wants and needs and be a genuine contributor to the team… for this there needs to be a meaningful cause that is bigger than “winning”. Stuart shared how he wrote to the parents of all the england team players and asked them to share what it meant to them to see their son play rugby for england. This helped him show the players how they represented something much bigger than rugby.
I ran a webinar yesterday for IESE Business School. I answered 4 of the questions during the webinar, but there were a lot more questions that we didn’t have time to cover in any depth. I’ve copied the questions here and will give my brief answer to each.
How to Lead in times of Great Uncertainty
What can I do personally to engage myself, my leadership team and the people throughout my organization to respond positively to this crisis?
What was covered in the session…
My Personal Experience of Leading through a Crisis (2008)
What is a Crisis?
Communicating in a Crisis
How will you benefit from this session?
What do Leaders do?
Clarity of Vision
Certainty of Action
Leadership is a Choice
The Most Important Lesson I have learnt
Practice, Habits and Mindset
How to Shift my Mindset?
Where am I focussing?
How to Lead your people?
How to continue this conversation?
What are your views on the link between true leadership in troubled times and transparency/openness/truthfulness? – Antonio Millán
If your motivating energy comes from external validation (income, fame, prestige, status) it becomes very difficult for you to keep moving when we hit a downturn.
It is easier to lead during difficult times if your own set of core values and the way you live your life is based on inner honesty, and not on external validation. If your self-esteem is linked to your wealth, size of house, revenues, number of employees… it will be low just when the people around you most need you to provide hope. If your self esteem and peace of mind come from inside yourself… and you are not chasing external validation… the time where you have energy and are a beacon of hope will be when it is most needed.
Rafa Nadal’s motivation doesn’t come from winning… it comes from playing great tennis. If he wins, but didn’t give his best… he is frustrated. If he loses, but he knows that he gave all that was his to give this day on the court… he is satisfied and motivated for tomorrow.
Do you also wake up at 5 am? Is this the best time for sitting and looking internally? – Francisco Castaño
Answered during the webinar… I don’t wake up early.
It is not the time you wake up that matters, it is what you do with your waking hours that really counts. Dan Sullivan says “do 3 important things” each day… then rest. It will force you to get clear on what is really important… and not spend each day filling your hours with busy-ness.
How do you think that leadership styles will be shaped after the Coronavirus stage? – Adnan Falah
Greater trust in people. Rapid digital transformation of all industries. Offices will become meeting areas and clubhouses for the social life of the company, not for getting work done… which will be done more and more in remote.
Do companies urgently need a re-organization to cope with the change? (many working at home, social distancing, etc.) – Antonio Mata (Youtube)
Yes. More trust of people. More communication of why we work, what is important… and trusting people to be disciplined in focussing their time and energy on what matters.
The founder of Braun, Max Braun had a requirement that all communications in the company answered the 5 Questions: Who, Why, What, How, When. If any member of the organisation did not address each of the 5 questions he would be sanctioned by Max, and repeat offenders were asked to find another organisation for their work.
If leaders are able to communicate not just what they want done… but why it is important, what is the objective, who is involved and impacted, when it is needed to be completed – then people can be far more creative and resourceful than when then are just told what to do.
Have you considered what it is that makes Face2Face (IRL) unique, compared to the online encounter Face2Face? – Julio Bascur
Trust. This is my question. How do we build trust through video. I have little doubt after the last 3 weeks of zoom calls that video can be very effective for communication – where there is already a strong bond of trust between individuals. My question for myself… and for anyone who has answers (not speculation, but direct experiential evidence of it working) is how to build trust that allows me to challenge people and create disruptive tension when I teach or lead.
What is the relationship between leadership and public speaking? – Monika Borgers
Bringing together the resources to effect the change
1 is about thinking deeply about who you are and where you are going and how that purpose relates to the organisation and society in which you live. It is about surrounding yourself with mentors and colleagues that raise you up and expect the best from you, and listening and learning from their life experiences and perspectives.
2 is about communication in a way that engages others to make your change something that becomes their change. 2 is built on being trustworthy, listening to people, conversation, public speaking and disciplined action. Public speaking is a small, but important, part of the whole that is leadership.
Tell us about the tele-leader. How can you lead with a virtual team? – Santiago Lopez
Ever since Ronald Reagan in the US, federal leaders are “tele-leaders”. Few americans will have had any offline engagement with state and federal political leaders. I have never met Boris Johnson, but I have a sense of who he is as a person and what he stands for. I have never met Pedro Sanchez, but I listen to his speeches and am interested in his vision for the future of Spain and Europe. I have never met any of the European leaders, but my life is shaped greatly by their decisions in Brussels. I worked for almost a decade at Accenture, and I only spent 120 minutes (at work) in those 10 years in direct conversation (in a group of 150 employees) with the CEO or senior leadership. Tele-leadership has been a reality for most global corporations and most developed societies for at least 50 years.
How can you lead with a virtual team? We had a recent webinar with Miquel Llado for the Vistage members in Spain where he addressed how to lead as an e-CEO. Check out the webinar here: Miquel Llado, the e-CEO (in spanish).
Do you think that after the crisis, companies will look for staff in the same manner as before? – Alejandro Díaz
I’m not sure I have any competence to speak to this question. My thoughts… electronic tracking tools will become more normal, and more sophisticated. This is a two edged sword. We will be able to track individuals in much more detail – hours, what they are actually doing, where they spend their time… can leaders be trusted to use this data for the common good? Or will it be used to micro-manage and control?
Government policy has a big impact here. The spanish government has effectively banned layoffs at the moment… and required that companies continue to pay full salaries. What will happen the moment that this policy stops? Companies will be far more risk averse in hiring… and will make even more extensive use of short term, freelance and temporary contracts.
Can you recognise good leaders in politics these days? Why do certain controversial leaders are top on the polls these weeks? – Ricardo R.
A little bit of representational democratic philosophy… a politically elected official is the representative of the majority view… not someone given the freedom to express their own individual opinion.
As with all human endeavours, this is a messy process and most elected officials have their own beliefs and opinions which they allow to shape their national policy making.
The role of politicians is to represent, not to lead. A danger in our society is the expectation that me, the average citizen, can sit back and let the national elected officials take care of the situation… this is a dangerous posture. Democracy works when their is high levels of education about the types of decisions that nations need to take about social security, public health, defense, security, economy, protection of minority groups, public/private initiative… and high involvement of citizens in day to day political life (in our schools, in our streets, in our towns, in our countries, in our countries and in the world).
Gandhi was not a politically elected leader when he made his most significant impacts upon the world. Nelson Mandela was not a politically elected leader until well after his personal leadership and sacrifices had impacted the world. These great leaders of the past led from principles, created vast change and then only afterwards were elected as trusted representatives. We are in danger when our politicians never led as individuals, and we expect them to take leadership of major national decisions.
This pandemic has brought to light the inadequacies of “conventional” management thinking (i.e. hyperefficiency and byperlean organizations). How can a leader then challenge these concepts? – JJ Moreno
I was a product of the MBA efficiency school when I first began as an entrepreneur. I had bought into the idea a 60% debt 40% equity optimal capital structure and eliminating all redundancies in my businesses… then in 2008 I lived through the bankrupcy of my business… and 9 years of dealing with the debts.
Today I have very little debt and believe in the Microsoft adage of having 1 year of cash available at all times. I regret some of my youthful advice to business owners… that they could use more debt and less equity to grow or to sustain their business. That came from a young man who had never lived through a downturn in the economy. Now, I’ve lived through 2 downturns as a business leader… and I will have buffers, multiple sources of capabilities and lots of cash around me as I run my business.
This fundamentally comes down to whether I am running my business for the short term (to sell it, or to hit a particular measure of success) or I am acting as a steward of my institution for the very long run (what is called the Infinite Game by Simon Sinek amongst others).
In these difficult times, this story about the 20 Mile March is my reminder of what to focus on… and how to stay in control of my life.
I first heard this story from Jim Collins. He shares it in his book Good to Great. Here, I share my version of the story… and how it relates to leading yourself and your organisation in difficult times.
Your 20 Miles?
What are your 20 mile march habits? What are your aspirational self 20 mile march habits? What can you do in this period of quarantine to practice your 20 mile march?
These are my notes from the words of an Indian spiritual leader called Sadhguru, which I found positive, generous and calming. I had never heard of this man a few days ago… but have found his voice and his words a source of inspiration and clarity over the last 6 days.
When the situation is serious, you do not need to become serious. We do not choose to become frivolous, but we choose to be responsible.
When you become dead serious, you are dead before you are dead. When you lose your laugh, you lose everything. If you stop laughing you will make no difference to the progress of the virus. If you act serious, you will not stop a single infection.
Are you a Human Being or a Human Creature?
It is in these times that what kind of a human being you are matters. It matters all the time, but in normal times all sorts of fake people can pretend. It is when crisis hits that what type of human being you are really matters.
This virus is not being carried by mosquitos or rats. It is being carried by us.
Are we human beings or are we human creatures? If we are human beings we choose to take responsibility to not pass this virus on to the next person.
Human Beings are the Agents of this Virus
We are the vector of this virus. We are the agents who carry.
Many of us may be asymptomatic carriers of the virus. We may think “what difference do I make?”
We could not notice it, but we could be giving it to someone who is at risk.
What type of human are you? Are you fit to be a being? A human being. The most fundamental thing is that you know how to be. You know how to choose. You know how to act intentionally.
Today, by not doing anything… you have done something great for the world.
Do Something Great: Stay Home and Do Nothing
Meditation gurus have spent thousands of years telling us to sit down, sit still and do nothing. A little virus is teaching us faster than all those hundreds and thousands of meditation gurus.
Social distancing is not building walls around us, around those close to us. It is being aware and careful of the manner of transmission of this virus.
What steps can we take to ensure the safety of our community?
Keep our distance – don’t be an agent of transmission for the virus, stay home, wash hands, don’t shake hands
Strengthen our physical system – eat well, sleep enough, take physical exercise
Ensuring that the team, the organisation, the institution, the vision and mission can live on after you.
It is hard to let go of the ego part of you that enjoys being “needed”. It is difficult to accept that there needs to be a future beyond you. If an empire cannot go on beyond the ruler, this was not a great ruler.
Alexander the Great… was great at conquering and winning battles… but so totally failed to prepare for life beyond him that his children were murdered soon after his death and his five generals spent the rest of their lives fighting over the succession to his empire.
Will my organisation live on beyond my time as leader? I hope so…
Management is always about tradeoffs. If you want quality, you have to sacrifice time or money. If you want fast, you have to sacrifice quality or money. If you want cheap, you have to sacrifice quality or time.
Leadership is about People
If you push people, you don’t know which way they will go. If you use your power to tell them how to act, you will create a push back.
If you can learn to pull people, they will follow.
Power comes when people freely give you their support.
If you take that power and reflect it all back to them, they give you more. If you use the power for yourself, they give you less power. If you give people back the power that they entrust to you, more and more comes to you. You get to use this power for a Just Cause, something bigger than yourself, a Vision of a better world for all of us.
“Leadership is the most valuable commodity on the planet and it is the rarest commodity we have”
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