Be A Better Leader: Be Excellent (by being flexible)

“Be Excellent” is the fifth category we’re exploring in our “Be A Better Leader” series. In this series, we are looking at a variety of attributes, characteristics, and skills that are essential to effective leadership, and discussing how they are reflected in practice. In addition to this month’s topic, the list of categories also includes “Be Genuine,” “Be Relational,” Be Trustworthy,” and “Be Knowledgeable.” This month, as we look at what it means to “Be Excellent,” we will be talking about the need to be flexible, be intentional, and be competent, and then I will share some thoughts on a recommended related book or two.

In the 1993 blockbuster movie Jurassic Park, actor Jeff Goldblum played a character named Ian Malcolm, who was a “chaos mathematician.” His character’s role was to apply the ideas of chaos theory to the operation of the dinosaur-themed amusement park, with the hope of being able to give approval so that the park could move forward. However, in his view, chaos theory purported that everything is unpredictable, because tiny environmental factors and influences mean that nothing ever happens the same way twice. The result was that he believed the forces that the Jurassic Park scientists were trying to control were, in fact, uncontrollable.

The reality is, life is unpredictable and constantly changing, and those changes are uncontrollable. Sure, we can maintain some semblance of control with planning and structure, but there are always circumstances and factors that are unexpected and that we can’t control, like when you drive over a nail and get a flat tire, or you get in an accident caused by another driver, or when severe weather cancels your plans, and so on. These types of things force you to change in some way, but if you cannot adapt to change, you will live a life of eternal frustration. So, since you can’t avoid it, what you must do instead is learn to navigate it, by learning to become flexible, and there are three things you can do to help you with this.

First, relinquish control. It begins by accepting the fact that you cannot control everything that happens. It’s foolish to think that you can. This truth has been reflected often in the financial industry, where unpredictable events impact the value of stocks. Malcom Gladwell, in his book What the Dog Saw (2010), discussed this in one of the book’s articles, entitled “Blowing Up.” In this article he discussed the financial practice of investors, and suggested – according to his interview with one particular advisor – that you must accept that you can’t predict the unexpected event, therefore you must always be prepared for losses.

A number of years ago, I read a book by Peter Schwartz called Inevitable Surprises (2004), in which Schwartz made the claim that certain future surprises were actually inevitable, and therefore could be predicted and harnessed. One of his primary examples was the “inevitable” impending increase of retirees from the large baby boomer generation, which he then identified as a resource to be tapped into. However, what he could not predict was the change in longevity of life, combined with a later retirement ages, which meant that the expected volunteer force of retirees has not emerged (ironically, an increase in volunteerism has occurred among the younger generation, not the older). The point is, you cannot control unpredictable events, and therefore you must be willing and able to accept that lack of control, in order to keep it from defeating you.

Second, be willing to try something different. If you know that some things will happen outside of your control that change your plans, you need to be willing to change your plans and do something different. This is a lesson I learned early in my administrative experience, in the first school in which I served as a headmaster. There was an expectation that I implement noticeable change, because the school had been struggling, and so I began to develop and initiate a strategic plan. However, as you might expect, some of my plans did not work well, because unexpected circumstances would influence the outcome, or people would resist, or it simply didn’t work the way I thought it would. I could tell that people were watching me to see how I would respond to these obstacles and unpredictable events, and so I got in the habit of saying, “If it doesn’t work, we’ll do something different.” This was not only for their benefit, but also for mine, to reassure both them and me that it wasn’t an end, only a change. It helped them to be willing to try something different, and in the process of trying something different, we learned, improved and found the best solutions.

Jim Collins, in Great by Choice (2011), addresses a similar idea when he talks about firing bullets then cannonballs. The idea, he explains, is that effective leaders spend a small amount of resources trying out a variety of ideas (firing bullets), dismissing the ones that don’t work well and pouring more resources into the ones that do (firing cannonballs). We often don’t know with certainty what is going to effective and produce the desired outcome, and we also don’t know what unexpected factors will hinder our plans, therefore we ought to be willing to try ideas and test plans with the understanding that, for various reasons, it may not work (either at this time, or in this place, or under these circumstances) and so we need to be able to let it go, change, and do something different. It may mean changing the time, or place, or circumstances, or perhaps even throwing it away and starting over, but regardless, it means being willing to do something different.

Third, develop creativity. We are not all naturally creative in our thought process or in our expression, but we can all do things that help us to become more creative. When we develop creativity, looking for new ways of thinking, doing, and expressing, we begin to startle people (in a good way), helping us to get and hold their attention. I learned a little about this when I first became a history teacher. I felt like I had had history teachers in the past who were very boring, and so I wanted to get the attention of my students and make history an enjoyable and valuable class. I remember early in the year, in an American History course, when I was teaching on Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the new world, trying to explain what it felt like to be on his ship sailing across the ocean with a hope but not a certainty, when I suddenly leaped on top of my desk and yelled “Land ho!” as loud as I could. The class jumped, laughed, and then engaged in an active discussion. By being unexpected, I helped to develop an interest in the course.

Daniel Pink, in his book, A Whole New Mind (2006), discusses the value of creative thinking and its importance to leadership and progress. He proposes that those who can learn to think creatively will have an advantage in a global marketplace. He then offers six “senses” that are necessary for cultivating creativity, and provides practical advice on how to develop these skills. The main point is that creativity is skill that can be nurtured and grown, and is necessary for growth and leadership in the world of information and concepts in which we live.

We cannot ignore the fact that life throws curve balls, and that much of what happens around us and to us is unpredictable. Try as we might to prevent it or avoid it, change happens, and if we are not willing and able to have a degree of flexibility, we will be frustrated, disappointed, and defeated. To be an effective leader, then, you must be able to be flexible. Doing this will require that you are willing to give up control (specifically, over those things that you can’t control), willing to do something different with positive (not a defeated) attitude, and willing to learn to become more creative. Developing these characteristics will help you to have the flexibility you need, in order to lead well in a changing world.

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