Is Flexibility The Foundation Of Great Leadership?

Here’s a debate that pops up in every company every so often. “How much process is too much process?” Or how about this view? “We’d be better off around here if we built more process.  We’re constantly re-inventing the wheel!”  Sound familiar to you?

I had this discussion a while back with a colleague and she introduced an interesting work to the debate I hadn’t heard used before. 

Foundational (it isn’t actually a word! 🙂 ).

It appealed to me immediately as a concept as we think about this debate.  It helps narrow the debate down further by identifying components of a business function as something that supports the entire activity vs. something that restricts flexibility.

FoundationalSerendipity showed me an interesting illustration later that evening.  I turned on the television and it was on the Food Network and the show Food Factory was showing how Cake Pops were made.  It started by showing an automated line that used a tried and true recipe to produce perfectly formed, perfectly cooked balls of cake on a stick in groups of 8 or 10. That was the Foundational part.  Then workers would take the groups of cake balls and make some decisions as to whether they would have dark or white chocolate icing and what colour and what amount of sprinkles each cake ball would get. Flexibility.

I then started thinking about the parallel between processes and people.  I think these words help define us as people as well.  Are we comfortable with more foundational elements in our life or do we identify with being more flexible?

Here’s a view of these two possibilities.  Have a look at each side of the image and check-in with yourself on which one appeals to you more.  You might find yourself fully drawn to one over the other, even to the point of the other seeming a bit ridiculous to you.  Even the style of presentation may sway your feelings. Note though that there will be people on both sides of that argument!  Some of you may find a hard time choosing … wanting to have a foot in both camps.

Inside vs Outside The Box

I do believe there is a continuum of on which we can slot ourselves in. As a business we need a mix of people on this continuum. We need “out of the box” thinkers to fuel business innovation.  We need “inside the box” people to drive the business, making sure we fully exploit our market advantages.  Those in the middle of the continuum are really valuable in areas of process improvement and exception handling, where a balance of understanding existing processes and seeing opportunities for improvement can really make a difference.

As a leader, it is important to be cognizant of the nature of our team and our people.  If we run a production department, we will want mostly foundational people who are good at maximizing results, perhaps with a mix of “middle of the range” people to help optimize things.  The marketing department probably needs mostly flexible people with a few foundational ones to keep the work moving.

FlexibleA further consideration for leaders is how these principles influence our style, as we also will land somewhere on this continuum.  It is important for us to know when a more foundational style will be effective vs. a flexible one. The mandate of our team will certainly influence that balance, but my personal opinion is that it most often serves us best to lean towards flexibility.

Here are some areas that are traditionally viewed as foundational  where we may be able to adopt greater flexibility.

  • Work Schedules – there are positions where work schedules are set and can’t be treated flexibly such as production lines, much of health care and first responder services. But is it possible that this is an area where we are too foundational? We have policies in most organizations that dictate the number of vacation days, personal time off and sick time.  A more flexible approach in this area is to approach our team with trust that they want to do a good job and leave the choice of schedule to them.  All we do is maintain accountability for results. They will be there when they need to be, but will probably experience much higher job satisfaction if they have control over their work/life balance.  Do we really care if an employee takes an extra two days of vacation if they are performing at a high level and delivering everything/more than that we ask for? How happy will they be when they get to choose to attend their child’s field trip and then put a couple of hours in later that night catching up on what happened that day? Just this week there was an article in the Calgary Herald about Enerplus (an oil and gas producer) that adapted a stance very close to this.
  • Chain of Command – a formal organization structure is a good way of ensuring that we know who is responsible for what and creating clear lines of communication.  It also is traditionally used to form a chain of command for making decisions to ensure that increasingly complex decisions are made at the right level within the organization. A more flexible (and perhaps mid-continuum solution) would be to allow our talented people to move freely among the levels of management, taking their work directly to those that need to approve it without the need for multiple meetings going up the chain of command. We would have to adapt our ways of working as leaders to allow this to happen – a need for a greater coaching culture and crisp, timely communication spring to mind – but there could be so many benefits.  Our team members would gain exposure to more senior leaders, and perhaps be required to stretch themselves as they are coached instead of managed. Our managers would become leaders instead, more concerned with ensuring that the scope of a team member’s role is appropriate for their level of experience and spending more time coaching them through projects.
  • Loyalty – as I was thinking of this post loyalty came to mind as the most foundational aspect of my expectations as a leader. When I challenged myself to think about this differently, it became clear that there would be value in being flexible in this space as well!  I am not suggesting that loyalty is not valuable – I retain aspects of it such as integrity, confidentiality and commitment as foundational . What I am thinking of as an area of greater flexibility is exclusivity or the concept of non-competition. There is great talent out in the market.  We want as much of it as possible to be in service of our organization.  The problem is we can’t afford it all. What if we were to adapt more flexible hiring practices for our top talent which recognized that we are better off sharing in a lot of it than exclusively controlling a small amount of it?

These are just three examples that I came up with in thinking about this post, and I’m sure there are more.  My commitment to myself as a leader is to continue to explore where my foundational thinking may limit me and in so doing create more flexibility in my leadership style.

How about you?  What ideas do you have with respect to challenging our traditional foundations of leadership?

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Ian Munro @

Ian Munro is a leadership and vitality coach with a primary passion for working with senior professionals who wish to improve their connection to and vitality in their career, or who wish to make a transition to a meaningful and rewarding retirement. His methods are focused on helping clients understand why they present as they do in day-to-day life, discover their authentic self and give themselves permission to build a meaningful and rewarding future, both professional and personal. Ian’s love for this work has developed naturally as he built his career as an executive and leader in the IT services industry, serving in many roles and facets of this industry over 25 years. As he reached the pinnacle of his career he began to search more deeply for meaning and alternate rewards from his own career and to begin to plan for his own “first retirement”.

9 thoughts on “Is Flexibility The Foundation Of Great Leadership?

  1. I love your ideas, they would certainly work in an organisation where there is a foundation of trust. Unfortunately many don’t have this due to the high pressures for achieving targets and reducing budgets.

  2. Who know cake pops could be so inspiring? 🙂

    I tend to agree that there are attributes of both ‘camps’ that appeal — but our individual leanings and traits will move us more to one or the other – particularly in times of high pressure, tight deadlines and stress.

    Fascinating stuff Ian!

  3. Ian, a thought I had on a transition from foundational to flexible is that of a newer leadership style called SuperLeadership. This leadership style is where leaders lead others to lead themselves – to bring out the leader in every employee by developing an enthusiastic, innovative and energized workforce. It challenges the fundamental assumptions about leadership and offers a powerful alternative for unleashing the capabilities of all employees.

  4. I found this interesting and I have found my weakness is getting tangled up with that last one – loyalty. As a leader I have been known to keeping people on well past their used by date.

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