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What's your Flexibility Quotient? 7 characteristics to help you thrive in fast & frequent change

“If all goes according to plan...” That phrase, once reserved for moments or events that were especially unpredictable, is now the mantra I use in making almost any plans. Will schools stay open so the kids can attend in-person? Can we schedule that training event for next month? Can we connect next Tuesday for a brainstorming call? Sure – as long as everything goes according to plan.

But, of course, almost nothing is going according to plan these days. Living with unpredictability has become our new norm.

And if you’re someone who likes to stick to a schedule, to know short- and long-term plans and avoid last-minute stresses, this time of disruption and uncertainty goes against the very fabric of who you are.

To survive in this complex time of fast and frequent change, leaders need to embrace flexibility -- one of the most critical characteristics of Adaptive Leadership.

Many of us like to be in the driver’s seat of life, with our hand on the controls. We like to know there’s a straight road ahead, or at least a GPS to tell us exactly what route to take to reach our destination.

But flexible leadership during uncertain times is more like sailing – you know where you want to go, but you simply can’t chart a straight line to get there. You pay attention to the wind, the weather patterns, and you tack one way and then another. If someone falls overboard, you change plans quickly.

Leaders who have a preconceived view that all will go according to plan and that they can sail straight to their destination on a course that’s as straight as the crow flies are setting themselves up for frustration. And they’ll spend valuable energy cursing the conditions, and not enough adapting to their surroundings.

Maybe it’s time to check your Flexibility Quotient using these 7 characteristics of flexible leadership, and ponder where you might want to trim your sails and adjust your approach.

1. Open to Change: Change is part of doing business. Do I respond quickly and intelligently to constant change? Can I learn to embrace it?

2. Open to new evidence and data: Am I open to changing my mind when the evidence shows I’m mistaken? Like a sailor paying attention to the wind, how closely am I paying attention to the shifting feedback I’m getting from the environment, and adjusting my course in the moment? Can I reinterpret unexpected situations that might at first look alarming, to look for a nugget of opportunity?

3. Able to unlearn obsolete information: Some of the old approaches are no longer relevant. Can I spot them and quickly pivot? Am I over-attached to familiar ways of thinking and behaving?

4. Emotionally Intelligent: How closely do I pay attention to my emotions? Can I adapt my emotions, thoughts and behaviors to unfamiliar and dynamic circumstances? Do I understand my stress response well enough to notice when I’m biased to hunker down and travel the tried-and-true road, the one I know best?

5. Have a future focus: Even if I think the past was great, am I being driven by it? Do I get stuck in the old way of doing things, which prevents me from foreseeing and seizing new opportunities? Amid his enormous success, Henry Ford developed tunnel vision: when his leaders told him the company needed to diversify, Ford famously said, “The customer can have any color as long as it’s black.” That tunnel vision gave Ford’s biggest competitor, General Motors, the break GM needed to take significant market share.

6. Juggle multiple demands and shifting priorities: Demands don’t arrive on our desks one at a time, and priorities can change on a dime. How comfortable am I juggling?

7. Lead others: Some staff perform better when tasks and priorities are well-defined, reliable and consistent. Can I cast a vision for needed change, empathize with staff who are uncomfortable with it, and help those who are less flexible to get on board?

Remember – even if these skills don’t come naturally to you, they can be cultivated with discipline and intentionality. Our brains have a lifelong plasticity, so flexible leadership is a muscle you can begin to cultivate today.

photo by Little John, Unsplash

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