Leadership and the Myth of Infinite Flexibility

MY oldest son was about 6 years old when he started playing kiddie basketball. He was and is a decent natural athlete and, in fact, his first word was “ball.” After each practice he came home and talked (and talked) about what he learned, what he was going to practice at home, how many awesome things he did, and who the team was “versing” Friday night. And, of course, how decisively his team would win.

One night after practice, he met me in the kitchen to complete our normal in-depth blow-by-blow of how practice went, what he learned, what was most fun, etc. He smiled big and his eyebrows peaked above his impossibly brown eyes as he explained the intricacies of the bounce pass and the importance of “covering your man,” while he mimicked movements that vaguely resembled basketballing in the kitchen.

Playing the straight man, I asked, “Did coach teach you how to dunk yet?”

“Not yet Dad, but probably next time!” and he clearly believed it. He shuffled away in his best athletic defensive stance and shot an invisible ball for three.

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Leadership training, coaching, popular press books, and other leadership development tools are big business. These tools intend to help leaders lead, grow, and change to be more effective. The best are designed to develop leadership capabilities within the context of the environment that learners must lead. They can help leaders fit the role, team, and organization. They certainly are valuable and can add tools to your leadership toolkit. Take advantage of them.

However, any leadership development tool’s effectiveness is limited not just by the method itself, but by the assumptions these methods make about leadership and people more generally. They are also limited by the one-size fits all assumptions about people and the environment in which they must lead.

I call the assumption behind the belief that any leader is capable of anything the Myth of Infinite Flexibility. The myth suggests that anyone can be developed or changed to successfully lead (or successfully whatever) in any situation with the right training, coaching, support, time, book, etc.  It also (incorrectly) suggests that there is one best way to lead, and that all leaders would be better off doing X, Y, or Z.

Simply. Not. True.

Counter to the promises of broadly applied leadership development tools, and the way we Westerners typically think about leadership, it’s generally easier to change the leader’s situation to support their success than to change the leader to do things that they simply might not be able to do effectively (more on this in a later post). By “situation,” I mean to be inclusive of the work, people, structure, etc.–the environment in which the leader leads (whether leading effectively or not).

In fact, organizations operate from the fit the situation to the leader-don’t change the leader principle all the time, though they are typically unaware that they are doing so.

Understanding and accepting this Myth is critical to becoming more effective as a leader and supporting your goals as an aspiring leader at any level. It is also a fundamental mindset to supporting the success of your team.

  • Is a leader always a leader? Would any company that Steve Jobs led be as successful as Apple?
  • In what situations are you viewed as a leader by others? Why? What is it about those situations . . . about you . . . about the relationship between you and the situation that enables this?
  • In what situations are you a contributor but not in the lead?
  • Are there recent situations where you attempted, but did not feel successful leading?
  • Do you feel or act as though you must be in the lead in most situations–no matter what?
  • Thinking about your direct reports/team, are there situations where one person rather than another tends to take the lead on a project or certain kinds of issues? Why? Are they always effective or might others be more so in some situations?
  • Do you have a direct report that is effective in many ways but struggles in others–despite training or other support? What (within the bounds of organizational realities) can you change about the situation to enable their success?
  • How can or do you compensate for some of your weaknesses? Do you surround yourself with others that “round out” your leadership? . . . or do you tend to surround yourself with similar others (which is quite normal)?

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A few weeks later, my son again came home from basketball practice.  He shared in the same matter-of-fact tone that he used to report all new-things learned that the team had, in fact, learned to dunk the ball that night. And he was quite good at it already.

Couldn’t help but smile and chuckle when I learned that coach had lifted each kid up high enough to get the ball over the lowered kiddie rim. As impressive as his new skill was, to be fair, I could have dunked it that night without coach’s help.

Sadly, despite his early training and dunking success, he hasn’t been able to dunk it again since that night he learned how. During high school, he tried out but never made the high school basketball team.

He did, however, work his way to scratch (expert) golf by age 16 and was a leader on the golf team for four years.

Haven’t been able to beat him since.

Tom

@leadgrowchange

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