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The Way of Flexibility: A Model of Leadership

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"Make sure that any model you do have is compatible with traditional wisdom: Admire the wise of all religions."

-John Heider, "The Tao of Leadership"

Much work has gone into studying, researching, and developing models of leadership. Many models have been put forth, examined, applied, and either used or discarded. Yet, for all this work, there is still not one "perfect" model or method of leading. Every group and situation is different, and a good leader must be flexible. The best model of leadership is one that incorporates different models into one paradigm that understands that the only constant is change. Therefore, my model of leadership will be based primarily upon flexibility.

Leadership, then, is like gymnastics. It takes a certain degree of physical or mental flexibility to be effective at either. Someone can not simply declare "I am a flexible leader" any easier than you or I could do a leg split. It must be worked up to, and one must recognize the different skills that need to be worked upon in order to accomplish anything.

I propose that a leader must first understand the basic styles of leadership and how to apply them. Then he/she can know what style is the most appropriate given the task and group composition. Second, he/she must be able to observe his/her group in order to decide when the aforementioned styles are to be applied, and when problems begin threatening the group or its task. Then, that leader must be able to effectively communicate and influence his/her followers in order to fix problems, provide feedback, and inspire a group to be more than the sum of its parts. That is what effective leadership is about.

"Whatever is flexible and flowing will tend to grow. Whatever is rigid and blocked will atrophy and die."

-John Heider, "The Tao of Leadership"

Much of what is covered in chapter 2 of "Leadership: A Communication Perspective" has been introduced to me before in a wide variety of classes. The styles of leadership, as well as Theory X and Theory Y, are so basic that no model of leadership is complete without being based or at least touching upon these valuable concepts, so I will begin building my model of leadership here.

A flexible leader realizes the advantages and disadvantages inherent in each of the three styles of Authoritarian, Democratic, and Laissez-faire leadership. While it seems that most of the researchers agree that democratic style is the most effective, there are certain situations that call for different styles. Effective leadership demands that a leader be able to adjust his/her style according to the circumstances. Our textbook states that Authoritarian leadership is more effective with large group sizes, or when the leader has a larger degree of task knowledge. Laissez-faire is most effective when a group is composed of motivated intelligent people who function best when given a task and left alone. When these situations come up, blindly holding to democratic, even though overall the most effective style, can cause a group to be less productive. This also applies to Theory X and Theory Y. Many people believe that these styles are rigid, polar opposites. However, the book states that the theorist, Douglas McGregor, believed that they "...are not polar opposites but, rather, independent dimensions isolating options from which a leader might select depending on the situation and the people involved." (p48, Leadership) Holding on to all the qualities that classify one's leadership as being "X" or "Y" prohibits effective leadership when situations change.

Most of the jobs I've worked have authoritarian managers. Though it is a necessary style to start a worker off with, eventually, that worker becomes more comfortable in the environment and needs less rigid direction, and would benefit more from a democratic style of leadership. My manager from WVUIT Career Services was flexible, and adapted to our changing needs. As I was more competent, I was allowed greater flexibility and freedom in deciding how to do tasks assigned to me. After a few months, I was given a task, told what was expected, and left alone with minimal supervision. This benefited us both, providing him with more time to do his necessary tasks, and allowing me a great deal of intellectual freedom. To this day, I consider that place to be one of my favorite places of employment.

On the other end of the spectrum, was a place called Client Logic, located locally. A technical support contractor, it was full of rather intelligent workers. Again, at first, we were more suited towards authoritarian style managers, and we expected to get more freedom to decide how to help customers. This did not happen. The head manager, our only source of communication with the corporate office, used a strict corporate authoritarian managerial style, coupled with rigid downward communication and little upward communication. This continued downwards to our immediate supervisors. It felt as though our hands were tied because we were unable to fully assist people with problems. Sometimes, we knew how to solve a few common issues, yet, for reasons never revealed to us, we were unable to divulge them. These conditions resulted in an atmosphere of alienation and lowered productivity. Today, even though it was the highest paying job I've had so far, I regard it as my worst job.

"The superficial leader cannot see how things happen, even though the evidence is everywhere. This leader is swept up by drama, sensation, and excitement."

-John Heider, "The Tao of Leadership

In order for a leader to know when he/she needs to switch styles, and adapt to his/her group, he/she must learn to anticipate and recognize when things are changing and a different approach to leadership is necessary. To this end, a leader must know how to observe his/her group, and try to understand the reasoning behind events.

Even though this article was written with an outside consultant in mind, a leader can follow many of the techniques outlined in "Observing Group Discussions" by Brilhart, Galanes, & Adams. This includes the guideline on focusing on trends and tendencies instead of individuals, and giving the group a chance to correct itself. A good leader recognizes the desire to save face, and much of the face saving strategies mentioned in the teaching section are very important, including the necessity of private intervention. While I cannot individually cover each and every strategy mentioned in this article, I can mention the highlights that a



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