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A leader’s flexibility

Mark Cook is the program coordinator for the Institute for Global Engagement, a partnership between Denison Forum and Dallas Baptist University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Dallas Baptist University, and completed his Masters of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and Truett Seminary. His ministry background is college ministry, and he has served both on a church staff as well as within campus ministries.

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Indian man doing yoga (Credit: byheaven via Fotolia)

Leadership principles are often declared as self-evident truths that always work. These truths are enumerated, often with an illustration of their effectiveness in the life and practice of the author. While many of these leadership principles are, prima facie, true, there are a host of leadership principles that need to be parsed in more detail to elucidate when they might be useful and when they might be ill-advised, or, even, harmful.

Such a leadership principle is that leaders need to be flexible. Often espoused as an incontrovertible maxim in the ever-changing cultural and sociological landscape of contemporary life, flexibility is, when closely examined, something worth more than cursory attention.

Take, for instance, the recent deluge of domestic violence issues that have arisen across both professional and collegiate sports. The Sam Ukwuachu case at Baylor University, along with 2013 Heisman trophy winner Jameis Winston‘s at Florida State are the most notable at the collegiate level. In the pros, Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, and Ray McDonald have highlighted the most notorious list of domestic violence instigators in the NFL. Leaders at the institutional level as well as those in team management have quickly learned that there is no tolerance in culture for perceived laxity to these cases.

It’s clear, then, that ethical and moral issues provide the most important fulcrum for leadership flexibility to be questioned. Leaders cannot be flexible in these situations. Their patience will be perceived as nothing less than stall tactics, and will bring into question their overall leadership credibility.

It is key for leaders to understand where they need to be inflexible, and the only way for them to know this is by immersing themselves in their individual and organizational values. By immersion I mean that they must go further than simply having organizational or personal values and perhaps even having them printed and visible for all to see. Leaders must incarnate the value principles that they believe in or else they are nothing more than window dressings.

Our leadership culture is rank with stale, hollow “values” that get discussed in executive meetings but which are rootless and never given witness in real life practice. Inflexible leaders are those who demand that organizational values be striven for and practiced at every level of the organization. And inflexible leaders know which of the values are worth protecting and standing up for with swift, corrective action when violated.

I fear that in the media obsessed culture we find ourselves in, PR firms have more persuasive power with leaders than their own inner consciences. In Greer and Horst’s excellent book Mission Drift, the authors speak to the simple ways that organizations slowly drift from their stated mission, and, over time, lose the central thrust of their original purpose as an organization.

Mission drift doesn’t just happen at an organizational level, though. It happens in the human heart. Leaders lose sight of their values and begin to try to make everyone happy rather than do the right thing. Or, they become so concerned with their own perpetuation of leadership, that compromise and pacification become the main ways that they deal with all problems.

Compromise and pacification are fine strategies when it comes to many leadership challenges, but they cannot be the method for every challenge that arises. Flexibility, when held to as an irrefutable truth, leads to straw-man leaders who do not actually confront the issues before them.

There are times to be flexible, and there is great value in learning how to plan ahead as an act of preparatory flexibility so that you can meet unseen challenges that have yet to arise but which could come at any moment. There are simple inconveniences that call for flexibility and adaptation. However, your role as a leader is to know the line between flexibility and inflexibility, and for that you need a standard, a rule, a measuring rod.

The Scriptures speak of this in terms of Wisdom, that which existed before time and was made flesh in Jesus (Colossians 2:3). Dive deeply into the Proverbs and into your relationship with Jesus, the embodiment of wisdom. He will guide your heart in discernment as you face leadership challenges that call for flexibility in some cases, and inflexibility in others.