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Flexible leadership: How to bend without breaking

Alicia McKay

In my 32 years, I’ve moved 34 times. I had three kids by 26. I left foster care as a teen parent, and put myself through university and into a career without the safety of family support.  I’ve moved cities, left jobs, started businesses and coped with parental abandonment, divorce, and the death of my loved ones. And in all the madness, I’ve never really… stopped.

I’m grateful for how those experiences shaped me, because without them, I wouldn’t have developed some of my best qualities: persistence, motivation, a strong appetite for risk and a capacity for managing disaster. But as I came to learn the hard way… they have a ceiling.

In the last two years, I realised my grit and self-determination had made me an insufferable control freak, and a shocking delegator. My inability to let go was getting in the way of building a sustainable business and a balanced life, and I was finding it harder than ever to trust others. As the months ticked on, that fear got in the way of my personal and professional relationships, disconnecting me from my friends, partner and children. Years of pushing myself to the limit finally took their toll and in late 2020, I reached total burnout. Unable to think straight, my mental health caved in and I watched in terror as my burning passion and drive slipped away, replaced by naps, Netflix and gardening.

Thankfully, that passion returned – though I now need to be careful with it. Over the last six months, I’ve been carefully putting things back together. I’m learning new ways of living and working that prioritise connection and interdependence, by building a team and learning to call for help. It’s not an easy journey, and I still get it wrong most days, but I know it’s the only way I’m going grow. For all my expertise in leadership and growth, I’ve faced the consequences of my own inflexibility – and, thankfully, I’ve lived to tell the tale.

Little about my story is truly unique. I work with overwhelmed senior leaders daily, with their own version of this journey – where the skills that got them to the top aren’t paying off anymore. It’s true for us all. As our strengths and abilities propel us forward, we double down on them. If we cling too hard, and don’t see the warning signs in time, we eventually reach a point where our best traits are the things that hold us back.

For me, that was my work ethic and lack of trust. For others, it’s their empathy and lack of boundaries. For others still, it’s their technical expertise and lack of perspective. While our challenges might be different, the process is largely the same. Our strengths, overused eventually become our weaknesses – so as leaders, it’s our job to become more flexible, to shift the balance again as we need to.

What flexibility is all about

Flexibility is our ability to bend without breaking. In my work with ambitious leaders, I’ve learned that genuine flexibility is the single-most important skill for sustainable success. When we stay aware of ourselves and our surroundings, take agency over our future, and build resilience for ambiguity and disaster, there’s little that can hold us back. Pandemics, natural disasters, legislative change, staff movements and PR disasters become par for the course as we move and bend in response to our environment. From that core, we can build the other skills that set us up for leadership success –strategic decision-making, systems thinking, performance leadership and influence. But if we stay inflexible and cling too tightly to what we’ve invested in, it’s impossible to make real progress.

How to be more flexible

Every interaction, disruption or problem is an opportunity to build  your awareness, agency and resilience. Legend has it that Benjamin Franklin made a point of focusing on  one virtue each week and practising it daily. Cultivating flexibility can be handled in the same way.

Here’s some ideas:

  • Read widely and ask questions – what’s happening out there? What are other people doing?
  • Dismantle a problem you’re facing by starting from scratch – what if this wasn’t a problem at all? How could you eliminate the entire process?
  • Schedule time with people you trust, to get a new perspective on your environment and behaviour – what is it about your leadership or your business that isn’t working well anymore? How can you shift that?
  • Next time something negative happens, try to think of three different interpretations that might be more useful – what if this was a gift, or an opportunity for growth?

Get ready to stretch

Flexibility is a skill worth having – and this has never been more obvious than the events of the last 18 months, where the COVID pandemic has shattered our ideas and assumptions about how to lead, work and live.

Ultimately, leadership flexibility is about staying attuned to our environment,  taking responsibility for our behaviour and learning from our  experiences so we can keep adapting – because we’ll need to.

Is it time for you to stretch?


Written by Alicia McKay.

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Alicia McKay
Alicia McKay, author of ‘You Don’t Need An MBA: Leadership Lessons that Cut Through the Crap’, is a strategic leadership expert and founder of the NaMBA programme – a game-changing alternative to traditional leadership education. Alicia McKay works with leaders and teams to spark strategic shifts in the way they think, work and lead.

Alicia McKay is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn.