Flexible Leadership – Self Knowledge, Guiding Principles and Flexible Approaches

Leaders, who are self-aware, create personal guiding principles and are flexible in their leadership approaches, will have success navigating any situation.   There are a set of leadership traits, behaviors and styles that support flexible leadership.  Leaders need to develop self-awareness.  Understanding what their strengths and weaknesses are and how they react to different situations is the foundation for a flexible leadership style.  Next, the leader needs to create their guiding principles defining who they are and how they work.  Finally, leaders need to provide structure and flexibility in their organizations.

Leadership traits are described by Trait Theory.  The presumption of this theory is that “effective leaders possess a similar set of traits or characteristics.” (Williams, 2011, p. 236)  Peter Drucker discounts Trait Theory by saying; “Nor are there any such things as ‘leadership qualities’ or a ‘leadership personality’.” (Drucker, The Essential Drucker, 2001, p. 269)  Other writers disagree with Drucker and show that leaders’ traits make them stand out.  Williams lists these traits as “drive, the desire to lead, honesty/integrity, self-confidence, emotional stability, cognitive ability and knowledge of the business.” (Williams, 2011, p. 263)  Jim Collins supports this thinking with the concept of Level 5 Leadership.  Collins writes that the two sides of Level 5 Leadership are Professional Will and Personal Humility. (Collins, Good to Great, 2001, p. 36)

Drucker wrote “Know your strengths and values” describing the need to be self-aware.  Drucker advocates “feedback analysis” as one way to find out one’s strengths and weaknesses.  (Drucker, The Essential Drucker, 2001, p. 218)  Williams’ list of traits noted above also refer to attributes that are personally focused. Personally, I used the Myers-Briggs Type Indicators (MTBI) analysis to get a clearer understanding of my strengths and weaknesses.  There are four dichotomies that describe 16 personality types. (The Myers & Briggs Foundation, 2003) I wrote a blog post about understanding the personality types of Enterprise Architects called “Being a Teacher works for me …” (de Sousa, 2008)

Flexible leaders build on their self-awareness by creating a set of guiding principles.  These guiding principles are applied daily by the leader to their work.  Peter Drucker writes “Nothing better prepares the ground for such leadership than a spirit of management that confirms in the day-to-day practices of the organization strict principles of conduct, and responsibility, high standards of performance, and respect for the individual and his work.” (Drucker, The Practice of Management, 1954, p. 160)  Jim Collins provides a set of principles for Level 5 leaders.  “Clock Building not Time Telling” focuses on building a company that is built to last.  The “Genius of AND” stresses personal humility and professional will.  A “Core Ideology” of ambition for the company over ambition for self. Finally, Level 5 leaders are “relentless in stimulating progress toward tangible results and achievement, even if it means firing their brothers.”  (Collins, Good to Great, 2001, p. 198)

Leaders can be flexible when they are self-aware and live by guiding principles.  Williams cites research from two universities.  “Two basic leader behaviors emerged as central to successful leadership: initiating structure and considerate leader behavior.” (Williams, 2011, p. 265)  Initiating structure is defined as the leader structuring roles, setting goals, giving directions, setting deadlines and assigning tasks.  Consideration is how a leader is friendly, approachable, supportive, and shows concern for employees.  Another way to think about these two behaviors is, initiating structure is equivalent to concern for production and consideration is equivalent to concern for people based on Blake/Mouton’s model.   (Williams, 2011, p. 266)  Stephen Covey used a similar model with Consideration for people and Courage for production.  Covey calls this the Win/Win approach. (Covey, 2004, p. 218)  (See Appendix 1)

Fiedler’s Contingency Theory states “in order to maximize work group performance, leaders must be match to the right leadership situations.” (Williams, 2011, p. 267)  Fiedler assumes that leaders are incapable of changing their style.  This theory does not support Flexible Leadership.   Path-Goal Theory relies on leadership styles, subordinate contingencies, and environmental contingencies to produce subordinate satisfaction and performance outcomes.  This theory supports the adaptability of leadership behavior and is aligned to a flexible leadership style.  A leader would use the appropriate style of leadership depending on the type of task, the worker’s locus of control, the authority system, and worker experience and ability. (Williams, 2011, p. 270)

Drucker and Collins list many leaders who fit the description of a flexible leader in their writings.  (See Appendix 2)  Leaders who are self-aware and create guiding principles can exercise flexible leadership allowing them to successfully lead their organization through any situation.

Appendix 1 – Merge of the Blake/Mouton and Covey matrices: (Williams, 2011) (Covey, 2004)

Blake and Mouton put these together in a Leadership Grid to describe various leadership behaviors using a 1 (low) to 9 (high) scale.  A flexible leader can navigate between these leadership styles by being self-aware and by living by their guiding principles.

Blake/Mouton and Covey Merged Matrices


Concern for Production (Courage)



Country Club (Lose/Win) Team Management (Win/Win)

Concern for People (Consideration)

Middle of the Road (Draw?)


Impoverished Management (Lose/Lose) Authority-Compliance (Win/Lose)


Appendix 2 – Examples of Flexible Leaders from Drucker and Collins

Peter Drucker (Drucker, The Essential Drucker, 2001, p. 169) Jim Collins (Collins & Porras, Built to Last, 2002, pp. 280-281)
Franklin D. Roosevelt William McKnight
Winston Churchill William Boeing
George Marshall Henry Ford I
Dwight D. Eisenhower Henry Wells and William Fargo
Bernard Montgomery Thomas J. Watson
Douglas MacArthur Dave Packard and William Hewlett



Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Collins, J., & Porras, J. I. (2002). Built to Last. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Free Press.

de Sousa, L. (2008, Mar 13). Being a Teacher works for me … Retrieved 09 15, 2011, from Enterprise Architecture in Higher Education: http://leodesousa.ca/2008/03/being-a-teacher-works-for-me/

Drucker, P. F. (1954). The Practice of Management. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Drucker, P. F. (2001). The Essential Drucker. New York: HarperColins Publishers.

The Myers & Briggs Foundation. (2003, Jan 1). MBTI Basics. Retrieved Sep 19, 2011, from The Myers & Briggs Foundation: http://www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/mbti-basics/

Williams, C. (2011). MGMT4 Student Edition. Mason: South Western, Cengage Learning.