Stability and Agility: How Leaders Can Be Both Focused and Flexible

If there is one thing the global pandemic has taught us, it is that we are not as in control as we think we are – of our lives, our livelihood, our world. Asking leaders to manage change or lead change is no more realistic than asking them to predict where the next variant is coming from. In January of this year, Deloitte asked CEOs to describe their lived experience of 2021. Many described the year as “challenging.” In addition, “chaotic, exhausting, long, unpredictable, and volatile ranked high on their list.” And it comes as no surprise that “uncertain” tops the list as they anticipate what might unfold this year.1

It is true that within organizations, leaders will often be confronted with large-scale, planned efforts. New projects, technology implementations, mergers, and acquisitions will occur, and leaders will need to get on board, and get others on board, with those efforts. But that’s not the type of change leaders is confronted with on a day-to-day basis. Leaders today are dealing with unpredictable, rapid-fire events not only related to the global pandemic, but also related to changes in customer preferences, disruption in global supply chain, social media influences, or rapidly escalating societal issues that impact their teams. 

Despite the popularity of the terms managing change or leading change, these events cannot be managed by anyone. Disruptions can come from any direction with increasing speed and frequency. But the frenetic nature of change doesn’t need to rattle leaders or their teams. And the stability of those teams doesn’t need to compromise their ability to pivot. Not only can you be both stable and agile at the same time, stability and agility complement each other. Without stability, a consistent and steadfast approach, reactions to change can be scattered. Without agility, the ability to pivot when confronted with change, stagnation can occur.

Why Stability Is a Prerequisite for Agility

Think about a leader who comes across as graceful under pressure. What do you notice? Very often, such leaders project a sense of confidence and calm. They share data and facts to support their decisions. They refer to past experiences and what they’ve seen before. Above all, they stay focused on their ultimate goals. In doing all of this, they rely on a solid and stable foundation for who they are as people and as leaders. In the face of uncertainty, they anchor to what they know to be true and certain for them. It is this foundation that gives them the confidence that, no matter what is thrown at them, they have knowledge and skills that make them prepared to face any disruption with a sense of surety.

Why You Can’t Forego Agility for Stability

On the other hand, while stability is key to leader success, the death knell of leadership is inaction. Leaders can’t be so entrenched in where they are, that they are unable to move when they need to decide.  Consider that same leader under pressure. Highly capable leaders are flexible enough to realize when their current plan or team won’t get them to their goals. When they are challenged by changing circumstances (think new variants) they can pivot, if not lean into, the new circumstances. Their agility enables them to confront challenges and recognize they may need to move left, right, up, or down to get around them. And inherent in this agility is a vulnerability – a willingness to acknowledge their plan was flawed, to ask others for help, and to be transparent about the need to alter decisions or plans.

Think Bamboo

Leaders often think they need to be powerful – like a mighty oak tree – big and majestic enough to withstand the pressure of outside influences. But this approach can backfire when a leader is subjected to intense change. Much like oak tree branches’ potential to snap off during heavy storms, a leader who is too entrenched in what they know can find themselves broken. It is better to be like bamboo. Although thin and seemingly frail, bamboo is incredibly powerful. Strong in its foundation or its roots, it also moves flexibly, bending with the wind and, in the case of mighty storms, following the path of water. Bamboo leans into the obstacle or challenge and changes direction with it. “Think bamboo” is about maintaining a rooted strength but bending or yielding as appropriate to outside forces.

Being focused and flexible are not antithetical, they are complementary factors in strong leaders. A focused leader inspires confidence. A flexible leader is willing to change. Teams want to be led by individuals who possess both. They want leaders who have handled crisis before, while tackling new, unprecedented crises. They want leaders who aren’t afraid, but who take precautions to ensure their safety. They want a leader who is clear about their goals and recognizes the way folks achieve those goals might look different than they did pre-pandemic. 

What Happens When Leaders Can be Both Focused and Flexible?

Knowing when to move methodically and when to take a faster approach will depend on the task or challenge facing the leader. It will depend on the skills of the team surrounding them. And it will be influenced, as we’ve undoubtedly learned from the past two years, by the larger context. It’s a puzzle that’s worth solving. Leaders who can tap into both sources of stability and agility are able to lead with self-confidence and inspire confidence in others. They can make decisions quickly but not recklessly. And they can produce the results expected of them even if that means taking a calculated risk to get-it-done. 


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