The Way of Flexibility: a Model 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 leader needs to pay critical attention to. A leader must know purpose and goals, verbal and nonverbal communication skills, group culture, role structure, and understand the groups problem solving and decision making processes.

This ties into another article in the book, “Diagnosis: Identifying Behaviors That Enhance or Hinder Group Effectiveness”, by Schwaaz. It discusses the importance of intervention. Recognizing a problem is not enough; a leader must also know how to communicate so as to address the problem. This makes intervention a crucial skill. This article stresses the steps one needs to take to effectively change negative behaviors in a group. It provides a diagnostic model consisting of six steps that can help to assist a leader.

These six steps start with observation and inference of meanings, and then deciding whether to intervene. They then move to discussing the observations with the group, decide if the inferences made in step 2 were correct, and then finally the leader must help the group decide whether and how to change this behavior.

I learned the importance of this part of my model this semester in our group. I could have been a positive influence in the group and would have made a good leader if not for my leadership apprehension. In the model I mentioned previously, I made it to about step 2 and quit. My leadership apprehension kept me from continuing farther into the cycle that would have enabled me to effectively diagnose and begin to change the negative group behaviors.

The first thing I should have realized and tried to intervene on was our decision upon a goal. When someone finally brought up the yard sale, I should have assumed my regular role as “Devil’s Advocate” and questioned it, since groupthink was very apparent. Unfortunately, I got caught up in groupthink myself, and settled on the first goal we thought we could accomplish. Second, when the rift opened up between Ally and Matt, I should have intervened and tried to close it, or at least influenced them be amiable and

prevent the formation of factions. I didn’t, and the rift steadily divided as the semester wore on, and the group was divided against itself in the last few weeks. Due to being perceived as neutral by most, if not the entire group, I was in a prime position to repair the rift and become a competent group leader, but again, my apprehension scared me away from it. I now regret the lost opportunity, but know what to do in future situations. This taught me that a good leader must know when and how to intervene. Using this model enables me decide when intervention is necessary, and how to accomplish it successfully.

When a leader fully understands these ideas, then he/she can better understand the underlying issues of the group, and adapt both his/her leadership styles, and help remedy issues that may be undermining the team goal. “The leader who understands how process unfolds uses as little force as possible and runs the group without pressuring people” -John Heider, “The Tao of Leadership”

A leader must also know how to effectively influence people to apply what he/she has learned in the previous two parts. An influential leader understands credibility and how to apply different strategies to gain compliance. If a leader cannot effectively influence the group to improve or adapt, either through lack of credibility, or ignorance of compliance gaining strategies, all the work spent in the previous two parts will be worthless.

Credibility is one of the most important factors, in my opinion, for effective leadership. Leaders who are perceived as credible can lead followers to incredible heights, or incredible lows, as evidenced by the churches of Jim Jones or David Koresh. As the book states, the effect of credibility changes over time, as well as the focus on the dimensions of credibility.

An effective user of credibility should understand the two dimensions of competence and character. Most leaders understand the importance of competence, but underestimate the importance of trust and character. Trust is something that cannot be improved upon by practice, and a good leader must realize that once this dimension is lost, it is very hard to regain. He must also realize that perceptions of credibility naturally change over time, towards a more neutral state, and adapt to this.

I can draw a personal example from band on the effects of credibility. Our Drum Majors are not perceived to be effective leaders. One of the many reasons for this applies to credibility. When it comes to task competence, it is usually perceived as very, very low. Their conducting is erratic, which does not lend well to competence.

There is little chance to build trust, and dynamically, they are sub par. They appear to be lazy, and care little about the interpersonal aspects of leadership, simply screaming orders at people and punishing with little provocation or necessity. Overall, they are regarded as poor leaders, and generally ignored whenever possible.

“If you get into an argument with a group member, and it does not come out the way you wish it would, do not pretend to compromise while withholding your true feelings. It is your business to facilitate whatever is happening, win or lose.” -John Heider, “The Tao of Leadership”

A credible leader can use compliance gaining strategies with greater effectiveness in order to influence the group to improve and meet goals. There are many types mentioned in this chapter of the textbook, which appeal to reason, personality, personal gain, and conformity, to name a few. If a leader has effectively applied the previous parts of the model, he/she will know the individuals of his/her group enough to know which strategy to apply to whom.

To use influence gaining to its maximum worth requires not only knowing how to influence your specific target, but how to avoid being overly aggressive and to avoid the use of fallacies. Overuse of aggression in persuasion can

undermine your credibility, at least in my personal experience, and fallacies weaken both your ability to influence as well as your credibility. If compliance gaining strategies are used badly, they can completely destroy any credibility you possess in the eyes of the group by reducing the appearance of task competence, but most importantly, by reducing trust. Therefore it is a leader’s responsibility to understand the process of credibility and influence.

Fast food restaurants are a veritable haven for bad management and leadership practices. It is inevitable that I would include an example from one of the ones I have worked for. This summer, I had two managers at the establishment where I worked. One was calm, and patient, while the other was extremely passive-aggressive. The mood of all employees was different according to who was managing. The calm one had a more positive work environment, with reduced stress and increased productivity, at least from my point of view.

The passive-aggressive one made work miserable, and my productivity would sink. His aggression lowered his personal credibility in my eyes, not in the competence dimension, but in the character dimension. His aggressive influence gaining made me resist all of his attempts at leadership, as though I was subconsciously trying to thwart him. This, and a few other experiences like this have led me to believe in the old adage that you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. “The group is not a final examination for a college course. The wise leader knows that the reward for doing the work arises naturally out of the work.” -John Heider, “The Tao of Leadership”

It is my hope that I have developed a competent model of leadership arising out of a doctrine of flexibility. I hope that I can apply this model in my own practices of leadership, to help me build the confidence I need to grow out of my leadership apprehension. I feel that an understanding of the group process, and of the styles of leadership, working together, can provide one with a very powerful method of effective, flexible leadership that can be applied to multiple groups and situations. First, by learning the styles of leadership, he makes harmony between himself and the group. When understands how the group acts and reacts, he can make harmony between