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Flexible leadership a key in being a successful business leader

We’re often told that to be a successful leader we need to be able to establish a clear vision, share that vision with others in a clear and compelling way, provide others with the resources to realise that vision, and co-ordinate the sometimes conflicting interests of all stakeholders. But there is one more trait that every leader needs; flexibility. For example a business with its back against the wall requires a different style to one which is enjoying a profitable, steady state. Flexible leadership skills make a more effective business leader.

flexible leadership

The full range of leadership capabilities include persuasion and influence, networking, negotiation, team leadership, team working, cultural sensitivity, valuing difference, coaching, performance management and development, assessment, conflict management, assertiveness, strategic thinking, resource allocation, presentation skills and humility. Quite a demanding list.

The distinctive leaders set themselves apart, not by adherence to a particular leadership creed, but by the way they behave. The wider their behavioural repertoire, the more effective their leadership. The good news is; behaviour can be changed. Furthermore, behaviour breeds behaviour, and so what you say and do shapes the responses you get from others. Here, Ally Yates (the author of ‘Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business’) explains behavioural flexible leadership.

Push and Pull

Research, started in the 1970s and built upon since, has enabled business leaders to master, for example, influencing and persuasion, by learning the skills underpinning the two most common persuasion styles: Push and Pull. These two styles are behaviourally distinctive and each is appropriate for different situations. The Push style goes like this:

  1. I have an idea or opinion that I share with you
  2. I tell you the reasons why it’s a good idea and/or why I’m correct
  3. You agree and you move your position.

Push style persuasion is the most commonly used. It works well in conditions where the influencer has positional authority, and yet it’s only effective around 50% of the time. Sometimes this is because you may be an apologetic, aggressive pusher, or misjudged pusher (where you reveal your solution early) – under-estimating the strength of resistance you will encounter.

Take Anna for example – a middle manager in a large cosmetics business. She needed to create a new direction for her team. In doing so, she articulated a clear, coherent plan and instructed each of her team as to who would do what, and by when. However, Anna had overlooked a fundamental question: How important was it that she gain everyone’s commitment to the plan? If engagement is essential, then a Pull style is much more likely to work.

Pullers use three behaviours in particular: Seeking Proposals (e.g. How should we best do this?) Seeking Information (e.g. Who has the relevant experience?) and the rare but highly prized skill of building – extending or developing a proposal made by another person. Building is used much less frequently than is warranted. This is usually because the persuader is much more interested in her own ideas and fails to harness the suggestions of others. If Anna had focused on engaging her team, she would have used a Pull style, rather like this:

  1. Anna asks the team for their ideas
  2. They offer some options
  3. Anna then asks questions to explore their suggestions
  4. Anna builds on their suggestions
  5. Together, Anna and the team agree a way forward.

Pull might take a little longer but the rewards outweigh the costs. By using Pull, the level of commitment of the team increases in line with their engagement.


Developing behavioural flexibility is partly about knowing what to do and exercising those behaviours skilfully and partly about knowing what not to do and avoiding potentially costly mistakes. When asked how he learned to be a leader, Antoine de Saint Affrique, the CEO of the world’s leading cocoa and chocolate manufacturer, Barry Callebaut, replied: “I made sure I learned not only from the great leaders I was lucky to work for, but also from the less good ones. From them, I’ve tried to learn what not to do.”

Reflecting on your own leadership with humility and studying the leadership behaviours of others, and then changing and flexing your style as required, is the most important element of a successful business leader.

More on leadership skills and managing staff.

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