Principled Flexibility


Knot in a rope against wood.

by Haley Owen and Robert “Dusty” Staub

Good leaders display a healthy blend of principle and flexibility

Today’s leaders are asked to be adaptable but also structured, strong but vulnerable, steadfast but resilient, and exacting but compassionate. It may seem contradictory or overwhelming to aim for all these traits, but successfully balancing them will create a more engaged and productive employee environment. The secret to enacting a healthy balance is through tough love.

 There is power in being principled

having clear structures, confidence, and unwavering values.

There is also power in being flexible

being adaptable, understanding, and resilient.

The paradox is that you need both to create true, sustainable power.

If a leader is only principled, then he or she lacks the flexibility to flow with changing conditions and becomes rigid, unbending, andunable to adapt. Relentless focus on principle can come across as self-righteous, or as hypocritical when the leader him/herself inevitably makes a mistake. Moreover, lack of vulnerability and honesty about challengescan make employees feel unneeded and disengaged.

If a leader is only flexible, on the other hand, then he or she lacks the consistency to hold true to core values or the company mission and can’t stand firm when it is needed. He or she may appear wishy-washy, weak, or unknowledgeable. Lack of consistency and confidence can undermine faith in the company and the purpose of the work.

Great leadership, then, needs a dynamic blend of both structure and adaptability.  Tough love, often used to describe an effective parenting style, is useful in this work context as well.

Bridging the Gap with Tough Love & How to Practice It

Rock climber

Tough love involves being strict on expectations while offering support to achieve them.  It includes an acknowledgment of personal imperfections while offering earned wisdom – lessons learned from both successes and failures.

The “tough” side of tough love requires maintaining strong standards and accountability. Expectations are set high and commitment to values is non-negotiable.

The “love” side of tough love necessitates giving support to help people meet those expectations and appreciating their efforts. Good leaders have the courage to be vulnerable about their own challenges, and they show employees that they are needed.

Leaders can support people by:

  1. Offering structured, performance-based feedback– strategic in focus, depth-based in terms of behaviors and informed by heart. Good feedback can make the difference between raising everyone to a higher level versus having employees or team members disengage.
  2. Offering praise – noticing and appreciating when employees incorporate the feedback given them and the efforts they put into their jobs. This is deeper than “pats on the back.” It is finding ways throughout the month to appreciate successful performance and improvement efforts alike, by talking to others about what they have done and how they have done it.
  3. Holding courageous conversations – this includes the courage to give the tough feedback as well as to hear responses non-defensively. The best leaders are open to learning about how they are being seen, while also gathering information about what is important or challenging to their team member.  Courageous conversations, then, are both about what is said and how it is listened to.
  4. Acting on employee feedback – using the “2 ears and 1 mouth” awareness that supervisors and others in leadership roles need, namely to listen twice as much as they talk.This means asking good and even powerful questions of employees and then “actively” listening to them and showing they are heard.  This sends the message, “you and your thoughts and observations matter.”

A great example of the power of principled-flexibility comes from the battle of Tensho Iga No Ran in Japan in 1579.

A force of over 10,000 samurai troops commanded by the warlord Oda Nobukatsu attacked the independent province of Iga with the intent to subjugate them to the Oda clan.

The Iga fighters were outnumbered 100 to 1 and they were hopelessly outclassed in weapons, resources, horses, armor, and experience in war. Yet, through superior leadership focused on creative and flexible strategies, while adhering to a disciplined set of tactics, the small province emerged victorious.

They set traps and used distracting and misdirection tactics, such as loud sounds and smoke, to confuse and disrupt the attacking samurai into smaller groupings. The guerilla fighters were then able to surround and destroy these smaller groups one at a time. Thousands of samurai died, and the rest fled the field in defeat. These tactics became a basis for the ninja tradition.

Again and again, whether in a negotiation, a battle, or within a market, those who have integrated the power of principled-flexibility into their ways of thinking and planning prevail over those who are merely principled or only flexible.

In fact, if you stand in one or the other too long, the strength of that approach becomes your greatest weakness.

Falling off a mountain

Jimmy Carter, for example, was a very principled and highly structured president. It was one of his greatest strengths. Yet it also became his Achilles heel. His very principled approach – structured, consistent, and unbending – led him to a set of decisions and actions that left him seeming too rigid to be able to adapt to the stagflation and crises facing the nation.

The country turned to Ronald Reagan, seeing in him a man who was both principled and flexible – willing to stand up to the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union and at the same time embrace the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Conversely, Bill Clinton’s great strength was his incredible flexibility and adaptability. That very openness and willingness to at times play fast and loose with conventions and the rules – his capacity to adapt – led him to actions that tarnished his image and presidency.

Each one of us tends to stand more to one side or the other.

Some of us are much more comfortable standing firmly on the principled, structured, orderly, and consistent side of the ledger. Others are much more adept at standing on the flexible, open, adaptive, and resilient end.

What side do you tend to be on?

Whatever side you are on, work to incorporate actions and attitudes from the other. The goal is to reach the best mix by finding where you are and then moving towards the center. Companies and businesses can practice this too. Large companies plagued by bureaucracy can work to recover their flexibility while smaller and newer companies can build structure to support the business as it grows.

If you fall on the principled end, then you need to cultivate and start appreciating the more flexible side. If you are on the flexible side, then you will need to cultivate and appreciate the principled and structured end. After all, if you stand in your strength overlong, then it will become your weakness – principle turning into rigidity and flexibility turning into wavering with the least prevailing breeze.

As a leader, whether in business or in personal life, you will need to be both principled and flexible.

The human spine serves as one more excellent metaphor. If your spine were only stiff and firm, then you would be unable to move with any grace or bend over. If your backbone was only loose and bending, then you would flop around and be unable to stand or walk upright. Healthy leadership is very akin to a healthy back, a dynamic blend of structured firmness and flexibility.

Are you adept in principled-flexibility – able to stand firm where needed and to adapt where required?


Haley OwenAbout the author: Haley Owen is a rising junior at Earlham College, working toward a Bachelor of Arts in Human Development and Social Relations.  She loves to dive into topics that are both intellectually stimulating as well as practically impactful in helping create positive and effective organizations.  In particular, it fascinates her to observe how individuals both influence and are influenced by cultural structures and systems.  Haley is completing a summer 2018 internship with Staub Leadership International.