I’ve heard it. I’ve found myself asking for it. But it wasn’t until recently that I realized the absurdity of such a request. How can someone ask me to be an adaptable leader who is capable of adjusting to change – and in the same breath, ask me to be a consistent pillar of strength that gains the trust of others? Sure, it’s an absurd request. But as absurd as it is – be changeable and consistent at the same time – it is relevant for today’s business environment.
You’ve got to be able to drive change in your organization, lead through ambiguous and uncertain circumstances, and embrace newly rolled out initiatives that might be unfamiliar to you. With new challenges and the need for intense collaboration throughout an entire enterprise, you can’t be so set in your own ways that you are blindsided by a blow that knocks you to your knees. But don’t we also depend on consistent leaders who operate behind a strong set of values? We trust these leaders because we know how they are going to process and react to things. Therein lies the paradox: when to be consistent and firm in your position and when to be open to change and adjust your behavior.
A discerning leader manages this paradox well. Why? Because they are both steadfast in their values and their ideals, and open to change.
To help you understand this idea better, consider this illustration. A sailboat is a fairly nimble vessel. Its sails serve as wings that use wind to push the boat through the water. By adjusting these sails, these boats can turn very quickly and aggressively. Above the water on the sailboat’s deck, you will find many ropes, called lines, which move any number of sails to help effectively maneuver the boat. It’s pretty interesting to stand at the helm of these boats and look out over the deck to see so many parts and rigging dedicated to making quick adjustments. This illustration is relevant because the wind is never consistent. To captain a sailboat, you must always be evaluating the conditions and making adjustments. You have to adjust to the wind at all times. If you don’t, you’ll quickly find yourself off course and you won’t make it to your destination.
But there’s another essential part of a sailboat. This essential part is called the keel. The keel of the boat is a strong structural element that is found underneath the hull of the boat. The keel extends deep into the water to keep the sailboat upright and keep it from flipping over due to the wind pushing against the sails. The keel counter-balances the force of the wind on the sails. The keel serves as the foundation of the boat and is its strongest structure. The bigger the boat, the bigger the keel.
When you consider the paradox of being consistent and being adaptable to be a discerning leader, think about the illustration of the sailboat. Above the water, these boats look adaptable and nimble, able to leverage the wind and adjust to conditions. Below the water, however, these boats are strong, steady and firm. A good leader is much the same way. She has a strong personal keel that keeps her grounded. This keel represents the leader’s personal core values and non-negotiables in life. These deeply rooted values keep these leaders grounded and upright – safe from destruction when the storms come.
The leader also has a lot of rigging (sails, mast, and lines) above the water that keeps them nimble, able to make quick and necessary shifts and adjustments based on changing conditions. These leaders know how to use a lot of resources to set the proper course. These leaders see great benefit in making adjustments, because these adjustments make them much better performers.
When a leader makes good decisions, they are constantly assessing when to lean on the keel and when to maximize the rigging – when to rely on their strong, firm, and personal values and when to raise the sails and adjust to the winds of change.
Consider your leadership. Have you found yourself without a keel at times… without those ideals that keep you stable? Have you found yourself unprepared to make adjustments to the changing winds? Make sure you manage this paradox well so you don’t get sunk.