Flexible consistency - is it a contradiction in leadership?



I had the pleasure of working with some aspiring leaders this week, and we were discussing some of the presuppositions in NLP. Now for those of you who haven't come across them before, the presuppositions could otherwise be described as convenient beliefs. Beliefs, are things we believe, but that doesn't make them true. Sometimes they are true, and are what we think of as facts. Quite often though, we hold beliefs that are not necessarily true, and because we believe them we search for evidence to back them up. Thomas Edison believed he could make an electric lightbulb. Each time the experiment failed he tried again until it worked and he had the evidence to back up his belief. This is what we think of as an empowering belief. We also hold limiting beliefs; those times when we tell ourselves all the things we can't do.


So what about convenient beliefs? Well the presuppositions are beliefs we choose to accept as true in situations. And on this occasion we were having a fascinating conversation about the law of requisite variety, or the belief that whoever has the most flexibility of behaviour has the greatest control over the system. As aspiring leaders they were keeping their leadership development in their thinking. There was an interesting reaction to the idea that flexible behaviour in leadership was incompatible with consistent leadership, and therefore a bad thing.

"Strength lies in differences, not in similarities"

Stephen R. Covey

Consistency in leadership is certainly very important. If you are ever to develop a culture of trust then people need to know what to expect from you, and that rules and boundaries apply equally to ensure a sense of fairness. And if everyone was the same, then this would be a recipe for success in schools, business, and at home with the kids. But we aren't all the same; thankfully we are all different, and our differences bring colour, creativity and value. They can also bring challenges to how we manage equality, when it is necessary to treat people differently in order to ensure everyone is treated fairly.


So consistency is very much more than always doing or saying the same thing. After all, as Winston Churchill once said, if it comes down to behaving consistently or doing what's right, its more important to do what is right. So how do we behave consistently, and do what's right, whilst treating people differently in order to treat them fairly?


Back to that convenient belief, then. What does it mean by flexibility of behaviour? Simply it begins with the recognition that everyone perceives the world in a different way. They are not necessarily right or wrong, simply different. If we can resist the urge to judge long enough to respect that difference, then we can adapt our own behaviour and language to communicate more effectively. Choose curiosity over judgement, and notice the difference it makes.


As our conversation progressed it became increasingly clear that those colleagues who had had the unfortunate experience of a leader prone to mood swings, or who did not keep their word, associated this with 'flexible' behaviour, and were most strongly opposed to the idea. Mood swings are not what we mean by flexible behaviour in NLP. Mood swings in the workplace are the lack of self management of emotions. There can be many reasons for that happening, and in a leadership role, it is really important to have good control over our emotions, how they impact on a situation, and their effect on others.


When we talk about flexibility of behaviour we are referring to the deliberate control, and versatility, to be able to communicate with another person for who they are, rather than who we are. It is the ability to choose the emotion necessary for the situation. And to be aware of the emotions of others in the context. A realisation that they are doing the best with the resources they have, and with different resources, would come a different outcome.


In any large organisation there will be a culture, organisational values, and appropriate behaviours that everyone is expected to conform to. Some people will move towards these expectations in exchange for reward, whether that is in a salary, recognition, or stickers and house points at school. Others will comply rather than experience any consequences. The quality of the leadership emerges by living those values, consistently demonstrating the behaviours, and inspiring the majority to join in that example; and how you deal with the outliers who didn't have the resources to make the best choices.


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