Leadership is challenging. It requires us to inspire and engage followers through complex situations. In his TED talk from March 2011, General Stanley McChrystal (U.S. Army, Ret.) commented that leaders are good not because they’re always right but because they’re willing to learn. As accountants, one aspect of our professional life is to stay current with our practice. Developing our leadership skills not only allows us to stretch our abilities but also prepares us for future professional opportunities.

In reality, no two leadership situations are alike because of the variables involved: humans, circumstances, environment, etc. These situationally driven circumstances indicate that no particular leadership style is best, which is the definition of the Situational Leadership Theory (SLT) proposed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard. While it could be argued that Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership Theory responds to the variables in any given situation, I have found that SLT doesn’t, can’t, and truly shouldn’t strive to encompass every possible variable. The most effective leaders exercise the ability to respond authentically to an increasingly varied number of situations. This flexibility manifests in a number of ways, including compassionate responses to failure, courageous guidance during adversity, and genuine accolades for success. Therefore, the key to effective leadership is flexibility: in thought, in response, and in action.


We’re in a time of rapid change rippling through all segments of society. Political changes, cultural shifts, industry fluctuations, and customer demands point to a need for leaders who are able to respond appropriately in demanding, unique situations. Followers now have a unique dynamic that includes social media, ubiquitous personal technology, and diverse worldviews. In Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends study, the following ideas about current leadership emerged:

* Organizations are undergoing rapid shifts in personnel and direction. * Employee needs are becoming more diverse than ever before. * The future of work depends on the quality of today’s leadership.

Leaders must also possess the ability to think about the situation, which really means considering as many of the different elements as is reasonably possible in the time available. Leaders must be able to consider the implications of their current behavior on future situations.

In some situations, you might have days or weeks to consider courses of action; in others, you may have minutes or perhaps even seconds. Either way, an important aspect of flexible leadership is critical consideration of many questions, for example:

* What do my followers need me to do? * What are appropriate alternatives? * What’s the best course of action for all involved?

Flexible leaders must act appropriately. For instance, if you’re in an emergency situation, followers need a leader who will remain calm and guide them to safety. Your followers need to know that your actions are consistent with their best interests because then—and only then—will they trust you enough to follow. Since situations require different actions, it’s your job to be flexible enough to act in a way that’s appropriate and trustworthy.

Leaders also must react responsibly. Displaying inappropriate behaviors such as a raised voice, an email typed in all capital letters, or a social media posting that demonstrates negative emotions leads to distrust among followers and dissonance among workers. As human beings, we all experience negative emotions when challenges occur. How we react is our choice; the leader’s actions during adversity influence followers’ attitudes. Flexible leaders take time to react professionally because that sets the tone for their followers.


Becoming a flexible leader requires a willingness to learn. General McChrystal commented that he was often mentored by the people he led. In my experience, I can hardly count the number of times that the feedback I’ve received from colleagues and students has taught me something new about my own leadership. I’ve found that, as uncomfortable as it seems, soliciting feedback has helped me to become reflective in my approach and flexible in my response. Furthermore, I have found that my willingness to be flexible has engendered increased trust among my followers.

A flexible leader pays attention to the words involved in the situation as well as what isn’t said. As an example, I’m a professor at a college that specializes in teaching students who learn differently. Teaching these students requires the willingness to listen, to observe, and to notice student behavior because every interaction contains clues about how to lead and engage each student. Remaining open to learning about the person stretches my leadership muscles in new, sometimes uncomfortable, directions. I still experience growing pains on occasion when a situation is exceptionally challenging. But over time the learning experience has always proven valuable.


  1. Find a leader you admire. Browse your favorite bookseller, and look for biographies or autobiographies of leaders you admire and learn their story.
  2. Push the edges of your comfort zone. If a situation is uncomfortable, that probably means you have a chance to learn something new.
  3. Believe in your abilities and your capacity to grow. You can develop the flexibility you need if you’re willing to try.

Most of all, realize that becoming an effective, flexible leader takes time and patience. Be open to the experiences, and seek the learning opportunities in each one. As you become a flexible leader, you’ll likely find that your professional effectiveness also increases.


The IMA® Leadership Academy provides leadership opportunities for all members. From leadership assessment to leadership courses offered in person as well as through WebEx to participation opportunities in mentoring, be it reverse or traditional, the IMA Leadership Academy can help you meet your leadership goals and improve your leadership skills. For more information, please visit the Leadership Academy website at www.imanet.org/career-resources/leadership-academy.

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