Modern companies operate in an environment that is far more competitive and complex than any of their predecessors.  Markets are increasingly interconnected, businesses have become borderless, and technology continually disrupts business models.

Whether managing a large company or a small team, adaptability has become a non-negotiable leadership trait.

To excel in this ever-changing environment, Deloitte argues that the organisational structure – and leadership attitude – should evolve to move with purpose, speed and agility. The power of the network of teams is replacing the outdated top-down approach. Under this model, predictability gives way to rapid adaptability.

Instead of morphing into yet another version of a tangled matrix organisation, this new model of networked teams is transparent, aligned, scalable and malleable.

The network of teams model: adaptable leadership at the core.

Traditional managers cannot lead networks of teams. To be successful, team members should be inspired by confident, knowledgeable leaders who can provide cross-functional coaching and development with a focus on team dynamics. The very core of the networks of team model is adaptability. The leader, therefore, should embody the ethos of this model.

Leaders must empower team members to identify improvements, make decisions, take risks and hold each other accountable without constantly looking to a higher tier for approval or resolves.  That said, the networks of teams model doesn’t declare managerial oversight as obsolete. As the model is adapted to encourage agility, leadership also aligns with this paradigm. Leaders are comfortable to adjust their team’s goals to meet changing demands and are flexible when faced with immediate challenges.

When traditional role expectations clash with adaptable leadership.

Unfortunately, research suggests that many organisations don’t propagate leadership traits that speak to leading a network of teams. The paper, published in Consulting Psychology Journal Practice and Research, says that traditional role expectations are often the proverbial fly in the ointment.

Role expectations, the report explains, are based on outmoded beliefs or irrelevant norms and values, such as gender role stereotypes, centralised authority, intolerance for any failures, or promotion based on seniority rather than performance.

To expand their choices, the luminary leader needs to increase his circle of influence.  The ability to influence is the main characteristic of flexible leadership. Without influence, the leader will have limited options to express lateral thinking and implement new solutions. To influence key role players, the flexible leader demonstrates specific traits and skills, which include:

  1. Cognitive complexity and systems thinking.

Cognitive complexity and systems thinking include the ability to understand how the various parts of the organisation relate to each other, how changes in one part of the system will eventually affect the other parts, and how changes in the external environment will affect the organisation.

  1. Social and Emotional Intelligence.

Social and Emotional intelligence involves the ability to understand the leadership situation, including political processes and social relationships, and it also includes the ability to select an appropriate response and vary one’s behaviour in response to changing conditions.

  1. Self-awareness.

This trait includes the ability to accept feedback about the impact of one’s actions on others and the ability to learn better ways to deal with problems. The flexible leader doesn’t rely on routine behaviour, nor does he deny negative feedback.

These skills involve the ability to understand the leadership situation and the capability to be flexible when confronted by changing conditions.  Plans cannot be written in stone, and leaders should grant their teams flexibility when working out – and amending – their modus operandi.

Quite surprisingly, a research report published by Harvard Business Review doesn’t entirely agree.

A steadfast plan has its place.

Helen Mankin, and Organisational Psychologist, and Steven Martin, author of The Small Big: Small Changes That Spark Big Influence say that most people report a strong preference for flexibility when it comes to choosing their goals.

However, they add, this same inclination “doesn’t apply when it comes to pursuing goals once we have set them.”

It turns out that once people have set a goal, they are much more likely to complete it when the steps to achievement are set out in a rigid, restrictive way.

While there’s no doubt that a flexible approach encourages more people to adopt a goal, that same flexibility hinders the goal’s completion. Why is that the case?

The answer, it seems, has to do with the limits of people’s decision-making ability. According to a variety of sources, people are required to make as many as 35,000 decisions a day.

In the context of an already information-overloaded, decision-fatigued workforce, one thing people will likely appreciate is the need to make fewer, not more, decisions.

By setting a predetermined sequence for the achievement of a goal, the number of unnecessary “decision points” that arise when people pursue a plan is reduced or perhaps eliminated altogether. As a result, a goal both becomes more likely to be achieved and potentially feels more accessible in the process.

The best approach, as is very often the case when it comes to people’s behaviour, is to consider the context. The adaptable leader knows when to provide a clear-cut strategy, when to encourage lateral thinking and how to find the delicate balance on the continuum.


Deloitte, 2016. Unlocking the flexible organisation Organisational design for an uncertain future,

Gary Yuki & Rubina Mahsud, 2010. Why flexible and adaptive leadership is essential. ResearchGate,

Steve Martin & Helen Mankin, 2017.  When to Set Rigid Goals, and When to Be Flexible. Harvard Business Review,

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