The shapeshifter has a bad name in our culture, because we usually see the worst of this challenging archetypal leadership style.
We get this Dilbert-esque, lazy kind of flexibility that gives managers a bad name.
Contrary to Scott Adams pointed skewer, managers who aim for flexibility are rarely evil, but they are dangerous. They’re trying for a surface performance of shapeshifter mobility without understanding that they must cultivate a deeper understanding of the forces that shape their world. In essence, they’re giving up on themselves and the marketplace, leading by forcing leadership on their bravest followers.
This kind of carelessness is not only bad leadership; it’s bad business. Yet there is a need for some “nimble” leaders.
Three First Steps to Developing Shapeshifter Leadership Skills
There are three steps to cultivating effective shapeshifter leadership.
First, leaders need to assess — honestly, fearlessly and without ego — the areas where their habitual leadership style fails their community. These are the areas where they need to learn to be “nimble,” and it’s nothing they can announce in a meeting or accomplish with a leadership buzzword or pep talk. This may be the hardest step, because it means a leader must know what he does very well and acknowledge that those skills don’t support growth in every situation.
Second, leaders need to find, develop and learn to value those skills, stretching outside their comfort zones, and building new alliances, living new stories in their communities. This step is about taking steps to learn and change, moving past the comfortable surface authenticity of leadership lore (which I always think of as accompanied by Frank Sinatra singing, “My Way.”) Shapeshifter authenticity means the different performances of our identity, skills and values are nimble and sincere. We can perform different roles to meet the diversity of our organization’s needs. Dilbert’s boss evades responsibility by making himself invisible; a leader willing to embrace the shapeshifter’s leading edge is visible in many different situations with many different ways of being present.
Third, leaders need to identify the people in the organization who have those skills, and encourage their participation on core teams. This last step may seem to contradict the second, but let’s face it — some skills can’t be learned. Once we tackle the learning curve, we always find there are some things we aren’t learning fast enough, or even that we may not be able to master with enough nimbleness to function well in that role/skill. A shapeshifter leader is confident enough to build a team that supplements his or her skills, valuing and cultivating diversity in followers.
This one seems easier, and in fact it is, but there’s a challenge — the leadership skills we don’t have are often under-represented in our hiring and team building, because they’re the skills we don’t see as valuable. We like followers/employees who share our skills and values; we isolate or don’t even hire the people whose skills and values we don’t share. So even team-building requires some shapeshifter leadership, because an effective leader has to have the flexibility to invite challenges into the central team, building relationships that push him or her outside the box of dominant habits of thinking and acting.
These are fundamental steps; skilled shapeshifter leaders move into deeper, more playful strategies that go beyond these basics.
But they’re a good start for anyone who sees the need for a little nimble-ness, and wants to avoid the Dilbert trap.