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Adapt Your Leadership By Lee Ellis

 How to Adapt and Thrive Amidst Constant Change

You need to adapt!

How many times over the last year did you hear this from others? If there ever was a time during which you’ve had to adapt in ministry, it’s been the last 12 months. Let’s continue talking about it from a different angle that I think you’ll appreciate. The “loose-tight” leadership principle isn’t necessarily a new concept. It’s always been crucial to great leadership. This paradoxical approach seems contradictory, but it’s something that all honorable leaders must conquer.

Tighten Up to Perform

You may have realized that you’re more talented in some areas than in others. We do our best work when we employ our best natural talents and strengths. The appropriate analogy when this scenario happens is “swimming downstream.”  Because our best natural talents are strong and easier to develop, we can more easily move from a six to a ten on the success scale. We see this example in athletes, singers, executive assistants, sales reps, speakers, analysts, engineers, customer service reps and literally every other field. When we and our teams are swimming downstream and loving our work, it can be fun and it’s the best road to success.

But here’s the rub—leadership success is not based solely on what you do well with your best talents. In fact, history is replete with leaders who got in their own way by overusing their natural strengths. In his biography of Churchill, Piers Brendon pointed this out about the young leader –

“’…Churchill’s vices were simply his virtues in exaggerated form. Dash became rashness…His overwhelming faith in himself closed his mind to the opinions of others.’

Leadership is about getting the best performance out of others. This requires a different focus. It’s not what you can do, but what they can do. It’s about energizing others and managing a variety of different people with different talents.

Loosen Up to Adapt

The best leaders learn that using their own personal talents and strengths isn’t enough, so they must loosen up their mindset and empower others. By making that adaptation, they can recognize, inspire, and exploit the myriad of talents embedded in their people.

This concept is beautifully illustrated in the new book, The Grit Factor, by Shannon Huffman Polson. Shannon was one of the first women to pilot an Army Apache helicopter gunship. Using interviews with other pioneering women aviators and warriors, Shannon describes what she and many of them had to learn—sometimes the hard way—that good leaders learn to ask questions, listen and pause to reflect with an open mind.

As a young lieutenant commanding an Apache platoon, the idea of asking her experienced Warrant Officers and Sergeants questions would indicate that she was uninformed and inexperienced in key work areas. That perspective brought fear that it would make her look weak. But not asking was going to increase the likelihood of mistake. That would make her look even worse. She described how she and other women who were crashing the “good old boys” clubs of aviation learned that leaders who ask questions, and truly listen, make much better decisions. They gain the respect of their followers.

The Greatest Leader Attribute

In the last twenty years, we have surveyed thousands of leaders on the qualities of their greatest leader. We assume that all good leaders must have strong character/integrity and they are hard workers. So, those qualities are taken off the table. With that as the only ground rule, the most frequent response to the question, “What attribute made your leader a ‘great leader’?” is consistently, “They listened to me.”

Asking questions and listening with an open mind isn’t easy. It often feels a bit “loosey-goosey,” but it’s a powerful tool that we all need to learn and practice. So here is the challenge for every leader:

How do I personally need to adapt to more comfortably operate with a loose-tight mindset?

Generally, it’s not by tightening our focus to personally solve the problem from our perspective with our own best talents. More often it’s going to come from identifying and empowering the enormous talents that are ready and waiting in our people.

Your Call to Action

For the next month, what if ministry leaders—all leaders, in fact—worked harder to loosen up and courageously ask genuine questions?  What if they actively listen and then pause to reflect with an open mind? Based on our research, Shannon Huffman Polson and I would likely predict—the payoff will be big.

You can adapt!


As president of Leadership Freedom® LLC, Lee Ellis is a nationally-recognized consultant, presenter, and retired USAF Colonel that shares his expertise in the areas of leadership, team building, and human performance. His latest award-winning book about his Vietnam POW experience is entitled Leading with Honor®: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton. Learn more at


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