Flip Flopper or the Right Leader?

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” When Ralph Waldo Emerson penned these famous words in Self Reliance, he never envisioned 24-hour cable news or the craziness of today’s presidential nominating process. Emerson did, however, offer a key to successful leadership—the willingness to learn and adjust.

While former Gov. Mitt Romney endures a relentless state-by-state marathon of delivering stump speeches and interviews along the campaign trail, we are treated to a seemingly non-stop set of reminders of the list of positions that he has adjusted over the course of a long and successful career in business and politics. Several of the shifts that occurred on major social issues, such as healthcare, have been described by his detractors as “flip-flops.”

But Romney’s not alone. Democrats have had their share of accused flip-floppers too, including President Barack Obama, whose more liberal wing is as frustrated with his lack of action on gun control and other issues than the more conservative wing

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is about Romney. In the polarizing, partisan world of today’s primary politics, Republicans and Democrats reward candidates that are clear, confident, concise, convincing, and above all, consistent.

While consistency and standing firm reinforces attitudes, builds confidence, becomes a rallying cry among followers, and often earns the derision and enmity of one’s competitors, it fails to account for changes in the social climate, the needs and desires of voters (consumers) and seesaw economic conditions. Being mindlessly rigid does not accomplish objectives, and frequently stifles rather than fosters progress.

The success of any enterprise, public or private, rests firmly on the ability of its leadership to adapt to constant change. In business, a leader must guide a company to adapt and meet the often shifting needs of the majority. A truly successful venture may need to change direction, take in new partners and fund investments that may have seemed uninviting in the past to contend with new markets and new competitors. This requires a high degree of flexibility and wisdom to apply the right amount of strategic and tactical adjustments that will deliver the desired results.

A company’s ability to adapt to the economy, climate, rapid marketplace fluctuations, and unforeseen situations is an essential characteristic for success. Consider that iconic 100 year-old IBM (formerly International Business Machines) now gets less than 20% of its revenue from machines. Also, consider the following two quotes: “640K ought to be enough for anybody,” and “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” The first was made by Microsoft CEO Bill Gates. The second was offered by Digital Equipment Company CEO Ken Olsen. Any guess which executive adjusted?

A leader who is accused of flip-flopping on an issue, policy or a plan may have his or her eye on a much bigger picture and just may be adjusting for more than votes or short term gains. They may have a more insightful view of how to achieve sustainable, long term success. Whether it’s your new CEO or a presidential candidate, you may want to re-evaluate your opinion about their positions. Adaptability is a quality you should want in your leader; that is, if you want success.

Emerson was right.