Published: March 2, 2012
Jennifer Selby Long, Selby Group
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What Does Gumby Have to Do With Leadership?

There’s been a trend lately toward business leaders beginning to promote and recruit more flexible leaders to serve in their organizations and be placed decisively in the succession plan. These flexible leaders have broader strategic and influence skills that apply across the enterprise, even though they may not be the very best performer in any one area.

One example would be engineering VP’s who are not better engineers than the directors who report to them. This trend even has a buzzword: “horizontal skills,” posed in contrast to the deep domain expertise that historically has been more highly valued all the way up the organizational food chain.

However, it’s not all wine and roses for those of us who hold these newly-valued broad, horizontal skills. There’s a downside we must navigate in order to leverage this trend for all it’s worth and minimize the downside risk. I first wrote about this risk three years ago, but upon reflection, realized I was too early, so I’m bringing it back into the spotlight today.

GumbyIf you pride yourself on how well you "lead with flexibility" or "adapt to whatever is needed of me," you're at risk of a malady I've dubbed "Gumby-itis." Gumby is a children's toy that can be bent and stretched considerably without breaking. In fact, that's about all you can do with Gumby. If a child wants or needs anything but flexibility, Gumby gets left on the floor, abandoned for a toy with a more interesting purpose.

The Gumby character, who had a television show for many years, always wants to do what's right and what's good. He wants to be helpful. His heart is in the right place.

Highly flexible, broadly-skilled leaders can become a lot like Gumby. Sometimes that's advantageous, but the biggest mistake flexible people can make is to adopt the strategy of staying so flexible that no decision-maker really knows what you want.

When internal competition increases -- as it now has in nearly every company -- it's easy to innocently make this one big mistake, but it will leave you unfulfilled and no better off.

I know I'm working with someone who suffers from Gumby-itis when the people above him or her in the organization say, "I'd like to give more constructive feedback and suggestions, but I can't figure out what he wants" or "She has a lot of talent and has been successful in several parts of the company, but I can't help her get where she's going if she won't tell me where that is."

If this is you, you must do one thing differently, starting today: Claim Your Space. Claim it!
There's something you must understand here in order to see why this is so important: the majority of leaders suffer from the opposite of Gumby-itis, which might be termed, "Will of Steel-itis." They decide what they want, they claim it, and they charge forward until it's theirs.

They love direction and they love a clearly defined goal in any aspect of their lives. It gives them shivers up and down their spines. When you tell them "I'm staying flexible in these demanding business conditions and I'll happily fill any key gap," it drives them nuts. They don't know what to do with that. It's not a goal. It's a wishy-washy statement.

So when an opportunity comes along that you really want, they don't even realize you want it because you haven't told them, and they plug in someone who has claimed that space instead of you. You'll get what's left over, which is usually not a role that excites you.

Don't blame the boss. Maybe he or she didn't make enough time to recognize your talent, but a boss is busy looking in a lot of directions and doesn't always have the time to figure out what you're not telling him or her.

You've got to claim that space if you want it to be yours.

What if you can't decide which space to claim? As someone who's struggled with "entrepreneurial ADD" my whole life, believe me: I feel your pain! But that doesn't change the fundamental fact that we flexible folks get farther and have more satisfaction by making a choice and claiming our space. Survey the territory you occupy and then pick something that interests you, benefits the company, and is aligned with key priorities.

Define your ideal role within the context of the company, its business, its current challenges, and its long-term strategy. It's possible that this role doesn't yet exist, and it may never exist, but at least it gives decision-makers something that more closely resembles a goal.

Make it known that you would like to be considered for similar roles as the need arises, or better yet, offer to take on some responsibilities in this area, in addition to your current job. Most importantly, ask for their feedback as to how you can focus your own development efforts to become the best possible candidate for such a role.

Give those goal-loving "Will of Steel" folks what they need in order to help you reach your highest potential. Claim your space!

 

 



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