Imagine if you never changed your communication or decision-making style, that it was always the same, regardless of circumstances. You’d be similar to Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, who was always predictable, and in his case, always logical, unemotional, and factual. He frustrated his opposite: the passionate, emotional, and intuitive Captain Kirk. Kirk was just as predictable as Spock, but in a different way. I was fascinated by the contrast between these two characters. They both had “strong” personalities: determined, willful, and consistent. I could always rely on their reactions. Neither Spock nor Kirk seemed very adaptable, and that was part of the fun of watching them. Week after week I’d anticipate how their responses to situations got them in or out of trouble. How similar is your life? How predictable or adaptable are you?
Part of maturing is learning how to adjust your attitudes and behaviors. That’s a good thing. It’s evolution. The survivors are the ones who adjust most effectively.
The approach called Situational Leadership states that effective leaders change their leadership style depending on the situation. Less effective leaders are pretty much stuck with one style. They fall into the “One Trick Pony” category and believe in the “I gotta be me” approach. On the other hand, more effective, situational leaders evaluate the circumstances and the people involved, weigh the options, and adjust their style accordingly. For example, let’s say you have a very simple task that needs to get done, and you have very experienced people to work with. You could chose, according to Dr. Paul Hersey, the author of Situational Leadership, one of four leadership styles: (1) Tell—provide specific instructions and closely supervise performance, (2) Sell—explain your decisions and provide opportunities for clarification, (3) Consult—share ideas and facilitate in making decisions, or (4) Delegate—turn over responsibility for decisions and implementation.
The most effective style for this situation is number four—Delegate—because the workers know what they’re doing, they don’t need your input, and may feel insulted if you try to train them or micro-manage them. Life presents itself situationally as well. If you believe you have options, you can adjust how you behave based on the different situations. But you have to see—and believe—you have options.
The problem is that a lot of people don’t think they have options. They believe that they have one specific style and one consistent, personality strategy for life. This belief shows itself in many forms, such as, “This is my story and I’m sticking to it,” “It’s my way or the highway,” “Accept me for who am,” and the ever present, “That’s just the way I am.” Most people believe that there’s one permanent “I” that doesn’t change—that can’t change—regardless of the situation. A client of mine, let’s call him George, felt that it was important to present the same face to everyone. He supervised eight people and thought that treating everyone “equally” was the best way to manage them. “I gotta be me,” was his mantra, and he wore it like a badge of honor.
“I’m consistent,” he once told me. “I don’t flip-flop, and I don’t change my values for anyone.” He was under the misguided impression that never adapting his behavior was a sign of discipline, honor, and virtue. But of late it wasn’t working and he came to me for help. “You’re lazy,” I told him one day, to his surprise.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“You’re lazy, first, because you expect everyone else to change instead of you, and second, because you haven’t learned to adapt to the people around you. Having only one style just isn’t effective.”
George was a big sports fan. “For example,” I said, “a basketball player who can only dunk the ball, who has no jump shot or three pointer, is easy to guard against because he’s so predictable. On the other hand, in baseball, a player who’s learned to be a switch hitter is more effective because he can change his stance, bat as a left-hander or right-hander and adjust his swing depending on whether the pitcher is right or left handed.”
A lot of people view their personality in the same way they view their name: inherited, beyond their control, and with them for life. Then there are others who have no problem changing their name. My wife Robyn wanted to be different, so she changed the spelling of her name from “Robin” to “Robyn.” A small change? Perhaps. But to her it spoke volumes: she wasn’t a victim of circumstance; she believed she had options and had control over her life. “I’m this not that,” she told the world. How about “Sting,” “Madonna,” “Slash,” and “Prince?” How about all the authors with pen names and actors with stage names? The most effective and successful actors are the ones who adjust their actions to fit the situation. In a recent interview on the Today Show, Brian Williams answered Matt Lauer’s question about who would win Best Actor at the Academy Awards: “I think Sean Penn in Milk will win because he moved in and occupied the role. He became Harvey Milk.”
Aren’t you an actor playing a part? Aren’t you adapting, like an actor, to your life script? You do it unconsciously 99% of the time. Imagine if you could do it consciously all the time. When an actor fails to adjust his acting style to the demands of the script he turns in an ineffective performance. He’s a victim of his limited range and lack of options. He’s responding to his fears and anxieties rather than the script. You do the same thing when you limit your actions to your preferred personality strategy. Then your performance seems inauthentic, inappropriate, and ineffective.
The Enneagram teaches how you limit your options and over-rely on one preferred strategy to the neglect of the other eight. It teaches that to live effective, creative lives means to be adaptable: when you know that you have options, and can freely, consciously create the best action for the situation. You allow each situation to determine your behavior, not your preferred strategy. You’re no longer a victim of circumstance; you’re a creator of your own life.
BOB TALLON is and writer, speaker, teacher and coach, and the author of The Enneagram Connection: Using the Enneagram and Emotional Intelligence to Transform Personal and Work Relationships, and the co-author of Awareness to Action: The Enneagram, Emotional Intelligence, and Change. He specializes in team building, and executive and life coaching. Visit him at www.bobtallon.com.