In my role as a leadership coach to nonprofit professionals, there is one challenge I hear from my clients over and over, and it goes something like this: “I am so busy putting out fires that I don’t have time to focus on the really important stuff—planning, big picture thinking and developing new ideas.” For leaders, having the time and space to connect the dots and think big is not just a luxury—it’s crucial to personal and organizational success.

So how can leaders create this much-needed spaciousness? Time and again, in organizations large and small, I’ve seen that leaders who leverage work flexibility are able to lead with greater confidence, clarity and skill. By taking time away from the office, these leaders are able to rise above the minute-to-minute chaos of their work and focus on the bigger challenges their positions are calling them address.

Here are just a couple of examples of how work flexibility has helped maximize leadership (names have been changed):

Working from Home.
Natalie, the director of campaigns for an international advocacy organization, has a huge job that involves setting direction for her organization’s work and supervising several teams of campaign organizers. Natalie arranged to work from home one Friday a month so that she can do the writing, reflection, and planning her role requires.

To do this, Natalie had to gain the buy-in of her supervisor, and communicate to her coworkers the importance of this time for the organization’s mission. Perhaps most importantly, she had to convince herself of the value of these Fridays and “protect” her calendar by saying “no” to meeting requests (something that required some practice).

Flexible Scheduling.
Dan, the founder and executive director of a rapidly growing organization, was unable to get traction on his “thinking work” amidst a nonstop stream of meetings, emails and requests for his attention.

To address this, Dan devised a three-part approach to use work flexibility to ease the pressure.

First, he blocks off Tuesday and Thursday mornings to work from home on his “thinking work.” Second, whenever his schedule allows, he takes a midday yoga class on Wednesdays, which helps him manage his stress. And finally, Dan takes the first Friday of every month to spend with his family. This practice helps him feel more connected to his loved ones and more focused when he’s back at work.

If, like Natalie and Dan, you want to use flexible work to magnify the impact of your leadership, you’ll need to take these four important steps:

  1. Plan: Before implementing a new work arrangement, take some time to think through why you want to do it, what you think the outcome will be, and how you will go about it:
    • How could a flexible work arrangement enhance your leadership?
    • What benefits do you hope to see from implementing flexible work?
    • How will you structure flexible work? Be specific about frequency, duration, and location.
  2. Communicate: No leader works in a vacuum. Consider how others will be affected by your new work arrangement, and who you need to convince to get it off the ground in the first place:
    • Who needs to be enrolled in the idea of you working in a more flexible way? How will you make your case? Who can support you?
    • Who else needs to know that you are working in this way?
  3. Follow-Through: This is often the toughest part. For a leader used to working long hours in the office, following through on the flexible work arrangement you’ve envisioned can take some serious discipline.
    • Who can help hold me accountable for sticking to the arrangement I’ve designed?
    • How will I handle requests for my time during times I’ve arranged to work out of the office?
    • Remind yourself: What is the ultimate purpose of this new way of working?
  4. Spread the Benefits: As a leader, you have the positional power to make a flexible work arrangement for yourself. Those you manage have less power, and may not think that flexible work is an option. Ask yourself:
    • How could other members of our team benefit from the opportunity for flexible work?
    • What would this look like for different departments and positions in my organization?
    • What’s the first step to raising this conversation on an organizational level?

By creating the time, space, and breathing room to think big and focus on what’s most important, flexible work is one of the most valuable tools in any leader’s toolkit.

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