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The Future of Leadership is Protean

Updated: Jan 25, 2022

By Dr Sabreena Andriesz, PhD, MCC

The uncertainty of our current global reality is a test to any person’s resilience and capacity to cope. The frequent unanticipated changes in government and organizational policies have had various felt impacts that continue to be de-stabilizing to many people. Mental health is now publicly discussed and ‘being stressed’ is a topic that unites people over coffee. During such times the ability to take stock and change course requires agility, resilience, and versatility as we evolve into new modes of conduct and ways of being. Under-pinning such transformations takes flexibility, an under scrutinized trait. There is a general notion that it is required in the give and take of all interpersonal relationships, but this attitude tends to abandon us when we are overcome by unanticipated events.

The concept protean is the capacity to be resilient in a world of chaos, change and disorder, and we can assume that protean individuals are adaptive to the needs and demands of their environment. Recent research during the pandemic assert that although a large segment of the population is resilient, there are many who struggle to stay robust and are overpowered by stress-related illnesses. Resilient individuals are those who are able to reframe their stressful situations as a source of motivation and creativity. To be resilient, one must cultivate emotional regulation, impulse control, have the ability for casual analysis and yet have empathy (Reivch and Shatte, 2003). Although factors such as positivity, self-regulation, optimism, social skills, problem-solving and social support play a role, the most crucial skill for resilience is self-efficacy. It is the ability to believe that you can draw on your own power to overcome the challenges that are thrust upon you (University of Zurich, 2021). These aspects of self are also protean as they describe that part of our persona that can ebb and flow while staying rooted amidst ambiguous or paradoxical situations (Stevens-Long, 2011).

The emergence of the protean self is increasingly imperative as we rise to the challenges of working and living in diffused conditions. The merging of our personal and professional space has given rise to a gamut of social intrusions between work and life. What was normally just a home to the workforce now commonly includes a remote office. In the past it was considered unprofessional when a child called out to a parent while on a business zoom call or when a doorbell rang because there was a delivery person at the front door, but now these interruptions are considered par for the course. This new type of ‘hot desking’ is beginning to have unintended social consequences that are making people re-think the way they work, live and make future career choices.

Job-seekers are becoming ambivalent about their career desires and trajectories in an uncertain economy. The traditional psychological commitment to such pathways is being replaced by contract based employment and the rise of the protean career attitude where self-fulfilment and success are internally driven and not entirely dependant on financial remuneration. Organizations are increasingly tasked to find ways of motivating and engaging their employees beyond the traditional benefits. These shifts in organizational behaviour are compatible with values driven leadership where a leader’s personal values are engaged in the delivery of organizational outcomes. When employee autonomy is engaged there is a higher degree of ownership and motivation and personal agency is more likely to assure higher performance.

So how does a leader begin to develop the protean self? Leaders must first consider their relationship with ambiguity and the ways they rely on their known structures. While organizations are built on hierarchy and processes the future leader needs to become more nimble in navigating the many systems in which they live and work, A leader who is comfortable working remotely, learns the ways of digital connectivity, draws boundaries between work and family, cultivates a culture of balance so s/he can thrive in dual settings, and importantly navigates paradoxical challenges and ambiguity with equanimity is well on the way to adopting the protean path. The benefits of developing a protean nature is the willingness to thrive in spite of a challenging and ever changing world. Rather than becoming hi-jacked by situations beyond our control we create and work around solutions and still achieve the best possible outcome, with much greater resilience, certainty and vigour.


· Arthur, M.B., & Rousseau, D.M., (1 Nov, 1996), Careers in the 21st Century, (The Academy of Management Executive), Vol 10, (No.4), pp. 8-16(9 pages),

· Lifton, R.J., (January 4, 1995). The Protean Self: Human Resilience In An Age of Fragmentation, Basic Books Press, New York.

· Reivich, K., & Shatte, A., (Oct, 2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life's Hurdles, Three Rivers Press, New York.

· Stevens-Long, J. (2011). The prism self revisted, the matter of integrity. In A.H. Pfaffenberger, P.W. Marko, & A. Combs, (Eds.), The postconventional personality: Assessing, researching, and theorizing, (pp. 221-232). New York: SUNY Press.

· University of Zurich. (March 10, 2021). Reflecting on your capabilities boosts resilience [News release]


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