Nutshell: Adapting to adaptable leadership

Written by
Future Talent Learning

06 Apr 2020

06 Apr 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

When change is the only constant, adaptability must lie at the heart of leadership – and it is a competence we can attain and hone.

The ability to adapt ourselves to changing environments has long been associated with survival and success. Charles Darwin placed adaptability at the heart of his evolution theory, while Albert Einstein argued that “the measure of intelligence is the ability to change”. “We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails,” sings country music star Dolly Parton, adding her endorsement.

In business, adaptability is widely believed to underpin personal and organisational achievement, enabling agility amid spiralling complexity, the accelerating pace of technological change, and ceaseless, left-field disruption. Modern leadership must be situational and dynamic, able to flex as circumstances demand. Rather than being experts in narrow areas, leaders – and their organisations – must be really good at learning how to do new things. This is what keeps us valuable and relevant.

Stubborn doubters underwent a swift conversion in the face of COVID-19’s eye-watering upheaval. With situations changing on a weekly, daily – sometimes hourly – basis, the pandemic transitioned into a global economic and political crisis, exposing leaders to intense scrutiny, and testing their foresight and flexibility to the limit. But adaptability isn’t only required during times of disaster; it also needs to be a part of our regular working lives. It’s more core requirement than competitive advantage.

Day to day, we have to embrace new tech, learn new skills and work in new ways, managing the disparate and evolving needs of a diverse workforce. We must remain composed in the face of ambiguity, tackling urgent problems (from staff shortages to social media gaffes) and coming up with solutions when plans go awry. In short, today’s leadership cannot be static when the global business landscape is mercurial and multi-dimensional.

The adaptability competency

To drill down into the detail of what adaptability means for leaders, we can turn to psychologist Daniel Goleman, for whom it represents one of the 12 competencies of emotional intelligence (EQ). Combined, these equate to “the capacity for recognising our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions in ourselves and in our relationships”. Within his framework, adaptability is defined as “having flexibility in handling change, being able to juggle multiple demands, and adapting to new situations with fresh ideas or approaches”.

This basically means being flexible in how we respond to challenge and change. Those of us who have developed this capability are able to manage multiple pressures on our time and energy, prioritising effectively and accepting rapid change when necessary. We can vary our responses and the way we operate to fit different situations, and are flexible in how we view and react to events. We also welcome multiple perspectives.

Adaptability also means staying focused on our goals and being able to adjust how we achieve them. “An adaptable leader can meet new challenges as they arise and not be halted by sudden change, remaining comfortable with the uncertainty that leadership can bring,” Goleman explains in Adaptability: A Primer.

Examples of adaptability are all around us. We can see it at play in the Agile methodologies of software development and project management, whose practitioners experiment, fail fast, change tack and come up with new prototypes, rather than following a set course.

It’s also apparent in sport, where athletes alter their style of play to meet new challenges and perform better under pressure. Tennis champion Roger Federer, for instance, has been lauded for adapting his tactics to suit the speed of the modern game, an era of new players, and to adjust to injuries sustained over the years.

And adaptability is a differentiator in training, as indicated by a study of multi-winning coaches in Olympic sport. Here, coaching success was found to be underpinned by a coach’s ability to move flexibly along a ‘driven-benevolence’ continuum (featuring unwavering high standards at one end and compassion/humanity at the other), adjusting seamlessly to specific contexts and requirements. There were “no one-trick ponies in sight” among these high achievers, observed researchers.

“While all serial winning coaches have a preferred ‘action mode’, what really distinguishes them from the rest is their chameleonic ability to match the needs of the environment,” they concluded. “Flexibility is the new strength.”

Flexing the muscle of adaptability

The catch, of course, is that not all of us are naturally adaptable, preferring to default to habits and silos, and plumping for the comforts of routine over exploration and evolution.

However, adaptability is a mutable trait which can be measured, practised and improved.

Investor, writer and educator Natalie Fratto – a former strategist for Silicon Valley Bank and IBM Watson – sees adaptability quotient (AQ) as a form of intelligence, and the single most important quality she looks for in start-up founders. “Each of us has the capacity to become more adaptable, but think of it like a muscle – it’s got to be exercised,” she argues in her TED Talk on the subject.

Fratto describes three ways to do this, beginning with asking ourselves ‘what if?’ questions (rather than reflecting on the past), which stimulates the brain to picture multiple possible versions of the future. This is a trick she uses in interviews. Instead of testing how we take in and retain information, it gauges how we manipulate information to achieve a specific goal.

The second technique involves actively unlearning what we presume we already know – returning to a beginner’s mindset in order to override outdated information with new data. The third is to infuse exploration into our life and business, adopting a state of ‘constant seeking’. Rather than focusing on exploiting our existing models (or falling too far in love with our wins), Fratto believes we should continue “to proactively seek out what might kill us next”.

If we do all this, we will be in the driver’s seat, so that the next time something big changes, we’re already prepared, she pledges.

There are also lessons to be learnt from improvisation, a feature of theatre, music and comedy which can be applied to business contexts.

In comedy, for example, improv is the art of building funny scenes from audience input, without scripts, sets or rehearsals. It’s a process that involves many moments of uncertainty and only works when performers take risks and support the risks of others. Doing so encourages us to think on our feet, to remain calm under pressure and to collaborate freely (and safely).

As one drama school puts it: “Improvisation is not ‘winging it’. It’s a highly refined system of observing, connecting and responding to a situation to move it forward in a positive way.”

Meanwhile, jazz is synonymous with improvisation, encouraging spontaneous invention and creative collusion. The story goes that singer Ella Fitzgerald turned a mistake into two Emmy Awards when she forgot the words to Mack the Knife during a live performance in Berlin during the 1960s. Instead of losing her cool, she simply improvised, singing new verses which were quickly picked up by her versatile band. This created something infinitely more compelling than the performance she had originally planned.

There are parallels here with the skills needed in modern business, which is why organisations (such as RADA Business in the UK) run improvisation workshops, helping participants to respond in the moment with greater confidence, and to hone skills in problem-solving and ideas generation.

Max Dickens, author of Improvise! Use the Secrets of Improv to Achieve Extraordinary Results at Work argues that improv performers are using a simple set of rules that anyone can learn to help navigate a world of constant change and uncertainty.

These include listening to other people with “a willingness to be changed”, rather than simply waiting to respond, and adopting “yes, and…” thinking, accepting and building on teammates’ ideas, instead of shooting them down in an instant. He also believes that we should (like Ella Fitzgerald) view everything as an offer or opportunity, allowing mistakes and curveballs to “move us into interesting and profitable areas we never would have got into without them”.

Even reading fiction, watching box sets or immersing ourselves in other art forms may help us to become more flexible. Under Dr Erik Hoel’s “overfitted brain” hypothesis, as animals learn repetitive tasks, they run the risk of becoming hidebound, losing the ability to generalise what they have learned. For humans, ‘weird dreams’ could be nature’s way of restoring the brain’s flexibility and generalisation, while novels and films may act as ‘artificial dreams’ performing the same restorative function for the brain.

In the early months of COVID-19, as people around the world went into isolation, many reported an increase in the vividness and frequency of their dreams, with the hashtag #pandemicdreams trending on Twitter. According to Hoel (a research assistant professor of neuroscience at Tufts University in the US) the tedium of our lives under lockdown may have provoked our brains to dose themselves with bursts of random night-time ‘noise’.

Overcoming barriers to adaptability

As we become intentional about practising adaptability, we must be mindful of internal and external barriers. Goleman reminds us, for example, that having too little information about alternative options creates an external barrier, as does a dearth of experience in diverse settings. Leaders also tend to lack honest feedback from colleagues about their actions and decisions.

Internal barriers may include our reliance on ‘behavioural scripts’ that provide a sequence of expected behaviours for a given situation. These enable us to ‘run on autopilot’ to perform routine activities; however, relying on them too heavily leaves us unaware of our behaviour and unable to choose alternatives when we need to move beyond the routine.

We’re also hamstrung by our own tendency to avoid the psychological discomfort that might come with the need to adapt and flex, battling biases and response patterns that can manifest in a fear of change or a tendency to stick with the status quo. For example, we may practise experiential avoidance in an attempt to evade uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, memories, physical sensations and other internal experiences, even when doing so creates harm in the long run.

To break down such barriers, and to build adaptability, Goleman recommends:

  • listening inside to tap into our emotional self-awareness and recognise what we are feeling, how it impacts our behaviour, and to ascertain whether we are operating out of habit
  • looking outside, beyond our usual information sources, paying attention to data that contradicts our current thoughts
  • stepping outside of our comfort zones, in order to seek out new experiences, opinions and environments. 

Each of these emphasises the importance of nurturing diversity (of thought, in addition to race, gender and other characteristics) within our organisations, and of drawing on the opinions and experiences of others, within an open environment of psychological safety. It highlights the need to keep learning and growing, challenging our own perspectives and studying how other leaders, industries, sectors and countries are doing things.

After all, disagreement can be central to progress, with conflict stimulating constructive, adaptable thinking. However, it does mean leaving the safety of our echo chambers, to seek out people with different backgrounds and from different disciplines – and being prepared to change our minds.

Experimenting with style

When embracing adaptability (as a leader and a team member), we must gain an understanding of our own personality traits and default leadership style, but also of other styles – though experts disagree on the extent to which we should adopt those that do not come naturally.

Canadian academic Henry Mintzberg believes self-aware leaders need to find a “dynamic balance” between what he categorises as the art (vision), craft (experience) and science (analytics) of management. He also believes we are at our most effective when we are a natural ‘fit’ within our work contexts. A degree of flexibility and adaptability is necessary, but he is not in favour of trying to be someone we are not.

By contrast, Goleman portrays adaptable leaders as chameleon-like beings and identifies six leadership styles, each of which springs from different components of EQ and has relevance in different situations.

For example, the traits of Goleman’s ‘visionary’ style of leadership might come to the fore when changes require a new vision, or when a clear direction is needed, while we might adopt a ‘coaching style’ to help an employee improve performance or develop long-term strengths. Even the much-maligned ‘commanding’ style of leadership can add value in a crisis, to kick-start a turnaround, or with problem employees.

Flexing in this way does not jar with authenticity, according to London Business School’s professor Herminia Ibarra, who asserts that sticking too rigidly to a fixed sense of self can “become an anchor rather than a compass”, inhibiting our capacity to grow and learn.

Describing ‘the authenticity paradox’, she urges leaders to develop ‘outsight’ – “the valuable external perspective we get from experimenting with new leadership behaviours” in order to evolve and progress throughout their careers. This involves learning from diverse role models, setting learning goals that allow us to stretch beyond our comfort zones, and constantly revising our story, jettisoning outdated self-concepts.

Staying true to ourselves while remaining adaptable is just one of the paradoxical demands leaders face in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, alongside requirements to ‘cut costs and innovate’ and to ‘think global, act local’. Such tensions are part and parcel of today’s business complexity, requiring us to respond with flexibility underpinned by a sturdy foundation of self-awareness.

Going forward, organisations will increasingly recruit and promote for adaptability (one of the core employability skills identified as vital for young people to learn about at school). To remain relevant, leaders are going to have to wave goodbye to comfort zones, fixed five-year plans and echo chambers, displaying curiosity, learnability and a willingness to evolve and change.


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