Adaptability determines your survivability. Without the capacity to adapt leaders have been shipwrecked on the rocks of crisis and change.
Imagine a generation of people who left their homes on a big ship with hopes of a brighter future for themselves and their children. Imagine three generations later, those same people, their children and their grandchildren, being told that they are not citizens, not welcome, and must within short order return to their homelands. Such is the story of the Windrush Generation in the UK. As British subjects, they left their Caribbean homelands bound for Britain on the ship Empire Windrush in 1948 (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/windrush). Today, outrage at the horror experienced by the Windrush generation and their families has brought shame to the British government and forced a public apology from Prime Minister Theresa May (https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-43782241); the resignation of former Home Office Secretary, Amber Rudd (https://metro.co.uk/2018/04/29/amber-rudd-resigns-home-secretary-windrush-generation-scandal-7508380/); and, resulted in the current Home Office Secretary, Sajid Javid announcing that over 200 million pounds has been allocated to begin the process of restitution for those who have been harmed (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/apr/03/uk-pay-windrush-victims-200m-compensation-lives-damaged-hostile-environment-policy). Although painful, without quickly adapting to the ongoing public outcry against their actions, the potential damage to the UK-Caribbean relations could have been much worse.
Adaptability is the “Ability of an entity or organism to alter itself or its responses to the changed circumstances or environment” (http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/adaptability.html). Not only does the leader learn from experience, but they become a better competitor against their
Change and increasing complexity of new cultures, new jobs, new technology, new markets, and more are a constant challenge for leaders everywhere. This is supported by research by CCL which revealed that the ability to develop or adapt is the most frequently cited success factor for North American managers. The opposite was also true in that the inability to adapt was the number one predictor of career derailment among North American managers.
Long-term roadmaps must be flexible. From the late ’90s dot-com euphoria, the valuation of Yahoo! peaked at $140 billion in January 2000. Some theorized that the Internet was a “transformative innovation, being adopted at warp speed” (Capece, 2013). But, Google’s $290 billion valuation 15 years later signals that there is more room for growth (http://whartonmagazine.com/blogs/why-adaptability-is-the-key-ingredient-to-leadership-success/#sthash.AoQAfRzd.dpbs)?
Here’s another question: Do you remember Kodak? In 1880, George Eastman’s sole focus was to make photography “as convenient as a pencil,” and so was among the first to successfully manufacture dry plates commercially in the United States. Soon, he formed a partnership called the Eastman Dry Plate Company with Henry Strong. By 1889, they marketed the first commercial transparent roll film, which enabled the development of the motion film industry (https://www.kodak.com/us/en/corp/aboutus/heritage/default.htm). But with the advent of the digital camera, their business had to change in order to remain competitive. Through space imaging capturing trips made to the moon and health imaging, Kodak continues to write their story in making photography easy.
Research conducted by Steve Zacarro (1999) at the George Mason University identified three kinds of flexibility shown by adaptable leaders. They are:
- Cognitive flexibility — the ability to use different thinking strategies and mental frameworks.
- Emotional flexibility — the ability to vary one’s approach to dealing with emotions and those of others.
- Dispositional flexibility — the ability to remain optimistic and, at the same time, realistic.
It should be noted that very adaptable people rate high in all three areas. And, for leaders who are struggling, all three types can be learned. These three types of flexibility were later confirmed in a study by Calarco and Gurvis (2006). In training adaptable leaders, researchers concluded the following:
Developing adaptive performance in Army leaders will likely require a substantial investment in an integrated training system from “cradle to grave.” Junior level leaders need to be exposed to adaptability training at the start of their careers through classroom and field exercises, during the early part of their careers through operational experiences and feedback mechanisms, and continuing throughout their careers through ongoing professional development. Having prescriptive documents such as this provides an important launch point (Mueller-Hanson, White, Dorsey & Pulakos, 2005; http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/army/rr1844.pdf).
Adaptable people accept change, hone strategies for dealing with the unknown and shift their behavior to accommodate new situations and challenges.
In the age of sustainable development goals, Wiebe Wakker, intended to “change people’s opinions and inspire people to start driving electric by showing the advantages of sustainable mobility” (Lagan, 2019). So, he drove from the Netherlands to Sydney, almost 60,000 miles, completing the nearly three years adventure just a few days ago (https://googleweblight.com/i?u=https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/dutchman-wiebe-wakker-ends-world-s-longest-electric-car-trip-in-australia-0qt6zjgzh&hl=en-JM). As he traveled the 33 countries, he partnered with other climate change agencies along the way. His success was evident as nearly 50 electric vehicles accompanied him as he drove into Sydney. One reporter estimated that the fuel would have costed more that $4,500 for this trip, while the electricity costed just about $300. What a saving!
“Given the vast number of changes happening daily due to technology’s advancement, today’s leaders are under a great amount of pressure to know more — and do more — than ever before” (Newman, 2017; https://www.forbes.com/sites/danielnewman/2017/08/01/adaptability-the-key-leadership-trait-in-the-digital-transformation/#2ca1e3404935).
So how are you going to improve your adaptability as a leader? Here are a few simple steps:
- Be curious. Question, wonder, explore, consider, different is not wrong, just different.
- Don’t get overly attached to a single plan or strategy. Develop several alternatives.
- Don’t go it alone. Look to mentors, friends, coaches, trusted peers, professional colleagues, family members and others to serve as your support system in times of change. Encourage employees to do the same.
- Understand your own reaction to change. Know your emotional triggers so you can be honest with yourself and others.
- Immerse yourself in new environments and situations. Jump in! Join activities, meet new people and try new things often (Center for Creative Leadership, 2019; https://www.ccl.org/articles/leading-effectively-articles/adaptability-1-idea-3-facts-5-tips/).