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Mastering the Art of Adaptable Leadership
3 self coaching tools to help you adapt to a radically changing world
This piece was originally featured as a guest issue in
As the business world continues to evolve at a breakneck pace, the ability to adapt is more critical than ever.
Leading today means unprecedented complexity, unprecedented decisions, and unprecedented challenges.
The rule book is out, and radical adaptability is in.
Being adaptable in business isn’t simply about being agile enough to react to changes as they happen.
It means being able to spot early signals and redesign beyond your own boundaries. And the ability to pivot quickly and creatively in response to new challenges.
But for leaders, being adaptable runs deeper. Not only must you be able to lead your business with adaptability, but you must also be adaptable in the way that you lead those around you.
Being able to read the signs of those around you, experiment with your style, and adapt to get the best out of your team is equally critical.
Adaptability is a meta-skill for leaders today.
The challenge is that for most leaders operating under pressure, it can be quicker and easier to default to what works already or look to what others are doing and advising.
Yet there really is no ‘best’ way of doing something today. So-called ‘best practice’ is based, almost entirely, on what worked in the past.
Leading the unknown requires a willingness to take risks, a growth mindset, and a commitment to ongoing learning and reflection.
It means accepting the risks that failure poses and creating space in a schedule that often leaves little time for deep thinking.
Higher levels of adaptability are associated with greater levels of learning ability and better performance, confidence, and creative output. Adaptability is also crucial for psychological and physical well-being and is linked to higher levels of social support and overall life satisfaction.
McKinsey & Company; 2021 “Future proof: Solving the ‘adaptability paradox’ for the long term”
So how can leaders cultivate adaptability?
Just like any other skill, your ability to adapt to changing circumstances and experiences can be honed through day-to-day experiences.
But if you want to be known for your ability to navigate uncertainty and change, investing in intentionally developing your skillset will get you far.
Below you’ll find three self-coaching exercises that you can use to assess and cultivate your own adaptability.
Whether you're a seasoned leader or a new manager, these exercises can help you to develop greater awareness of your leadership approach.
Let’s get started.
Focus: The ability to pivot quickly and creatively in response to new challenges is essential for success. Which means that adaptability is more than simply being flexible and able to respond to changes. Think for a moment.
What does being highly adaptable mean to you?
What does that look like in practice? When you are at your most adaptable, what are you doing? What skills, attitudes, and behaviors do you lead with? Write them down.
If what you have captured is a 10 out of 10 for adaptability, what rating would you give yourself right now?
What two shifts could take you closer to a 10?
Lead: When you’re faced with a new and uncertain situation, you might not have all the answers right away. In the absence of knowing what to do, think about the principles that are important to you and that you want to honor.
To help you identify your principles think of a situation that you faced recently that was particularly challenging and unexpected.
What was the decision that you made in that situation?
What factors led to you making it?
Of these factors, which would you define as ‘you always’ factors versus those that were ‘situation specific’? They might look like this ‘We always prioritise fairness’ or ‘We always prioritise profitability over growth’.
Factors that began as ‘we always’ will be the starting point for your principles.
Then check. Which are the top 3 to five principles that you want to guide you in the future?
What is one way you can use these to help you lead in a principled way every day?
Check: Over the last few years leaders who have naturally deferred to the rule book have quickly found themselves feeling like they’re trapped in a maze with no way out.
But even the most innovative leaders and teams do have default practices that get in the way of adaptable thinking.
How much do you question accepted ‘norms’?
Where are your habitual practices helping you and where are they getting in the way?
What one tweak could you make today?
The questions above work for individual leaders and leadership teams as a collective.
When you completed the exercises above, did the ‘you’ in the text refer to:
you and your leadership team as a collective?
Whichever you chose, go back and complete the exercises with the alternative perspective in mind. That means if you’ve read the piece above thinking about yourself as a leader, now go back and complete the exercises - with your executive team. What do you notice?