Being an "Adaptable Leader" Is a New Requirement

Jan 19, 2012
5 Min Read

Change in our business environment happens very quickly these days. To be successful in your career years and decades ago, it was more or less enough to learn a skill or process and then simply repeat it over and over. Today this is not enough. We must continually learn and develop our skills. As true as this is for our personal effectiveness, it also applies to leadership effectiveness.

What is adaptability? A few years ago, some research funded by the U. S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences compiled the following attributes as dimensions of adaptability:


  • Handling emergencies or crisis situations
  • Handling work stress
  • Solving problems creatively
  • Dealing effectively with unpredictable or changing work situations
  • Learning work tasks, technologies, and procedures
  • Demonstrating interpersonal adaptability
  • Displaying cultural adaptability
  • Demonstrating physically oriented adaptability

Adapting your leadership style to meet the needs of a changing business environment, the needs of different people, and a variety of opportunities is bound to be more effective than staying in the comfort zone of a singular leadership style.

Adaptable leadership is about being ready for change. While you may have an end-goal and a basic strategy to reach it, the path that you plan to take is not set in stone. This allows appropriate responses to the demands of the moment. Detours and unforeseen circumstances are welcomed and viewed as opportunities. Adaptable leaders make the most of such change and take advantage of variety.

Tips for developing an adaptability mindset:

  • Quit following the rules. Do you refer to standard operating procedure on everything? When is the last time your process changed? Do something differently once in a while.
  • Think twice about saying no. Stop yourself when you find yourself rejecting a new idea or feeling pessimistic about an initiative. While in the moment, ask questions rather than expressing disagreement or negativity. When you have a minute, reflect on your immediate reaction and challenge yourself to find positivity in the situation.
  • Start your day differently. If you have a typical morning routine—same wake up time, same breakfast, same route to work—change it up. Routines tend to flow into one another so you might be going through the motions at work too. Starting your morning differently will trigger openness to doing things differently for the remainder of the day.
  • Be an early adopter. Rather than resisting change, be the first to embrace it. Find a helpful new technology, system, tool, software, or process that is relevant to you and your organization. Learn it inside and out and then introduce it to others.

Small ways to weave adaptability into your leadership style:

  • Adapt to personalities of employees, coworkers, customers. To achieve a goal of communicating better and working with others more effectively, adapt your own interpersonal style to complement theirs. For example, with some you may want to be more direct. You don’t need to change who you are, just how you sometimes behave.
  • Adapt to skills and weaknesses of employees. Delegate work based on interests and skills. Learn about who is good at what and who needs to develop what. When hiring new talent, seek to fill gaps in knowledge and competencies.
  • Adapt to the time of year. Most businesses and departments go through cycles of activity. One quarter is busy while another is slow. Plan ahead and take advantage of down-time to pursue long-term objectives.