Seven Tips to Build Your Leadership Adaptability

Adaptability – the ability to change to fit changed circumstances – is near the top of the list of required leadership skills for current and future business leaders. It involves mental, interpersonal and behavioral flexibility.

Though it’s not a new requirement for leaders, it is becoming increasingly important as the rate of change and ambiguity we face increases.

Here are seven tips for developing and demonstrating the ability to adapt and help your organization adapt:

  1. Adjust as you go versus waiting until half-time. David Capece attributes the success of NFL football coach Bill Belichick to his ability to adapt on the fly after a play or series of downs instead of waiting until half-time when there is a lull in the action. In the corporate setting, Agile project management methodology is a great example. It helps engineering and software development projects run in a more flexible, interactive, iterative and speedy way – versus the more traditional sequential approach that didn’t allow for changing customer requirements.
  2. Vision long term and plan short term. Adapting as you go during times of change and ambiguity doesn’t mean you don’t plan. Based on recent research findings with successful “Wave Makers,” my colleague Patti Johnson, recommends staying anchored on a clear long-term vision while focusing detailed planning efforts on the short term.
  3. Take some risk and move forward without all the data. Those of us who tend to be perfectionists and have high standards of quality need to be reminded that good enough is often better than perfect. If making a decision or taking action without all the information is tough for you, see here for suggestions.
  4. Minimize the knee-jerk reactions. Do you tend to dismiss immediately anything that smells new or different? Or, at the other extreme, do you tend to embrace quickly every new idea and change that comes along, dropping whatever else is on your plate? Either way, pause and take a deep breath. If you tend to have the former approach, remind yourself to keep an open mind and to seek to understand before critiquing the new way. If you tend towards the latter approach, ask some questions about implementation and competing priorities so you deliberately embrace the change instead of blindly following the next shiny object or senior leader’s pet project.
  5. Know where you are on the change curve. Facing a change can be like dealing with a serious loss; getting on board emotionally is sometimes difficult and takes a while. And it’s different than getting on board intellectually. Are you still in shock or denial about a change you face? Remember that it’s normal. Are you angry? Sad? Many people go through those stages, too, before accepting the change and being hopeful for a better future. Give yourself – and those you’re leading – permission to move through the process. You can’t skip over it; but you don’t want to get stuck along the way, either. It also may help to realize that everyone processes change differently and that a person may be going through multiple changes (and, therefore, change curves) at once.
  6. Put the oxygen mask on yourself first – then help the person next to you. If you want to be a positive and constructive influence, start by dealing with your own internal reactions to change. I have too often seen leaders sucking air so much that they don’t have the objectivity and empathy they need to help others.
  7. Get aligned with the change. If you are a leader in your organization, remember the “them” behind the new initiative is “you.” If you’re not happy with the new direction, have the conversations you need to have with other leaders so you can get on board and own it enough that you can be genuine and supportive when communicating to others. If you aren’t behind the change, it will show to others and undermine the initiative.

When most of us face change and uncertainty, we focus too much on trying to reduce the ambiguity when that is often out of our control. We need to shift our focus to improving our ability to handle ambiguity. (Notice that all but one tip above focus on changing you and not the circumstances.)

How can you develop and demonstrate leadership adaptability in a change you face?

Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. As a leadership consultant and executive coach, he helps leaders, teams and organizations adapt to be more effective and engaged. You can reach him at or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.