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3 Traits of Adaptable Leaders

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

“The most important factor in survival is neither intelligence nor strength but adaptability.”
—Charles Darwin

Change is inevitable. Leaders all over the world are facing constant change and complexity, including new cultures, new jobs, new markets, and new competition. To thrive as a leader requires the ability to adapt to these changes and adjust to the new conditions. Adaptive leadership means seeing change not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity to focus on being ready. The following three key traits help chief executives down to front-line managers take on an adaptive leadership framework and leadership style that helps them navigate through change more easily.


1. Adaptable Leaders Have Flexible Ways of Thinking

For leaders, adaptability is about having ready access to different ways of thinking, enabling leaders to shift and experiment as things change. Having an elastic cognitive approach allows leaders to use different thinking strategies and mental frameworks. Deepening awareness and perspective help leaders to understand how they think, how their team thinks, and how their customers think. Some fundamental activities to unlock flexible thinking include:

  • Question your thought patterns: Ensure you are approaching with an open mind, exploring from all angles.
  • Relax your mind: Give yourself the freedom to step back from rigid processes and analytical thinking, allowing you to play with the idea of a new paradigm or thought.
  • Examine your emotional flexibility: Practice reflecting on your own emotions and those of others; vary your approach to dealing with others’ emotions.

2. Adaptable Leaders Plan Ahead

Adaptable leaders understand that while an end goal and a vision are necessary, the path that takes them there needs to be flexible. The practice of adaptive leadership means having multiple plans for reaching said goals. Rather than getting stuck on one solution to solve a problem, adaptable leaders have a contingency plan in place for when plan A doesn’t work. Planning allows appropriate responses to the demands of the moment.

  • Planning creates focus: Planning creates focus (it’s worth repeating a second time). Planning enables leaders to focus on their resources and use their energy to reach their goals.
  • Planning helps to assess risks and opportunities: Planning provides the platform to examine the opportunities and threats in current and future situations. By understanding the obstacles they may face and the tools they have at their disposal, leaders can minimize the risk and maximize the reward.

“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”
—President Dwight D. Eisenhower

3. Adaptable Leaders Are Curious

Curiosity helps to open the mind, enable growth, encourages new ideas, and is a fundamental principle of adaptive leadership. Curiosity generates questions that wield problem-solving, leading to finding results. Adaptable leaders use activities such as the following to help develop their curiosity:

  • Ask questions, listen, and observe: Seek first to understand, not to explain. Leaders should wonder, explore, and consider before judging and deciding. They understand the perspectives of others, and are willing to sit in ambiguity and be open and curious without being invested in the outcome. Leaders develop the ability to uncover and check assumptions, values, and belief systems.
  • Be inquisitive: Leaders ask others their opinions, perspectives, and approaches. Everyone does things a bit differently, and potential answers and solutions to problems can be hidden in the way other people think.
  • Think creatively: Leaders know how to develop a growth mindset and create space for innovation and continuous learning. They create a safe environment for risk-taking with new models and fast failures to accelerate learning. Adaptability occurs through experimentation.

An adaptable mindset does not come naturally to everyone. However, with practice and focus, adaptable leader traits such as those listed above can be developed to help foster navigation through the course of changing landscapes.

This post was originally published in December 2018 and was updated with recent research and resources.

About the Author

Keith Keating is a senior director of GP Strategies supporting General Motors’ Center of Learning. With a career spanning more than 20 years in learning and development, Keith Keating holds a master’s degree in leadership and has experience in instructional design, leadership coaching, operations management, and process transformation. More recently, Keith has been leading GP Strategies’ clients on the development and execution of their global learning strategies. Regardless of the role, at the heart of everything Keith does centers around problem solving. He studied design thinking at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and found it was a perfect tool to add to his problem-solving toolkit. Since then, Keith has been using design thinking to help clients tap into understanding and resolving unmet customer needs.

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