Do you "fit" your circumstances?
There is a well-known Chinese proverb that says that the wise adapt themselves to circumstances, as water molds itself to the pitcher. Perhaps at no other time in recent history has adaptability been more important than it is now. Adaptability – the ability to change (or be changed) to fit new circumstances – is a crucial skill for leaders, and an important competency in emotional intelligence.
A 2008 study conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, entitled Growing Global Executive Talent, showed that the top three leadership qualities that will be important over the next five years include: the ability to motivate staff (35 percent); the ability to work well across cultures (34 percent); and the ability to facilitate change (32 percent). The least important were technical expertise (11 percent) and "bringing in the numbers" (10 percent).
As a leader, it is therefore crucial to make a concerted effort to understand people of different cultures, and cultural adaptability has become a leadership imperative. As an example, a leader I am currently working with has 22 different cultures represented in his team!
An example of a leader who epitomizes this prized quality is Robert McDonald, chief operating officer of the Procter & Gamble Company, who has spent much of the past two decades in various overseas postings. In a recent interview, he said: "I did not expect to live outside the United States for 15 years; the world has changed, so I have had to change, too. When you look at my bio, foreign languages are not my best subjects. But, when you move out of your culture, you have to learn foreign languages."
This willingness to get out of one’s comfort zone, and learn continuously as a way of adapting to changed surroundings, marks a key difference between successful and unsuccessful leaders.
I have just finished reading "Everyday Survival: Why Smart People do Stupid Things" by Laurence Gonzales, a lecturer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. In the book, Gonzales talks about the dumb mistakes we make when we work from a mental script that does not match the requirements of real-world situations.
He explains that one of the reasons this happens has to do with the way that the brain processes new information. It creates what he calls "behavioral scripts," or mental models that automate almost every action that we take. For example, growing up, we build a behavioral script for the physical motions required in tying our shoes. Through practice, this script is eventually entrenched and it ends up making the action so easy and automatic that we never give it another thought. Another example of a behavioral script that we learn is ducking when something is thrown at us. Behavioral scripts simplify our world, make us more efficient and help us move around faster and with less effort. They influence not only our actions but also what we perceive and believe. Gonzales says that "We tend not to notice things that are inconsistent with the models, and we tend not to try what the scripts tells us is bad or impossible."
The efficiency of these scripts carry with them a downside: they can divert our attention from important information coming to us from our environment. In other words, the models or scripts push us to disregard the reality of a situation, and dismiss signals because the message we get from our scripts is that we already know about it. So we make decisions about a situation that, as Gonzales puts it "aren’t really decisions in the real sense of the word. They’re simply automated behaviors."
Mental scripts may also result in stubbornly clinging to the notion that "this is how we have always done it," refusing to understand and accept the realities of a new situation. Gonzales quotes Henry Plotkin, a psychologist at University College in London, who states that we tend to "generalize into the future what worked in the past." So, whatever worked in the past, do it; whatever didn’t work, avoid it.
This is, of course, the anti-thesis of the quality of being adaptable, of being flexible under the influence of rapidly changing external conditions. It can make us rigid, unresponsive to change, and unwilling to learn and adopt new ways, all of which can have an impact on our ability to survive and succeed in the long run. People who score high on the adaptability competency are able to deal more positively with change, and they are able to do what it takes to adapt their approach and shift their priorities.
Here are a few tips for developing adaptability.
Adaptability is not just a "nice to have competency." It is a competitive advantage for you, as a leader and for your organization.
So, where does your company stand in terms of adaptability? What do you need to do to keep up with the pace of change, with the increasing complexity of today’s workplace? Long ago, Benjamin Franklin said: "Wide will wear, but narrow will tear." What can you do today to widen your perspective, to stretch the limits imposed, to extend the scope and meaning of what you do as a leader?
Copyright © 2009 by Bruna Martinuzzi. All Rights Reserved.
This article is adapted from Bruna Martinuzzi’s book: The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow. Bruna is an educator, author, speaker and founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd, a company which specializes in emotional intelligence, leadership, Myers-Briggs and presentation skills training. Click here to contact her or visit her website at www.increaseyoureq.com. Click here for other articles by Bruna.
With the Mind Tools Club, you get much, much more than you do here for free.
Learn on the move with the free Mind Tools iPhone, iPad and Android Apps. Short bursts of business training ideal for busy people.