The Agile Leader: Adaptability

By Bruna Martinuzzi

Do you "fit" your circumstances?

© iStockphoto/IJzendoorn

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 years ahead 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.

  • When you catch yourself shooting an idea down, take a moment to consider what mental scripts are influencing your behavior. Mental scripts are so automatic that you have to decide intentionally that you want to challenge them, if you want to improve your leadership.
  • Help your people distinguish between observation and inference, between fact and conjecture. Inference and conjecture can be influenced by mental scripts which don’t have a bearing on reality. Be the voice in the room that calls others’ attention to this possibility, and help everyone pause so that they can analyze inferences and conjectures that may or may not be valid.
  • Do you habitually insist on going "by the book"? Is this necessary for every issue? Might you enhance your team’s productivity if you paid more attention to the effect that this might have on the people involved? What would happen if you applied standard procedures more flexibly?
  • Consider that when we push the envelope, and when we intentionally put ourselves in situations that are outside our comfort zone, we grow. Are you trading on old knowledge? Do you need to update your skills? Are you relying too much on your title as the sign of authority? In today’s working environment, surrounded by highly intelligent and specialized knowledge workers, this no longer works. We need to adapt by continually evolving and reinventing ourselves. In "Rethinking the Future", Warren Bennis talks about the importance for leaders to recompose their leadership style and to continue to adapt: "It’s like snakes. What do snakes do? They molt, they shed their outside skins. But it’s not just that. It’s a matter of continuing to grow and transform, and it means that executives have to have extraordinary adaptability." This applies to every level in the organization: change or perish.
  • When we are in a position for a length of time, we may tend to become accustomed to the status quo and fail to challenge the process in order to continue to grow and improve. If you left tomorrow, what would your successor do to improve things? Consider making these changes yourself.
  • In today's environment of complex challenges and rapid change, the ability to solve problems becomes even more crucial. The Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory (KAI) measures the way people solve problems and make decisions. Adapters prefer a more adaptable, methodical and organized approach to problem-solving, and are more likely to seek a solution to a problem by working within current framework rather than developing a completely new one. Innovators, on the other hand, prefer a less orderly, more unconventional and ingenious approach to problem-solving and are likely to seek solutions by thinking outside the box. One looks to do things better, the other looks to do things differently. Consider that a team that is composed of extreme adapters or extreme innovators is less successful than a team that is balanced. If you want to know where your team is in this dimension, check out the KAI.
  • If you want a test to assess your level of adaptability, consider the StrengthsFinder or Emotional Competence Inventory (ECI). The latter tests adaptability on four scales:
    1. Openness to new ideas.
    2. Adaptation to situations.
    3. Handling of unexpected demands.
    4. Adapting or changing strategy.
  • To understand what changes you need to make to continue to be successful, read: What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful by Marshall Goldsmith. (We have published a Book Insight covering this great title.)

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 © 2009-2014 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. Visit her website at

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Comments (9)
  • Yolande wrote This month
    The ability to adapt to change is often the difference between surviving the corporate jungle or not. Thanks for your thoughts, Shainance.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Shainance wrote This month
    Hi everyone,
    Am now aware of the vital aspects openness to ideas adapting or changing strategy not so easy at times but we all have different ideologies at the end we get to agree.
  • Michele wrote Over a month ago
    Hi kamlesh,

    I like your comment on training yourself to sense when a change is happening and being open to that change so that you can adapt to it. And it truly does require that you understand the mental scripts that you are using to filter out information and to make decisions. It is very easy for people to become accustomed to operating on "automatic pilot" mode, especially when overloaded with information or when they have a heavy workload.

    In my experience working with managers and teams, bringing together a group of people with a mix of skills and perspectives is helpful in approaching situations, opportunities and problems in a whole new way.

  • kamleshkd1 wrote Over a month ago
    Hi everyone,I kamlesh
    This article adaptable to any new change can be a habit.
    If you train your self to sense change & adapt it according to situation that where you find you developed new skill in you.Here we can used "Mental Scripts" phenomena as mentioned by writer.
    Want to thank author.
  • Satyanarayana wrote Over a month ago
    Hi everyone, I'm satyanarayana
    this is really an interesting and definitely enlightening article.change is the one thing which is permanent in this world. so by being adaptable one is allowing himself to this natures law.saty
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Zuni,
    I agree that the more 'agile' you can be, the more adaptable you will weather the changes.

    As you mentioned, the pace of change is accelerating rapidly and being able to stay on top of all the changes, shift what you do and still be able to perform is critical.

    I know someone at the moment who is going through lots of big changes in many areas of their lives, not just work, so their 'agility' is being tested. It makes me believe that people can be flexible, yet when there is to much stress and/or change in to many areas, they can struggle to adapt.

    What do you think?
  • zuni wrote Over a month ago
    Hi everyone,

    Most of us work in environments in which the pace of change is accelerating rapidly and we are tasked with doing more with much less. Being agile is incredibility important for us to thrive in our work.

    Bruna talks about mental models as scripts. I also like to think of mental models as a set of lenses or filters we wear that "colour" what we see and how we respond to situations.

    Our filters go beyond problem solving in work situations. Think of your filters as including your life experiences as well as your theories of how things and people work.

    For example, what is your level of comfort with taking reasonable risks? What experiences shaped the way you approach risk? And, does the way you approach risk hold you (and your organization) back or propel yourself forward?

    Agility - the ability to continuously learn in response to changes in the environment - is an attribute that helps you to thrive rather than just survive in the workplace.

  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi all

    I loved this article because it confronts the reader with a number of key issues regarding leadership and adaptability. I especially like the following: If you left tomorrow, what would your successor do to improve things? Consider making these changes yourself. I've seen so many people in leadership positions kicking against making such changes because they feel threatened; by going ahead and making these changes yourself you not only prove your adaptability, you also strengthen your self-worth by not allowing yourself to feel threatened by other people and their ideas. In stead you use it to your advantage (in a positive way) and to the advantage of the team.

    Kind regards
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    This is an interesting article which highlights the need and benefits of being 'adaptable'. We are not being 'adaptable' when we are entrenched in our 'mental scrips' that all of have going on all the time. The key is taking the time to stop and question why were are responding or saying things in a certain way.

    The article concludes with some excellent strategies to help you become more adaptable. So, well worth considering and adopting!


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