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Adaptability
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Survival of the Most Adaptable?

A Paraphrase that Resonates in Data
Paraphrasing Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” Leon Megginson, Professor of Management and Marketing at Louisiana State University, wrote, “It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives, but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”

As the world becomes increasingly complex and the pace of change speeds up, we could likely insert “leader” in place of “species” and find ourselves nodding in agreement. Adaptability is now viewed as an essential quality of leadership. Consider the results of a 2017 survey conducted with 350 executives across 9 industries in 15 of the world’s biggest economies as proof. When asked by The World Economic Forum to identify the top skills that employers would most desire by 2020, the rank order responses were:

  1. Cognitive Flexibility
  2. Negotiation Skills
  3. Service Orientation
  4. Judgment and Decision-Making
  5. Emotional Intelligence
  6. Coordinating with Others
  7. Creativity
  8. Critical Thinking
  9. Complex Problem Solving

Biology Raises the Stakes and Highlights the Challenge
2020 has come and gone, but the observations about necessary skills have only been reinforced amid a global pandemic. And while we find many leaders are willing (and even eager) to improve these capabilities, there’s uncertainty about how to develop them—particularly the ones that are ultimately about adaptability (i.e., cognitive flexibility, creativity, critical thinking, complex problem-solving). 

In fairness to leaders, there’s biology at work here. As Laurence Gonzales, author of Everyday Survival: Why Smart People do Stupid Things, reminds us: when our brain processes new information or situations, it creates “behavioral scripts” that automate actions so that when we encounter the same information or situations in the future, we can act without giving it another thought. If our brain stopped there, it would simply make us more efficient (and we can all use a little efficiency). But our brain doesn’t stop there; it goes further by launching those behavioral scripts when it sees similar information or situations too. And that’s where we may fail to notice subtle differences that require flexible thinking, which lures us into the “this is the way we’ve always done it” trap that may produce rigidity in response.

Overcoming Our Scripts to Survive
If leadership requires adaptability, and human biology is (to some degree) working against it, how do we overcome our nature to survive? Here are three tips that may help.

  1. Spot the Differences. We likely all played the “spot the differences” games when we were little, the ones where we had to identify differences between similar photos. Let’s put those skills to work in our leadership! When we have an immediate reaction about how we need to proceed in a situation because of what we’ve done in the past, we need to stop long enough to ask ourselves whether the current situation has any unique factors. If we can spot any differences, then we need to adapt our approach to respect those distinctions.
  2. Leverage Diversity. Groupthink is an enemy of adaptability. When we surround ourselves with people who think like we do and/or have similar experiences, we often close our minds to new approaches. But when we intentionally invite people who are diverse from us (in all the ways diversity is personified) into our conversations and decision-making processes, we open ourselves to different perspectives, which in turn, invites us to explore new possibilities.
  3. Be Curious. The most effective leaders we know demonstrate an insatiable curiosity by asking questions, reading books, listening to podcasts, etc. And those who demonstrate the highest levels of adaptability take it one step further—they do all those things outside their own industry. There’s a lot to be learned from people who are working in fields different from our own, and by stretching our minds to consider leadership in another context, we create flexibility in our own thinking.

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From Reflection to Action: This week, find a way to act on one of these tips. Will you spot the differences, intentionally leverage diversity, or practice curiosity?

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