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Being an Adaptable Leader: Focus on Curiosity with a Side of Stamina

Truly good leadership is not a fixed thing. It’s situational and requires sizing up the reality around you and adjusting to it. It’s the opposite of doing whatever worked for you in the past even though you’re in a different situation now. That’s an approach I’ve seen go wrong many times: a client hires a senior executive who’s been successful before and this new person brings their “playbook” with them and applies it to the new situation, often without modification. They may not even have learned the particulars of the new business they’re in.

The new executive may have authority and hierarchical power, but they’re not really leading. They are mechanically applying a plan and directing others to follow it. That playbook may contain some terrific, effective things—and, of course, new leaders should apply their past experience to new circumstances—but not blindly, without adjusting for relevance. 

Leading Means Being Flexible

Leadership requires adaptability. The ability to shift to meet the demands of a new situation is crucial, given the ever-presence of change in contemporary life. And adaptability requires curiosity: you have to notice that the situation has changed and think deeply about what the changes mean. So if you want to increase your adaptability, learn to ask yourself good leading questions about the circumstances and the people involved.

You might ask questions like: What might happen? What will those people do? What could I do about that? What will the consequences be if I take action—or if I don’t? What will be advantageous and what will be risky? What’s likely to work and what’s worth an experiment? 

Having curiosity and thinking deeply about these kinds of questions helps you develop a larger repertoire of potential responses and an awareness that there are many different ways to respond, intervene, and inspire.

What Being Adaptable Looks Like

Another aspect of adaptability is having the humility and openness to be able to integrate your team’s point of view with your own ideas and intentions. When leaders ignore team members and think, “This is how I do things,” they demonstrate a lack of self-awareness, expecting either unquestioning compliance or a kind of mindreading from their team. Part of the leader’s job is  communicating their vision, so a leader often needs to announce the equivalent of, “Okay, team, this is what we need to do.” But leaders also have to be open and attuned enough to hear employees’ input about what it will take to achieve the vision, and to accept that although they may hold the vision, they also need team members’ belief and participation or the vision cannot be brought to fruition. 

Final implementation that includes employee input may be slightly different from a leader’s original vision, and the credit for achievement should be appropriately shared. Even more importantly, when employees raise operational or other concerns, the leader should encourage these discussions, take them seriously, and adapt plans as needed. Otherwise, leaders could end up put themselves in a terrible situation: think of the NASA managers who ignored the engineers’ O-ring data and subsequently caused the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger 1986.

But when leaders get curious and recognize that their people don’t always think exactly the same way they do—and that this is a benefit—they can have the most productive, empowering discussions with their team. Leaders who encourage dialogue simultaneously learn from their team and permit the team to discover how they themselves think and assess input. This helps the team improve the way they present divergent views to the leader and creates a virtuous cycle of dialogue and understanding.

Stay Steady as You Go

But adaptability doesn’t mean anything goes. As my mother once told me, “You shouldn’t be so openminded that your brains fall out.” Even though you have to adapt, you also have to be consistent. It’s the leader’s job to create a steady, long-term trajectory by holding a vision that’s constant and guiding the team in the right direction. Keeping an eye on the horizon line makes it more likely that you and your team will be able to get traction on your goals and gain the satisfaction that comes with achievement. Adaptability should make it more likely that you’ll reach your goals, not give you license to keep shifting those goals all around.

That’s where stamina comes in. As you adapt to real-world conditions, you also maintain the promise of the big picture and the long term. This constancy helps the team feel safe enough to shift with you whenever you see that activities need to adjust. You can remain curious, interested in what’s new and what might change, while ensuring that your purpose is steady.

Onward and upward—

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