One of the key leadership traits is of course, agility. No single course of action—no matter how intelligent or elegant—will be successful in every situation. That’s why effective leaders need to be able to quickly adapt and to apply situation-appropriate behaviors (situational leadership) to the circumstances as they arise.
Leaders need a proverbial "toolkit" of successful behaviors to succeed and even more so be able to adapt and create innovative new tools to meet new unchartered situations.
Harvard Business Review, July/August 2009, has a interesting article called “Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis” that offers up some useful insights on adaptive leadership.
But first, what is clear is that uncertainty abounds and leadership must adapt and meet the challenges head on:
“Uncertainty will continue as the norm even after the recession ends. Economics cannot erect a firewall against intensifying global competition, energy constraints, climate change, and political instability.”
But some things that effective leaders can do in challenging and uncertain times are as follows:
“Foster adaptation”—leaders need to be able to function in two realities—today and tomorrow. They “must execute in order to meet today’s challenges and they must adapt what and how things get done in order to thrive in tomorrow’s world.” Or to put it another way: leaders “must develop ‘next practices’ while excelling at today’s best practices.”
Stabilize, then solve—in uncertain times, when an emergency situation arises, first stabilize the situation and then adapt by tackling the underlying causes and building capacity to thrive in a new reality.
Experiment—don’t be afraid to experiment and try out new ways of doing things, innovate products and services, or field new technologies. “The way forward will be characterized by constant midcourse corrections.” But that is how learning occurs and that’s how success is bred—one experience and experiment at a time.
“Embrace disequilibrium”—Often people and organizations won’t or can’t change until the pain of not adapting is greater than the pain of staying the course. Too little pain and people stay in their comfort zone. Too much change, and people “fight, flee, or freeze.” So we have to be ready to change at the tipping point when the discomfort opens the way for change to drive forward.
Make people safe to question—unfortunately, too often [poor] leadership is afraid or threatened by those who question or seek alternative solutions. But effective leaders are open to new ideas, constructive criticism and innovation. Leaders need be confident and “create a culture of courageous conversations”—where those who can provide critical insights “are protected from the organizational pressure to remain silent.”
Leverage diversity—the broader the counsel you have, the better the decision you are likely to make. “If you do not engage in the widest possible range of life experiences and views—including those of younger employees—you risk operating without a nuanced picture of the shifting realities facing the business internally and externally.
To me, while leaders may intuitively fall back on tried and true techniques that have worked for them in the past, adaptive leaders need to overcome that tendency and think creatively and in situation-appropriate ways to be most effective. The adaptive leader doesn’t just do what is comfortable or known, but rather he/she synthesizes speed, agility, and courage in confronting new and evolving challenges. No two days or situations are the same and leadership must stand ready to meet the future by charting and creative new ways ahead.