Why adaptability is a critical capability for future leadership

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Kiddy & Partners

Last week, we wrote about the key capabilities needed to successfully lead in the new normal. This week, we’re focusing on one of the most critical capabilities identified: adaptability. 

It’s certainly not a new concept that organisations and their leaders need to be able to adapt to constant change. With disruptions from advancements in the technology and digital space, changes in cultural, market and consumer trends, and concern for non-commercial business outcomes (e.g. environmental and sustainability, social responsibility, etc. [A]), leaders have needed to drive organisations to innovate and anticipate the ever-changing landscape. However, Covid-19 has challenged the survival of every organisation and forced many to rip up and reconsider their business strategy. In 2019, adaptability was named the most desirable skill [B]. But in order to lead their people and organisations effectively, now and in the future, adaptability in leaders is not desirable; it’s vital.

What makes an adaptable leader?

An adaptive leader is defined as someone who is able to change their behaviour in response to changes in a situation [C]. They are flexible, showing resilience when things don’t go as planned and bouncing back from failure, seeing it as an opportunity to learn. While they might use past knowledge and experience to approach a problem, they are open in acknowledging that what has worked before may not work in the future.

Adaptability is a critical capability for any employee, but particularly for those who are leading others and an organisation through ever-changing contexts. We see first-hand from our clients and their leaders the need to adapt to the changing context within their role, but also when moving from one leadership role to another, with a need for leaders to adapt their influencing skills and become more strategic and empowering. 

How to develop adaptability in leaders

  1. Adopt an adaptive mindset: A key differentiator we’ve seen in great leaders is the ability to view challenges as opportunities to improve and learn. They need to challenge their assumptions around success – the most effective leaders in adapting to change are those who view failures as opportunities to learn from mistakes and use that learning to drive improvements the next time around. 
  2. Seek diverse opinions: In novel and rapidly changing contexts, the leader who used to be the expert may no longer be the person with the most expertise. Recognising this and seeking out others with diverse opinions enables leaders to learn and challenge their perspective. An important reason for doing this is to challenge confirmation bias, the tendency to overplay information that confirms your existing beliefs and undervalue information that conflicts with your views [D]. This restricts the ability to consider a broader range of perspectives, thereby limiting leaders’ exposure to new and innovative approaches. To combat this, leaders should look for opportunities to learn from others with different views, within their teams and organisations but also in the wider industry. And why stop there? Take inspiration from trends and people in other industries who are excelling at adapting to their changing environment; see what learnings can be taken and try to assimilate them in their own context.
  3. Create psychological safety: In order to benefit from others’ opinions, leaders need to create psychologically safe environments where people feel able to share their true opinions, be creative and make mistakes without fear of judgement [E]. Leaders should encourage people to voice their ideas, even if they contrast with others’ views, and promote a culture of learning from failures by owning their own mistakes and sharing the learnings. 
  4. Build emotional intelligence and agility: Novel and unpredictable situations that require adaptability from leaders are often associated with increased levels of stress. Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to be aware of and control your emotions, and a key quality for enhancing it is emotional agility– the ability to manage, and not suppress, thoughts and feelings. Emotional agility has been associated with lower levels of stress, increased innovation and improved job performance [F]. When leaders are aware of their emotions, acknowledging and trying to understand the causes behind them, they can prevent the associated negative effects and avoid using up too much of their cognitive resource. This will help to build their resilience and enable them to bounce back quickly from setbacks.

How to assess adaptability in leaders

We’re currently operating in the ‘new normal’, an environment of increased change and instability that will continue to evolve but may never stabilise. As the pace of change affecting organisations only increases, it is more vital than ever that leaders are able to adapt to the new challenges facing organisations. Kiddy are experts in defining the leadership capabilities needed to succeed now and in your future context.

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[A]Burke, R. J., & Cooper, C. L. (2004). Leading in turbulent times: Managing in the new world of work. Malden,
MA: Blackwell Publishing.


[C] Yukl, G., & Mahsud, R. (2010). Why flexible and adaptive leadership is essential. Consulting Psychology Journal: practice and research, 62(2), 81.

[D] Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of general psychology, 2(2), 175-220.

[E] Boylan, S. A., & Turner, K. A. (2017). Developing organizational adaptability for complex environment. Journal of Leadership Education, 16(2), 183-198.


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