Adaptive Leadership: 6 Ways to Thrive in an Era of Change

March 8, 2024

adaptable leadership

We are immersed in an era of unprecedented change driven by rapid technological advancements, the surge of artificial intelligence, and extensive digitalization. The world is becoming increasingly interconnected through globalization while simultaneously grappling with significant challenges like climate change, dynamic social movements, and profound political transformations. We need adaptive leadership.

These shifts are reshaping the very fabric of our professional and personal lives, influencing not just the nature of work but also when, where, and how it’s performed. In this context, leaders are finding that traditional approaches are no longer sufficient. To thrive and steer their teams effectively in this fluid environment, a radical transformation in leadership behaviors and strategies is imperative.

Adaptability has become the cornerstone of effective leadership, ensuring resilience and success in a world marked by constant change.

The Growing Need for Adaptable Leadership

Zenger Folkman’s study offers a compelling insight into the critical role adaptability plays in modern leadership. Utilizing a comprehensive 360-degree assessment, this study evaluated adaptability alongside 59 other key behaviors for 6,333 leaders, each assessed by an average of 13 raters.

The findings are striking and paint a clear picture of the impact of adaptability in leadership. Leaders who ranked low in adaptability had an overall effectiveness at a mere 16th percentile. In stark contrast, those who excelled in adaptability soared to the 90th percentile in overall leadership effectiveness. This dramatic disparity underscores adaptability as not just a beneficial trait but a transformative one.

Perhaps most intriguing is the study’s revelation about employee engagement. It found a direct correlation between a leader’s adaptability and the engagement level of their direct reports. This aspect of the study highlights adaptability as a pivotal factor not only in enhancing a leader’s effectiveness but also in fostering a more dynamic, committed, and motivated workforce.

In essence, Zenger Folkman’s research doesn’t just quantify the importance of adaptability; it vividly illustrates it as a cornerstone of effective leadership and a catalyst for creating an engaged and high-performing team.

What are the Characteristics of Adaptive Leaders?

When comparing the most adaptive leaders, we found they tended to be younger, slightly more likely to be female, and slightly more likely to be middle-level managers than top-level managers.  Analyzing this data, we discovered six capabilities that enabled them to be more adaptable. We believe that for leaders desiring to be more adaptable, leveraging these capabilities would provide significant benefits.

1. Inspires and Motivates: Consider the CEO of a successful startup who, despite the pressure to meet targets, prioritizes team inspiration. This leader holds monthly creative brainstorming sessions, encouraging innovative ideas and recognizing individual contributions. Their approach not only drives results but also fosters a culture of motivation and creativity.

2.     Valuing Diversity and Differences: Imagine a project manager who actively seeks opinions from team members of different cultural backgrounds and expertise. This leader creates a forum where every voice is heard and valued, leading to innovative solutions that would have been overlooked in a more homogeneous setting. This approach underlines the importance of diversity in driving adaptability and innovation.

3. Relationships are as Important as Results: Picture a sales director who balances target achievement with team well-being. They organize regular team-building activities and one-on-one sessions to understand and support their team members’ professional and personal growth. This balance between achieving results and nurturing relationships results in a loyal, motivated team.

4.     Collaboration Culture: Envision a tech company where departments are encouraged to collaborate on projects, breaking down silos. This environment, fostered by adaptive leaders, leads to a synergy that not only enhances productivity but also fosters a sense of unity and shared purpose.

5. Coachability: Think of a leader who, after every major project, seeks feedback from their team and acts on it. This openness to feedback not only improves their leadership skills but also sets a precedent for a culture of continuous improvement and open communication within the organization.

6. Trust: Reflect on a scenario where a leader trusts their team to manage their workload without micromanagement. This trust empowers employees, giving them the freedom to innovate and take ownership of their work, leading to a more dynamic and proactive workplace. Building an organization based on trust empowers and encourages employees to act because there is trust between each person and their leader.

In each of these examples, the core characteristics of adaptive leadership are not just theoretical concepts but practical, actionable strategies that bring about real change in an organization’s culture and effectiveness. This approach to leadership acknowledges the complexities of the modern workplace and harnesses the collective strength of diverse, motivated, and empowered individuals.

Becoming a More Adaptable Leader

As we traverse through changes that touch every facet of our lives, cultivating adaptability offers a beacon of resilience and innovation. In an era where the specter of artificial intelligence looms large, it’s the adaptive individual who embraces this technology as a powerful ally, transforming potential threats into opportunities for growth and enhancement in their roles.

This mindset is the hallmark of a leader who is not just surviving but thriving in the face of change.

As you reflect on your journey, consider deeply how each of the six identified behaviors can elevate your adaptability. Embracing these traits is more than just a strategy; it’s a commitment to continuous evolution and personal growth. By integrating these behaviors into your leadership style, you position yourself to navigate the challenges of today and anticipate and adapt to the unknowns of tomorrow.

-Joe Folkman

This article first appeared in Joe Folkman’s LinkedIn Newsletter, “Leadership Psychometrics.”