Adaptability: A Critical Quality of Great Leaders

“The single biggest problem — the fatal flaw in choosing presidents, school board leaders, or football coaches — is that we believe we can predict the future rather than looking for a leader who can quickly adapt to whatever the unpredictable future holds.” – Sydney Finkelstein

BBC Capital has a short article, A Fatal Flaw when Choosing Leaders, that makes two points:

  1. Adaptability is a critical characteristic of effective leaders
  2. We who choose leaders usually forget this

This short, simple article struck a chord in me, because I believe the statements to be true (good ol’ confirmation bias) and, unfortunately, not widely known.  I’ve studied and seen countless examples of inflexible leaders who “stick to their guns” and apply whatever methods worked in the past, seemingly ignorant of the obvious differences and nuances of the present context.  This is why, as I’ve said before, I’m trying to develop a personal arsenal of varied tactics and skills.

The article’s author, Sydney Finkelstein, says that “The single biggest problem — the fatal flaw in choosing presidents, school board leaders, or football coaches — is that we believe we can predict the future rather than looking for a leader who can quickly adapt to whatever the unpredictable future holds.”

Humans are remarkable creatures, but we’re frequently victims of a tendency to overestimate and overvalue our own intellect.

Humans are remarkable creatures – we’re capable of incredible engineering advances, artistic beauty, and more – but we’re frequently victims of a tendency to overestimate and overvalue our own intellect.

Finkelstein asks, “What if we’re not that good at figuring out the most critical challenges and opportunities we want our leader to solve? And even more, what if the issues of the day are eclipsed by new events?”, and adds, “With the pace of change as intense as it is across industries and countries, how can we even believe we are able to identify the precise bundle of experiences, capabilities and personality needed to take on what tomorrow brings?”

It was at this point that I was reminded of a book by John Kay, titled Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly.  The basic premise, if I may be so bold as to try to condense the book into a single statement, is that there are so many unknowns and so much constant change that a direct pursuit of a goal is destined to be less effective than an indirect, adaptive approach.  The unifying characteristic between Kay’s thesis on problem-solving and Finkelstein’s ideas about effective leadership is an ability to thrive in an environment of change¹.

Finkelstein states that, “You need to ensure that your would-be leader has the agility to adapt to new and unexpected circumstances. In the face of change, executives who stick to the same playbook that got them to the top is almost always a failing formula. The inability of senior executives to adapt and adjust is the real reason companies such as Blockbuster and Kodak went out of business — and the reason companies like Google and Amazon keep beating competitors to the punch, time and time again.”

This is a valuable lesson, and taking it to heart means questioning your natural impulses when faced with a situation requiring leadership.  Ask yourself, “Am I choosing this approach because it’s worked before, or because it is best-suited for this problem.”  If it has worked before, then you must determine if the situations were similar enough to warrant an identical approach.  Comfort and complacency limit our options and, in the long run, lead to less desirable outcomes.

As a corollary, when you are next in a position of influence in choosing a leader, fight the urge to believe that you know exactly what that leader will face, and be sure to consider the candidates’ adaptability.  You could do much worse than using these three criteria:

  1. Domain knowledge
  2. Track record of success
  3. Track record of adaptability

¹I was also reminded of a friend’s blog post that told how, when he was a teenager, he had to convince his uncle (who ran an accounting business) to make the upgrade to Windows 3.1.

 

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Posted in Books, Leadership, Management

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