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8 Essential Ways to Boost Your Leadership Adaptability

Certainty is an admirable quality in a leader. But when times are tough and headwinds are rough, it takes a remarkable leader to remain flexible and act proactively during ambiguity. 

And yet, that's what your reports need. A leader who is fearless in the face of change and who can direct those around them when their energy is lacking and their fear is escalating. 
As Joe Pane says in a Fast Company article, "Our certainty must always exceed any team member’s doubt. As long as our certainty exceeds other’s doubt, we are leading and in control, but the moment their doubt exceeds our certainty, this can mark the beginning of an end."
So how do you navigate the storm when challenges and uncertainties converge, as they have in recent years? How do you inspire and uplift your team amidst the potential overwhelm of volatility? 
Through learning to be adaptable.
Let's take a look at the eight things you can do to improve adaptability in leadership. 

1. Adapt your Leadership Style for the environment

When circumstances change, it's time to change how you lead.
Frequently, I find leaders resort to leading in the same way, not fully appreciating that changing their approach doesn't make them less authentic.
The truth is that leadership is a constantly evolving concept. And there are many ways to lead. Being able to consciously change your approach to fit the circumstances makes you more effective.
After all, parents learn pretty quickly that they can't use the same parenting style for each child. You have to change your leadership style for each individual in your team, based on their response.
Examples of leadership styles include delegative, coaching, bureaucratic, transformational, strategic, transactional and consensual. It might be that a recent change requires, introducing a more regular coaching style to help support employees.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership. Leaders must possess a diverse blend of styles. To find the right style to use in certain contexts requires knowing the different leadership styles and which ones best suit your own experiences, beliefs and habits. This means choosing leadership styles that are more in alignment with how you naturally influence and interact with others. 

2. Reset your Mindset

Having a positive mindset towards uncertainty is crucial.

Pay attention to the stories you tell yourself about your experiences. It's easy to get caught up in negative comparisons, dismissive attitudes, or self-criticism. Instead, shift your focus to curiosity, fascination, and a willingness to learn.

This means taking a proactive stance  - anticipating that challenges will occur. It means being okay with whatever you had planned initially, knowing it will most likely evolve as you move forward. This isn't a sign of failure, rather it's an iteration process that makes the final product better than your initial assumptions.

Leaders can often get so frustrated that an unforeseen obstacle blocked their path. But if you've been on this planet for more than a couple of decades, you soon learn that obstacles are a fact of life. It's a false belief that you do something once and it works instantly. Falling into a spiral of self-doubt and believing that we aren't enough are common reactions that we can learn to avoid (or at least neutralise).

What successful leaders do is that they expect challenges and pivot. They have learnt to see obstacles, not as signs that they aren't doing the right things, but as opportunities to learn and create an even better outcome.

Rather than get defensive or angry, they ask curious questions. They see obstacles as a normal part of doing anything new and ask lots of questions to uncover the best way forward.

It's what I call inspired optimism. It's where leaders aren't afraid of exploring what's going wrong. But instead of ignoring uncomfortable issues or fixating on worst-case scenarios they believe that together as a team they have the talents, capabilities and resources to figure it all out.

3.  Continual Learning

Embracing new learning opportunities nurtures your confidence in navigating evolving circumstances with adaptability.

This is a time to look for ways to keep learning, adapting and contributing. It's not about having the most advanced skills, but embracing your experiences, beliefs and combining that with new skills. It's the sum total of all the ways you can enable those around you to sustain and empower their contribution.

Studies have shown that versatile leaders often have a wide range of career experiences and professional backgrounds compared to their peers. Additionally, they exhibit a keen ability to quickly grasp new concepts and integrate them into their leadership repertoire.

It's not necessarily about attending courses and getting new certifications. It could also be giving yourself a new mental or physical challenge such as learning a new instrument, a new work-related project, a new sport, writing or creating art.

A study of 260 CEOs and executives found that of those who had recently undertaken a new pursuit, more than half the respondents considered the impact on their work life to be positive, and 83% said that the new activity had improved their well-being. While 52% reported to being more productive in their job.


4. Get Feedback

According to a study in Sloan Management Review, leaders who actively sort and integrate feedback have a 60% increase in their ability to change and a 45% improvement in interpersonal relationships with their teams.

As business needs shift, leaders must constantly adapt and readjust their strategies. This requires continual recalibration and the best way to do that is to ask and give feedback.

Learning how to ask for feedback about your leadership and act on it - sends a powerful message to your team that personal development and versatility are important.

Asking for feedback is the only way to gather real information about how your words and actions affect others. Rather than relying on one source, it's ideal to take input from multiple sources and then figure the best way to go forward. This includes asking trusted advisors about your leadership, your team dynamics and organisational needs.

The better at this we become, the more likely we improve our confidence in knowing we can adapt and figure things out when things change.

5. Try New Experiences

An important strategy for being more adaptable is broadening your horizons and becoming a more well-rounded person.

In a Harvard Business Review article, they found that versatile leaders intentionally stretch themselves and experiment with trying new things. On the other hand, less versatile leader tend to have a narrow view of themselves and avoid opposing perspectives or behaviours.

Increasing your versatility requires stepping out of your comfort zone. This could be doing activities that scare you (for me, that's parachuting - and no, I haven't tried it yet!), tasting new foods or it could be hanging out with people different to you. This requires having an open and curious mind, to learn about others and understand their way of thinking. 

You can start small. Another great technique is to drive home from work a different way each day. It can be so easy to get stuck in a groove.


6. Balance Opposing Concepts

One of the issues that leaders commonly grapple with is how to manage the tension between two competing ideas and seamlessly integrate them together. It is a skill that is both rare and extremely powerful.
Paradoxical demands abound in workplaces. They include short term v. long term thinking, doing more with less and being future focused while managing the day to day. It also means being able to deal with competing priorities.
In the book, Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath, they suggest that rather than defaulting to either/or, we need to be thinking about AND, not OR. We need to ask ourselves: How can I combine this AND that? Who do I know who has managed to solve this?
Another way is to work out what's in the middle of two extreme ideas. This could be balancing them out or combining them together.
At a more conscious level, it requires exploring the intersections between two ideas and creating another alternative. Once you consider a third option, it can magically open things up. It also up-levels your leadership.
Let's use a common either/or thinking example that comes up when leaders consider the question "Is trust earned or given?" Now, if you are like most people I'm sure you can give me a lengthy explanation as to which side you believe and which is right.
The truth is the answer is neither. Trust is shared. It's an exchange between two or more people. Trust begets trust. 

7. Personal Accountability

When we think of accountability, we typically think of holding others accountable. But adaptable leaders are more focused on holding themselves accountable.
To be truly accountable requires understanding that we are in charge of our results. No-one else. It requires emotional maturity and the true understanding that the buck stops with us.
After all, we are more likely to commit to completing a task or project when we are accountable.
Part of being accountable requires being willing to go on a journey of inner exploration. It means being willing to admit we have done something wrong (but not beat ourselves up about it), own the problem and then find a way to solve it
Sounds easy, but when we are confronted with a problem, many of us resort to blaming, defending, criticising others, deflecting or avoidance.
The more accountable we are to doing a great job, the more likely we will be to look at things differently.

8. Conversations for Adaptability

Of course, improving your leadership adaptability means being able to encourage adaptable thinking among your team.
With work pressures, it is easy to get stuck in reactive mode. People struggle to context switch. Giving people the space to intentionally focus on executing goals can help reduce frustration.
David Weekly, the head of Capital One Lab, asks his engineers two questions to get them unstuck:
  • Are your actions helping you accomplish your goals?  
  • How can you turn frustration into action?  

Answering these questions isn't easy. They are designed to ignite innovative thinking and encourage deep reflection. Over time, it helps build an adaptive mindset that helps individuals explore new approaches. 

Adaptability in Leadership

Being able to lead yourself, and your people, during times of ambiguity is a highly prized skill. Not only does it make you in demand in the workplace, but it also helps you keep your sanity.
It's not easy. Nor is it easy to do it alone. That's why I've created The Achievement Zone program. It's a community of learning and resources for high performing leaders who want to increase their impact. Join now and get access to special bonuses and pricing. Limited time.
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