How To Master Adaptable Leadership – A Powerful Meta-Skill

By Kristen Kenton, President, Kenton Talent Management

Most people are painfully aware that our business climate is evolving at an extraordinary pace. The recent pandemic reminded us that the only constant is change.  Adaptable leadership is now paramount to sustainable business viability. Therefore, the future’s most viable businesses are building “adaptive cultures” today. 

Adaptable Culture

What do we mean by adaptive cultures? John Kotter, an influential scholar in the field of organizational culture, wrote adaptive cultures.

“help organizations anticipate and adapt to environmental change and maintain superior performance over long periods of time”.

Adaptive Cultures

In adaptive cultures, leaders are focused on both internal and external constituency needs. This means they can quickly sense when the competitive landscape is changing. Companies 

with adaptive cultures value leaders that can create strategies to respond nimbly to various changes.

Most importantly, they know how to leverage resources to implement new strategies “even if changes must be made in culturally engrained behaviors”.

Implement New Strategies

A cornerstone to implementing new strategies is to develop and enhance a recruiting/ talent roadmap and hiring playbook. There are a few lessons I and my team have learned that are shared below.   

The adaptive leadership model was originally introduced by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky. Heifetz defines it as

“the act of mobilizing a group of individuals to handle tough challenges and emerge triumphant in the end”.

Adaptive Leadership Model

The Corporate Finance Institute’s article on adaptive leadership breaks the model into four main components. I took the liberty of enhancing some of their associated definitions below:

  • Emotional Intelligence: An adaptable leader can recognize, self-regulate and express their feelings, as well as identify and empathize with the feelings of others. With this awareness, an adaptive leader can build relationships with diverse stakeholders through trust, credibility, and empathy.
  • Organizational Justice: I prefer to call this organizational “equity”. Adaptable leaders are enterprise thinkers that implement policies in the company’s best interest. They prioritize company and team above their agenda. They know how to introduce change in a manner that people embrace. Adaptive leaders are not only willing to seek out other people’s views, ideas, and opinions – they do it proactively and passionately.
  • Development: Adaptive leaders are continuous learners. They have a curiosity that fuels innovation and creative problem-solving. They are can shift gears, accept when a strategy isn’t working, and embrace new techniques and possibilities that enable personal and professional development.
  • Character: Adaptive leaders have a deep sense of character, and they value transparency and creativity. They believe organizational success trumps the desire to be right. They earn respect and create followership because they honor their commitments and “practice what they preach”.

Creating an Adaptive Culture

Creating an adaptive culture starts with building and/or buying adaptable leadership talent and then fostering an environment that embraces and celebrates those leaders. Adaptable leaders possess all four of the components outlined above.

Hiring and developing adaptable leaders require many of us to reimagine the way we view and manage talent. It can feel uncomfortable, and even a bit risky. Change sets the stage for resistance and discomfort because it challenges our current and past decisions, philosophies, and beliefs.  

For some, change implies that our current strategies and tactics are ineffective or wrong.

A fundamental component of creating an adaptive culture starts with a focus on “who” versus “what”.  Most companies hire, develop, promote, and retain talent for “what”.  “What” is comprised of hard skills – they are teachable, quantifiable qualifications.

What-based talent decisions trick us into believing we are increasing our probability of success and mitigating risk. Common “what” categories include things like previous industry experience, specific systems knowledge, applicable certifications, education and training, physical/ geographical restrictions, etc.

“Who” represents intangibles and “soft skills” such as values, personal attributes, and innate strengths. Unfortunately, “who” can be more challenging to assess and verify.

I certainly don’t advise my clients to throw “what” out the window when making critical talent decisions. However, “what” is secondary to “who”. Building a values-based behavioral interview model is essential to hiring for “who”.

Is your organization struggling with the best strategy of how to bring “who” into your hiring process? Are you unclear on how to develop a values-based behavioral interview process?

Looking for more information on Leadership? Check out this article: Successful Growth: Adaptive Leadership.

We can help. Email to learn more or visit Kenton Talent Management.

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