Leaders must adapt to be adept

It is a fundamental part of our understanding of nature that organisms have to adapt to their environment to survive.

You only need to think about the harsh conditions of the UAE’s own great outdoors to see how nature has adapted to flourish in a desert environment that would be a grim challenge for most.

The ability to adapt is key to such survival.

Although a world away from the desert, there is a similar truth in the academic and corporate understanding of different approaches to leadership.

The vast majority of accepted leadership models and styles are no longer fully fit for survival in the environment they now exist in.

The business setting we face today — incredibly rapid technological change, the globalised nature of almost every business, increasingly multicultural and dispersed workforces, you name it really — are distinctly different factors from those of even a decade ago.

And this really isn’t hyperbole – of course, change has always happened, but the nature and the pace of change today is clearly something else.

The result of this is that the environment that leaders operate in has changed too, and the traditional leadership styles they looked to for direction have failed to keep pace. You can think of these accepted styles as being essentially different and relatively rigid versions of “what a leader ought to do”.

A changed working environment will therefore reduce their effectiveness in providing a consistently useful course of action.

This does not mean that we should consign these ideas to history — indeed, it would be slightly amiss for a person who works in leadership-development to suggest such a thing.

There are still situations where, for example, a pacesetting style of leadership will prompt higher standards and a quicker pace of output, at least over the short term.

Similarly, a leader will still have opportunities to apply a coaching, one-on-one approach to developing individuals in their team, in the process helping to boost performance and increase focus on professional development.

What it does mean, though, is that leaders today cannot simply get behind one style of leadership that particularly appeals to them and then continually use this approach throughout their leadership career.

They can no longer back a single style they think is “best”, because the challenging and complex situations they face mean that the idea of one theory being better than another doesn’t hold true.

Leaders now need to demonstrate adaptive leadership. Instead of attempting to squeeze one style into every situation, they instead must be capable of understanding and applying a vast range of different leadership styles, appropriate to the particular situation presented to them.

The key to success in this is, of course, to know which style to use in a given moment. Partly this comes from experience, from understanding the people they are leading, and from the development of their knowledge of leadership as a concept.

It also involves a leader being able to shrewdly look at a situation, understand what is going on, and then to appropriately alter their behaviour as a result.

The advantage of this adaptive style is that it does not negate a leader having the technical competency to get things done.

But it does mean that they also are more ready and able to alter their ingrained habits, and shift their organisational values, to respond much quicker and more effectively to the ebbs and flows of the workplace environment.

This provides a far stronger starting point for the whole organisation to respond to change.

Rather than waiting for a leader to provide a definitive answer, an adaptive leader can manage the organisational conditions so that multiple stakeholders are involved and empowered to create the solution themselves.

If change is a constant, an approach that struggles for leadership survival is not enough.

Adaptive leadership can be seen as a natural and necessary response to these challenging conditions, and promises to help leaders not only survive, but flourish.

Ahmad Badr is chief executive of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group.


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