Discovery Leadership Masterclass Series with Frank Adu Anim: Adaptability intelligence (1)


… reneging on leadership adaptability, the bane for corporate ineptitude

The predominant nature of the business environment now is characterised by rapid changes and complexities of new challenges, new circumstances and new uncertainties. Business leaders, however, ought to intentionally cultivate the behaviour and drive conversations that would force their organisations and teams to consider the long-term consequences to the everyday decisions and actions taken to remain adaptive and sustainable to the changing trends and phenomenon.

Notably, a shift in work priorities to meet a business need causes different expectations. With this, organisations map up strategies in response to unexpected changes to maintain, improve and or monitor objectives set. For instance, the increased use of Zoom, Microsoft Teams and online training as in the case of in-person training are new trends that require a changed response. Work processes that increase efficiency and improve or maintain excellent customer service mean a changed way of operating. Adaptability holds the key to equipping the workforce with skills to boost well-being and enrich relationships, turning the primary drivers of the great attrition into primary opportunities.

That said, being adaptable requires identifying mindsets and behaviours that need to change. Obviously, change is inevitable in all circumstances; as such, organisations that face constant change and complexity, including new cultures, new jobs, new markets and new competition to thrive require the ability to adapt to these changes and adjust to the new conditions. That notwithstanding, to be adaptable is to develop adaptive and survival intelligence at both personal and organisational levels of leadership. As the saying goes, it is not the strongest species that survive nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to adaptability and change.

That, in essence, sparks the growing concern for organisations emphasising the need to prioritise change for adaptable business approaches to ensure the attainment of objectives, and to forestall and consolidate sustainable future of the business. With this underpinning consideration, it is desirous to place in context the ability to develop effective communication channels and change management structures with greater awareness to help employees respond to the constant changing nature of the business environment and for that matter the organisations.

Much more importantly, research reveals that creating opportunities for change remains an organisation’s character for adaptive intelligence and such created opportunities result in increased sustainability. Therefore, it is suggestive that leaders, individuals, teams and organisations ought to always respond to the dynamic and changing situations with interest and understanding that adaptation provides the recipe for organisational effectiveness and performance. This knowledge-based creativity and intelligence remain the bane for the core capability improvement for business success and sustainability.

As emphasised earlier, change is inevitable in any setting and there may be times when one may feel that it’s difficult for one or team members to cope with the changing expectations they may be experiencing. From an individual perspective, being adaptable is essential for leadership and the team because adaptability expands an individual’s capacity to handle change, no matter how serious it might be; and it serves as an impetus for intentional building of the capacity to be ‘future-fit’ for all unanticipated changes. Dean Becker, an expert in resiliency, mentioned that our success in life is built on our ability to adapt and that adaptable people are resilient people.

Here, adaptive lifestyle or leadership lays emphasis on the need and practice of having multiple plans for reaching goals rather than getting stuck on one solution to solve a problem without any contingency measures. Rightly so, leaders who are confronted with challenges are required to be decisive in their decision-making and implementation agenda for changes. This is because failure to arrive at a decision as fast as possible can cause the organisation to sink in fast. Having said that, adaptable leaders ought to understand that while an end goal and a vision are necessary, the path that takes them there needs to be flexible and adaptable.

Nonetheless, threats of unanticipated changes will always arise to sink an organisation, and damage property and lives. One way an organisation can survive this threat is by responding quickly when they arise; adaptive leadership is what every organisation needs if they are to survive the threats and the troubling times. The question, however, is: how far into the future is the organisation and team thinking? What are being measured and why? How might these impact leadership’s ability to think adaptability? Let’s talk adaptive intelligence.

The chameleon and the principle of adaptability

The chameleon’s weird traits enable it change its colour in order to blend in with its given surroundings and change its colour according to its mood. The creature is capable of viewing through each eye, such that while he has one eye focused on his prey, he has another scouting for any predators while moving at his own slow pace. A chameleon never turns its head away from the direction that it takes. Instead, it turns its bulging and swivelling eyes. The chameleon is able to scan the surroundings of its environment while keeping its direction locked.

Another interesting nature of the chameleon is that when it reaches a place, it takes the colour of that place. This nature of the chameleon defines the principle of tolerance and acceptance of the unknown. When a chameleon raises two legs, it balances them in the air, in order to make sure that the remaining two legs are still stably grounded, which looks like a dance of hesitation. The lesson here is that the chameleon inspires us to secure our basic self by sustaining activities that provide for our elemental needs so we do not lose ourselves along the way.

Understanding adaptability?
As a leader, how might your structure be inhibiting the development of adaptive intelligence within your organisation? Obviously, when we accept that nothing stays the same forever, it gives us room to look for new opportunities to grow and remain adaptable to changes. Accordingly, change is a natural part of life; therefore, adaptability is a crucial skill to develop. Understanding adaptability is a person’s ability to adjust to changes in their environment.

Particularly, adaptability may include how one is able to respond quickly to changes, respond quickly to changing ideas, responsibilities, expectations, trends, strategies and other processes. Notably, a person’s ability to remain adaptable are demonstrated in their interpersonal, communication, creative thinking and problem-solving skills. Being adaptable can be important when working on projects, developing strategies and implementing different approaches to meeting goals. By showing adaptability skills, one reveals how motivated he is to try new things and learn new skills.

Why adaptability is important in helping leaders manage change

In this modern era, adaptability has become the watchword of doing business. What this means is that as an employee, you must be willing to adapt as well. Adaptability opens up the mind to new ideas, makes one question the status quo, and gives one the willingness to go against convention. Adaptable people aren’t scared of change, as they will first make necessary plans to handle it.

There are lots of benefits we can gain by being flexible and adaptable. Though adaptability may not be an inherent ability in us, it is something anybody can learn with time. Adjusting our expectations will go a long way in helping flow with the winds of change by making us more adaptable. Furthermore, you can’t afford to be missing adaptability if you want to do well as a leader. Adaptable leaders earn the respect of their colleagues and motivate those they lead to embrace change, making business operation as smooth as possible.

Moreover, adaptability operates and drives results. Being adaptable boosts well-being, turns adversity into a learning opportunity and helps create an environment where relationships can thrive. Adaptability can improve well-being and reduce burnout, primarily through the continuous adoption of adaptable mindsets and healthy habits under pressure. It fuels the consistent self-care necessary to deal with changing demands and cope with adversity.

Moreover, adaptability improves the ability to be vulnerable and empathetic with others, increasing the capacity to display compassionate leadership and turn difficult interpersonal situations into relationship-building opportunities. It helps us connect with others with greater authenticity, normalising the importance of quality relationships at work and providing the skill set to strengthen them.

Enemies of adaptability

Typically, organisations that have top-down, control-based hierarchical structures oftentimes discourage individual initiative and reduce autonomy. As observed in today’s world, those closest to the frontline are going to be better placed to understand the increasing demands of an informed customer and the need to be able to respond to those demands. The obvious practice is that the traditional hierarchical management structure found in most organisations makes it almost impossible to respond to the demands of customers from the frontline. Following hierarchical procedures is a serious blockage to being adaptable in organisations.

Rigid structures

In many organisations where there are rigid unit boundaries, functional silos and political connections, there is a hampering of the rapid realignment of skills and assets. These rigid organisational structures are often evidenced by functional silos that operate independently; each a with small span of control, and with very little movement of talent around the organisation.

Inflexible business practices

Again, it is evidenced that highly optimised business systems are great for efficiency, but deadly for adaptability. Assets, skills and processes become more specialised and change becomes more incremental. These inflexible processes create the tendency toward overregulation, which in turn creates a status of helplessness in workers who feel less in control, hitherto increasing their inability to learn.

Skills deficit

When employees lack the skills, training and coaching they need, it is believed that the lack of skills will be a barrier to the employees and the organisation’s learning and development, and for that matter, adaptability to change. Therefore, employees ought to receive constant training to build their skills and capacities to turn uncertainties into business opportunities and advantage.


It is suggestive to mention that fear of failure is one of the root causes of organisations’ inability to adapt. Fear blocks adaptability. Many often ask: “What if I fail? What will I lose? What will I have to let go of? What will others say or think? Fear can lead to real paralysis that inhibits or blocks adaptability. When fear takes the centre-stage within the organisation, there is a real block to developing adaptive intelligence among employees and leaders. By identifying this fear and facing it, one will begin to overcome it and embrace adaptability.


Adaptability can be hampered when the responsibility for making big decisions is concentrated at the top, where a handful of executives favouring the status quo deliberately thwart all change efforts. Accordingly, adaptability is seen halted by senior management holding too tightly onto the reins and not delegating decision-making authority. As has been the norm, the tighter the grip, the more opportunities slip through. However, to make organisations more adaptable, we must break the hierarchy, open up the power base and allow more influence across the organisation.

Developing organisational capacity for adaptability

Adapting to change requires flexible leadership, and as Hellen Keller intimated, “a bend in the road is not the end of the road unless one fails to make the turn”. As leadership embarks on promulgating change and adapt, it ought to ensure that the organisation they lead is open and ready to embrace the need to constantly adapt. Arguably, there are those within an organisation who, for a variety of reasons, fight hard to preserve the status quo, resist change and ensure that their own chiefdom within the organisation remains untouched by the change. Their efforts to safeguard this can be very subtle, and they often appear willing to ‘go along with the change initiatives’ but in reality, are resisting the change that the organisation is attempting to introduce.

That notwithstanding, organisational adaptability would always serve as the ultimate reinforce for all levels of the organisations’ breakthroughs and sustainability because it provides an overarching sense of identity and a distinctive culture for employees to thrive. Besides, it creates a cultural core that helps individuals thrive in ambiguity and uncertainty, giving them a sense of autonomy, belonging and competence. It must be emphasised as well that an adaptability-building programme reflects a people-first message and empowers employees to improve their well-being and relationships at work. Therefore, building adaptability should begin with leaders dealing with change despite the tendency to default to fear or familiar solutions.

Additionally, personalising a skill-building programme to reflect employee developmental areas and broader skill gaps is recommended to boost employee effectiveness. Outside of capability-building, other aspects – such as benchmarking compensation, reevaluating the operating model, and deploying formal employee-listening strategies – should happen simultaneously to reinforce new behaviours to consolidate the change.

In conclusion, let me emphasise that a paucity of organisation without a shared purpose may have trouble aligning on a natural path for adaptation. Therefore, leaders or managers need to demonstrate adaptability by being resilient and calm under pressure, while working well with diverse groups of people across all levels of the organisation under uncertain conditions of change.

Frank is the CEO and Strategic Partner of AQUABEV Investment and Discovery Consulting Group, and Executive Director and the Lead Coach in Leadership Development and best Business Management practices for Discovery Leadership Masterclass.

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