Are You an Adaptive Leader?


I think every person reading this title will pause and say, “Maybe?”

When Roselinde Torres, senior partner and managing director at The Boston Consulting Group, first asked the packed audience at Olson’s Third Annual NXMW Marketer Summit this question, most people stopped and questioned if they were—the consideration was palpable in the room. But answering that question requires a follow-up question: What does being an adaptive leader mean in the 21st century?

Torres led the crowd through some of the fundamental shifts that have changed organizations and their leadership: greater uncertainty and ambiguity, increasing importance of multiple stakeholders, faster speed of information and innovation, changing workforce demographics, intensified global and local competition, and co-existence of low and high growth rate markets.

While there are timeless leadership qualities such as integrity, intelligence and vision, Torres introduced four traits of successful leaders who captain their organizations through the ambiguous, uncertain world:

o  Navigate. The ability to navigate is about personal curiosity. As a leader, are you looking to anticipate the next disruptive change to your business? Have you embraced global uncertainty and charted a clear course? Torres pointed out that in order to navigate uncertainty, you have to keep yourself intellectually curious and be able to see trends. But this is more than just identifying trends, it means understanding which trends are noise, which trends to watch, and which trends to act on.

o  Empathy. How can you achieve influence and authority through your network? Do you have the right rapport and degree of empathy that encourages your connections to follow you? Torres pointed out that leadership in today’s world is about distributed organization networks rather than contained hierarchies. Leadership is less about title or position and more about how you can inspire your colleagues and other influencers to drive action.

o Self-correct. The ability to self-correct comes with having the courage to change. Do you have the courage to let go of the things that made you successful once they are no longer relevant? Self-correcting has to do with understanding that a practice or behavior that worked well in the past may not be as effective today. Torres shared her point of view succinctly in a 2014 press release, “Organizations now need executives and leaders who question the status quo and revisit their own personal and long-held assumptions about leadership, business and success.”

o  Win and Win. The ability to collaborate and influence is the power behind “win-win.” Torres pointed out there is now a broader range of stakeholders, including those outside of your company—government entities, NGOs, labor unions, community organizations, as well as bloggers and other digital influencers—who will decide to disseminate information about your organization. Torres’ view is simple: the best companies, and the best leaders, are going to establish value propositions that are transparently applicable to that entire ecosystem.

Sitting in the audience, I began to think that the common thread in all of these leadership qualities is the ability to adapt. So a fifth trait that leaders in today’s ever-changing environment need to add to Torres’ list encompasses everything: adaptability.

Adaptability is the middle name for most marketers. From my own perspective, the landscape I saw when I started in the early 2000s seems like a distant memory. The conversations back then were not about return on investment or social media amplification. Websites and Internet marketing were still new for most marketing departments. If you’ve lasted this long in marketing, you’ve had to be adaptable.

Adaptable means you are fluent in “change”. Change your approach. Manage through influence to drive success. Build cooperative behaviors inside your organizations. That might all sound mundane, but frankly, there are no superheroes in organizations anymore. At least not successful ones. What do exist at the heart of a successful organization are the quiet, consistent leaders who seek to create change through building relationships and chipping away at the status quo.

Which is the trait you feel most strongly about? Is there one you feel is missing from the list: integrity, intelligence, vision, navigate, empathy, self-correct, win-win and adaptability?

By Rachel DiCaro Metscher | Senior Director of Brand and Marketing Communications | ICF International