Subject to Change – Adaptability as a Leadership Trait

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Charles Darwin wrote: “It’s not the strongest of species that survive; nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the most adaptable to change.” In an increasingly dynamic, diverse and accelerating world, the need to adapt hasn’t diminished in importance; but rather, it has become more and more critical to our success and even to our survival.

As close kin to flexibility and agility, adaptability as a leadership trait speaks to the ability to transform based on changes in the business landscape. Today, these can include changes in market dynamics, advances in technology and shifts in customer behavior. Some businesses and brands are born from these currents. Others perish.

Adapt or Die

Whether leading businesses within consolidating markets or disruptive, high-growth categories, change is a constant—no matter how fast or slow. Change drives organizations to evolve, improve and stay relevant; and it underlies growth at every level and of all kinds. Rather than fearing or fighting the inevitability of change, purposeful adaptation can actually spur greater transformation. Our responses to those changes, in turn, may include reimagining our organization in terms of competencies, capabilities and culture, reshaping our entire approach and strategy.

Under the leadership of CEO Jim Hackett, Ford is undertaking a seismic redesign as the company transitions from an automotive manufacturer to a mobility company. Ford, like other automotive leaders, needs to adapt in the face of globalization, self-driving technology and changes in consumers’ approach to car ownership. Hackett’s focus is on making Ford more agile, quicker and more efficient—all of which will make Ford more competitive. Hackett, as with other business leaders, will need to balance staying true to his company’s vision and values while also staying open to new ways of working in a rapidly transforming industry.

Culture of Change

While many leaders cite the ability—and the rate at which—their organizations can adapt to change as being a critical competitive advantage, managing change is also considered the single greatest challenge for CEOs and their teams. Why is change so tough? For most of us, it embodies both the excitement of the new and the fear of the unknown. Leading change, therefore, requires recognizing both competing emotions that surround it and learning to navigate through them.

In an article titled “This is the Emotional Quality That the World’s Greatest’s Leaders all Share”, the editors of Fortune pose the question: “How do great leaders find such courage while most people don’t?” They outline a personality style called “hardiness”, which was identified among business executives by psychologist Suzanne C. Kobasa decades ago and validated many times among the broader population since then. Hardy leaders eschew the temptation to view the world as threatening and volatile but rather view change as normal, fascinating and an opportunity to shape the world’s events and institutions. In other words, change is a welcome chance to grow.

This hardiness is evident in the leadership of Tim Cook at Apple, as he oversees the repositioning of one of the world’s largest companies from a company focused on developing products to a platform that enables services. Most recently, the company announced the end of iTunes, which means they’ll have to lead millions of users through a re-platforming and the adoption of new behaviors.

Survival Instincts

Although change can be tough, it is the bedrock—and the beginning—of any type of innovation, evolution or transformation. Helping lead change can build confidence in your team and embolden them to achieve greater potential. Integrating teams, disciplines and processes across your organization is critical to your ability to adapt and to move quickly. By aligning your collective efforts, you lessen divisions and silos that can decrease communication, coordination and the sense of ownership across your team, making your organization leaner, meaner and more agile. The poet Mark Strand writes of the inevitably of change, saying that “the future is always beginning now.” The times, they are a changin’, and it’s critical that we change with them because tomorrow waits for no one.

About 50,000feet

50,000feet is an independent global brand consultancy and creative agency that develops integrated experiences for the world’s most respected brands, including BMW, Harley-Davidson, Knoll and Sony. From brand identity systems, marketing communications and advertising to all facets of interactive, 50,000feet uses strategy, design and technology to help brands connect more deeply with their customers. Learn more at

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