Guest Post by Philip Murphy
H.G. Wells once wrote: “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”
The Victorian-era writer may have been talking about the future of humanity, but those who have navigated the professional world long enough to reach a position of leadership may also find some truth in what Wells said.
A multitude of attributes marks a good leader. They can motivate, facilitate change and work with the people around them to achieve a desired outcome. They are decisive, possess solid people skills and are self-aware, but understand the balance that needs to be struck in each of these areas.
Why Focus on Adaptability?
The modern labor market forces leaders to adapt to circumstances, people and technology on a daily basis. It doesn’t matter if they’re the head of the FBI, the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a school principal, the ability to adapt is paramount.
In an age of rapid change, how well a leader embraces shifts in the professional landscape and uses them to enhance the organization’s trajectory can be a vital measure of effectiveness. Effective and respected leaders see change not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity for growth or a window into possibilities.
While some see change as destabilizing, leaders of some of the biggest institutions and agencies in the world understand that change is inevitable. Constant change is not a good thing. But if people are to realize new skills and make great leaps forward both personally and professionally, stepping out of a comfort zone once in a while and accepting change is necessary, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.
Leaders in high-stress roles such as police chiefs, U.S. Marshals, FBI agents and other high-level law enforcement jobs must be able to adapt to some of the most rapidly changing situations imaginable and use adaptability to mitigate stress.
Leadership Adaptability in a High Stress Situation
Former Director of the FBI Robert Mueller accepted his place at the helm of the nation’s most elite crime fighting organization on September 4, 2001. His tenure had hardly begun when the September 11 terror attacks were carried out, causing the entire organization’s mission to shift from a traditional crime-fighting unit to an anti-terror and cyber security intelligence agency.
“We had to address information technology in the ways we had not before and give the agents the tools they need to do their job more efficiently and more expeditiously,” Mueller once said. “The FBI has never faced a more complex threat environment than it does today, whether one considers terrorism, espionage, cyber-attacks or traditional crimes.”
In adapting to a new reality, Mueller forced an agency steeped in tradition and clad in bureaucratic inertia to shift from its nearly century-old concentration on criminals to the new priority of counter-terrorism.
Mueller doubled the agents focusing on national security and the number of analysts tripled, as did linguists. The bureau focused on trying to ferret out potential terrorists before they can carry out any actions. Mueller also established new units inside the bureau such as the Terrorism Financing Operation Section and the 24/7 Counter Terrorism Watch.
By the time Mueller left the bureau in 2013, he had become the longest-serving director of the FBI since J. Edgar Hoover. He is credited with saving the bureau amid calls for the creation of a new domestic anti-terrorism intelligence agency. He’s widely considered by law enforcement officials and the general public to be one of the greatest directors in the bureau’s history. His ability to adapt to the changes in circumstance so early in his tenure was at the root of his success.
How to Become More Adaptable
So how does one do it?
Learning an adaptable mindset does not come naturally to everyone, but there are methods to increase adaptability that any leader can use and be effective.
- Think outside the box– Once in a while, you have to shake things up. If you’re not innovating at all and simply following standard operating procedure, eventually those procedures can become outdated and ineffective.
- Be an early adopter– Being among the first to embrace change can result in the discovery of a helpful technology, system, tool, process or software that can be a game changer for your organization. It can also help make the process of change itself less jarring.
- Don’t just say no– Being open minded and positive about initiatives will help facilitate change.
- Plan for the time of the year– One fiscal quarter may not be as busy as the previous one. There are often cycles of activity regardless of the industry. Planning ahead to take advantage of downtime and pursue long-term objectives improves adaptability.
- It all begins in the morning– Adhering to a morning routine often causes us to create routines and patterns through the rest of our day. Sometimes, it’s important to shake things up in the morning, just to keep that mindset going for the rest of the day.
Business professionals can use these ideas to embrace change and meet the challenges that go with it head on.
Adaptability has to extend beyond leaders, though. Leaders should focus on building adaptable teams around them if they want to succeed in an unpredictable environment. A spirit of inclusion allows leaders to use the insight of the team to identify problems within the organization while drawing on the different skills of team members to find the best solutions.