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Flexibility and Adaptability – Two Leader Success Skills

(Originally published by

THE INTELLIGENCE and logistics planners worked overtime for several weeks preparing their briefing. The commanding general, charged with deploying a task force for a military campaign on the Balkan Peninsula in southeastern Europe, had posed the question, “What will the battlefield look like and what do I need to prepare for the mission?”

Combing through a myriad of information sources, maps, reports and studies, the intelligence team surveyed the external environment noting enemy strengths and weaknesses, deducing their strategic objectives, parsing their current tactics. They developed a strategy designed to neutralize enemy strengths and capitalize on or destroy their weaknesses. The logistics team took at look at the internal environment and came up with the resources and equipment it was going to take to ensure mission success.

Confident in their analysis and competent in their planning, the team stood up in front of a packed room and laid out a campaign strategy that was elegant and effective in answering the general’s question. Wrapping up his presentation, the team leader paused for questions. The general, who had been silent during the presentation, said, “Great job getting us through Day One. What does Day Two look like?”


What the general realized, and the briefing team did not, was that once a plan is put into action, the whole situation changes and becomes very fluid. What worked on Day One may not work on Day Two. The real key to success, to paraphrase an old maxim attributed to Italian General Giulio Douhet, is flexibility or adaptability.

The same advice holds true in business and organizational leadership. What worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. Leaders have to be aware of the fluidity of the situation and be prepared to adapt to meet changing conditions. A 2008 study conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, entitled Growing Global Executive Talent, showed that the top three leadership qualities that will be important over the years ahead include: the ability to motivate staff (35 percent); the ability to work well across cultures (34 percent); and the ability to facilitate change (32 percent). A more recent 2016 study of 15,000 leaders across 300 organizations completed for TD Magazine listed two of the top four most essential leadership skills as Operational Decision Making and Leading Change. As it is in military situations, adaptability is not just a “nice to have” competency; it is crucial. It is a competitive advantage for you as a leader and for your organization.

John Maxwell, author of more than 75 books on leadership, says, “Business strategies, like fashion lines, have a short shelf life. Yesterday’s innovations are tomorrow’s relics.” For this reason, leaders must not only be adaptable themselves, they must create and nurture agile, adaptive organizations that easily can switch directions to neutralize their competitors and meet the ever-evolving needs of customers. They must operate as effectively on Day Two as they did on Day One.

So, are you agile and adaptable? What do you need to do to keep up with the pace of change, with the increasing complexity of today’s workplace? Actor and martial artist Bruce Lee, author of Tao of Jeet Kune Do said,

Set patterns, incapable of adaptability, of pliability, only offer a better cage. Truth is outside of all patterns.
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