Whether we like it or not, both at work and in our personal lives we will be faced with new situations, challenges, and change. Some of us move to a new job, a new role in the same company, a new state, a new country, a new family, a new house, and so on. Most of us are faced with changing environments including literal ones like climate change to figurative ones like technological environments (Python when it started and Julia now, 3D Printing, ChatGPT, you name it). Whether we choose a change or the change was beyond our control, we may have to make adjustments. As they say, ironically, “the only constant in life is change”, attributed to Heraclitus (but that may change too!). Can or should we handle change? In this article we’ll touch upon the ability-to-adapt, conveniently named adaptability.
Adaptability is considered an important leadership skill. But much like emotional and cultural intelligence, adaptability as a leadership skill has not received the attention it deserves. There are numerous leaders that have adapted to things like new technology, market trends, fast-paced and evolving tech industry, and the need for continuous improvement. Jeff Bezos, Sheryl Sandberg, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg are examples of popular leaders that have embraced adaptability. But it is not necessary to be in the C-suite (or C-level with a title CEO or COO) to have any leadership skill, leave alone adaptability. I believe it is important for all of us to motivate and encourage our teams to adapt to changing environments.
While the ability to effectively lead change and navigate through ambiguity and uncertainty is an important leadership skill, there are numerous successful leaders that have not been highly adaptable. Those leaders have vision, determination, and expertise, even if adaptability is not their strong suite. When I asked my new collaborator ChatGPT, it gave these examples:
Elon Musk is known for his strong vision and relentless pursuit of his goals, but he can also be seen as rigid and resistant to change.
Jack Ma is known for his unwavering commitment to his vision and his relentless pursuit of success but he is not known for being highly adaptable.
Warren Buffett is known for his long-term investment strategy and his focus on stable, well-established companies. He has not shown a high degree of adaptability in his investing style.
After saying the above, ChatGPT was quick to add (and I agree with it):
However, it’s worth noting that adaptability is still an important trait in leadership, as it helps leaders stay relevant and respond effectively to changing circumstances.
The focus of this article is to take a first step in developing the leadership skill of adaptability. Before we motivate and encourage our teams to adapt to changing environments, it may be useful (and makes us sound less like a hypocrite) to first adapt ourselves! It is worthwhile recognizing that changes could mean having to adapt in multiple dimensions. For example, if we take up a new job in a far away state, we would not only need to adapt at the work place with the technology they use and the new company culture, but also at home (new home, new school district, new friends, new weather conditions, etc.). Here are some thoughts on personal adaptation:
What to adapt?
There are some things you must adapt to in a new place, viz. if you are used to wearing shorts and t-shirt to work, and you go to frigid place, it would be smart to dress for the cold. Also, there may be things at the workplace that everyone uses (software in companies tend to differ, and we may have no choice but to adapt). However, there are things that you may feel strongly about that are your core values. You may not want to adapt to things that go against your core values. For example, some people may feel they do not want to lost their cultural and ethnic identities, and hence not adapt to a new one; while others may feel the need to fit in. Further, there may be things that do not go against your core values and would give you peace of mind if you adapted, those would be good to adapt.
When to adopt?
Things where you need to make a decision of whether or not to adopt may show up over time (not all at once), and you have some time to make that choice. Oftentimes there is a lot of uncertainty of whether a technology trend would catch on or not. Examples: (a) do you want to drop Python and move on to Julia? (b) do you want to incorporate ChatGPT in teaching your courses or would another company develop a far more useful product? It is fruitful to explore first before adopting. Also, asking multiple people (not just one) is useful, and they are great questions to ask while interacting with others in an organization. While there is tremendous benefit to be early adopters, if what you are adopting is going to be a significant learning curve, it would not hurt to wait a little till when the time is ripe.
How to change?
If we are talking about a tool or skill, taking a course and practicing enough, and deliberately using it in situations is ideal even if there are easier way to do things. For example, if you can write a MATLAB code in 5 minutes but you are wanting to learn Python, then take the time to learn Python. Instead of a tool or skill, if we need to develop a new habit, then trying for 3–4 weeks by keeping a log about what worked would be useful. For example, while trying to lose weight, it helps to check our weight daily and record what we ate and when we exercised. It is also important to not be too hard on ourselves as it takes time to get into a habit. Also, it is extremely important to understand the purpose for our habit. Usually seeking external validation is not ideal, so something internal is best.
In summary, it is a wonderful thing to be able to adapt, change, learn, and grow. For that, it would be ideal to know one’s core values, belief systems, and purpose, at least roughly such as what are energizing and what are deflating. Before signing off, there are a few unconnected things: (1) I must confess that I hate change and thrive on having a routine doing the same thing over and over; (2) I also want to add that things like climate change is not about adapting to, we need to find ways to slow it down or stop it as adaptation may not be a real option; (3) Everybody adapts to new things differently, in particular what, when, and how to adapt is a personal and individualized journey; (4) Picture on the top is from the Galapagos Islands where there have been numerous fascinating adaptations, click here.
Have fun and become adept to adopt and adapt.