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Sue Mitchell's Adaptable Leadership

What is adaptable leadership and why do we need it?

Sue Mitchell Speaker
Sue Mitchell
24 August 22

Seven tips for achieving the leadership paradox to be both consistent and flexible so you can engage people and bring them with you on the journey through change and uncertainty.

First of all – why do we need adaptable leadership?  Well, it’s not news to anyone these days that our world is increasingly volatile and uncertain, with rapid changes happening constantly in almost every sphere you can think of. Political upheaval and wars.

Environmental volatility with climate change causing extreme events that destroy nature, our cities and farms, lives and more.  Add to that the digital age transformations that bring new possibilities but also a change in the way we work and the types of job that are available. On top of that the impact of Covid 19 and the global pandemic over the last couple of years adds to the uncertainty.  

Many global economies are struggling or volatile as these events trigger spiralling debt and costs for core resources like oil.   So much change and uncertainty causes stress and people look to their leaders for support.  People want to feel they can believe in their leaders to bring them through this.

I define adaptable leadership as the ability to be consistent, confident and focused towards achieving our aims (e.g. goals, purpose, and mission) AND at the same time flexible to adapt to our immediate circumstances so you can adjust how you do it. This enables you to respond to situations in a positive and constructive way, see opportunities in the challenges, find ways around the setbacks and experiment until you find a way that does work effectively for you. When you combine this with emotional intelligence, nurturing trust and engaging your people to bring them with you on the journey, you inspire hope and a belief that we CAN do this and will get there in the end no matter what curve balls life throws in the way.

In my adaptable leadership keynotes I talk about some of the mindset shifts that can help us achieve the paradox of being both consistent and flexible.

1. Change your metaphor for delivering your strategy

So often we talk about ‘the roadmap’. Yet consider the implications this image delivers in mind. A roadmap implies there is a set path – like on a map or satnav that relates to a physical path with set places and times where and when ‘things happen’.  Yet when we are navigating change and uncertainty, there are no set routes we can follow.  We need to respond to our environment as we go along and find our own way.  It is more like navigating the seas of change into the headwinds of uncertainty. There is no bridge across the sea!

So change your metaphor and chart a route across the sea, as you sail into the headwinds of the uncertainty.

2. You can’t sail into the wind or even too close to the wind

The only way to make progress is to tack across the wind because of the physics of how a sail gets power from the wind.  It means you first head away from the wind (and your desired direction) one way, then you make a U-turn and head back across the other way. To an outsider it might look like you don’t know what you’re doing, going one step forwards and two steps backwards.  But when you explain the process, people can understand the consistency, and how we are making progress towards our goal.

3. Show consistency in your purpose, values and what you stand for

This is the leadership equivalent of sailing techniques for tacking into the wind and maintaining focus on your ultimate destination as you sail across the wind.

Create absolute clarity about your purpose and ultimate destination (goals), and remind people that what we are doing is getting us closer to it, even if our immediate direction appears to be diverting away from it. BEING consistent means people know where they are with you, and feel a sense of predictability in your actions and the way you behave.   Nurture trust and ‘walk your talk’.

4. Change is a journey when we may feel ‘all at sea’

Experiencing change involves a transition period where you are no longer where you were at the start but not yet arrived at your desired destination.   This is the time when you are ‘all at sea’. It means to be puzzled, perplexed, or completely confused (about something or in some situation).  It derives from the days of sail when accurate navigational aids weren’t available.  Once out of sight of land, a ship was in an uncertain position and in danger of becoming lost.

This is often how people feel during a change programme, whether it is planned like growth or a re-organisation, or unplanned and forced onto us like the pandemic.  Keep in mind that as a leader or decision maker, you may consider growth as something you planned but it is often experienced as ‘forced onto us’ by people lower down the organisation!  Consider how you ensure planned change can be embraced by people across your organisation before you start implementing it!  What will help everyone feel engaged and both psychologically and emotionally committed to the change.

Explicitly talking about this transition phase and being on the journey helps people adjust their expectations for ‘how things should be’ and recognise when you are on track.

5. Take an experimental approach to navigating into the headwinds of uncertainty

When you are tacking, there is no set rule for how far away from the wind you turn, or how you set the sails. You adjust the direction for both the wind and the state of the sea and angle of the boat to the waves so you create the smoothest path possible through the water without risk of being overturned. You adjust the sail until you feel you are getting the most power you can without risk of overturning – a smaller sail for a stronger wind, for example, at an angle that creates the smoothest flow of wind over the sail.

There are little indicators on the sail called ‘tell tales’ which are two strings, one either side of the sail and when you see they are parallel, the wind is flowing at an ideal rate over both sides of the sail.    It is more than likely you will overshoot the ideal point before coming back to settle on it.  That overshoot was not a mistake, it was the way you learn where the ideal set point is.  After some indeterminate time, you will decide that you have gone far enough away from your desired direction, so turn across the wind and go away from the wind in the other direction.  That U-turn is just part of the process. It does not mean your original direction failed or was a mistake.

Thus the way you set direction and the sails is experimental. You adjust responding to the external environment until you reach a position that is effective. 

The experimental approach is extremely effective when you want to develop a learning culture and nurture a growth mindset in your organisation.   An experiment is always a learning event. No experiment fails, it simply tells you a result. The way we experiment in science is to:

  • Come up with a hypothesis (idea)
  • Test your idea
  • Get a result from your test. There are 3 options:
  1. Yes, you got the result you predicted in your hypothesis. Fabulous, you can use this knowledge about what is working to apply more widely.
  2. No the result was not what you predicted. This does not mean the experiment failed. It means that your hypothesis was based on a false assumption or expectation that led to a prediction that was not supported.  You are probably not aware you are making this assumption when it is deeply embedded in the (traditional) ‘way we do things’.  So a ‘negative’ result to a test is vital learning because it uncovers hidden expectations and assumptions that we are not aware of and which are otherwise extremely difficult to discover. 
  3. Uncertain results, which are not obviously yes or no.  This is also useful learning – look at the spread of the results (the variability) e.g.:  ‘do you have a mixture of ‘populations’ in the sample?’  Again, explore the hidden assumptions and expectations. They often reveal the greatest insights for progress.

How can you apply this experimental approach in your team and organisation?  

6. We are in this together ‘but not all in the same boat’. The organisation is a ‘fleet’ of different kinds of boats all experiencing the same circumstances

Sue Mitchell's Adaptable Leadership

Your boat will experiment to respond to the changing conditions of the sea state, wave angles, and wind strength and direction. This determines your path through the water as you tack into the headwind.  Another boat will follow a different path through the water with slightly different angles and sets of the sail.    All the boats have their own path through the water but collaborate to ensure that as a fleet, they are heading to the same waypoints and ultimate destination. 

In your organisation, you are not all in the same boat.  You are a fleet of boats experiencing the same circumstances. Each team is in their own boat, sailing its own path according to its particular strengths and capabilities, sailing together with other teams in other boats, so that as a whole, the fleet sails as one towards its destination.

7. Create a positive culture for a resilient organisation

The culture in your organisation reflects the collective mindsets and expectations (beliefs) around ‘how we do things’.  Culture is disproportionately influenced by the role modelling shown by the senior leadership so be aware that that the way you show up as a leader will influence the wider culture in the organisation. What are your expectations, beliefs and attitudes? How positive are they?  There are many ways to nurture positive mindsets, which I talk about in my masterclasses and keynotes. 

The key is to realise that in default mode, our unconscious brain is scanning for potential threats to avoid, so it can keep us safe.  That combined with social training and education to pick up on faults etc., causes a priority focus of attention on the barriers and things that are going wrong or not as expected. As a result, we often don’t notice the positives.  So if nothing else, train your brain to notice and celebrate the positives that you’ve previously taken for granted.  There are many tools to do this – do get in touch if you’d like to know more.

Read more on engaging your people to make the employee experience rewarding and to create the workplace where people feel they belong and want to do their best: “The Authority Guide to Engaging your people” – get a signed copy here or see it on Amazon.

Would you like Sue to speak at your leadership / company event or conference?  See videos and more about Sue’s Keynote talks on Adaptable Leadership here.

Contributed by

Sue Mitchell Speaker
Sue Mitchell
Inspiring speaker, author and executive coach (and former scientist and adventurer) who specialises in a mindset approach for resilience, wellbeing, inclusion and engagement