by John Baldoni

Adapt Yourself to Lead

Jan 26, 20076 mins
IT Leadership

Organisms that fail to adapt will die. The same applies to organizations.

Adaptation: The process by which organisms or organizations change to survive changing conditions. Fortunately, good organizations have one advantage over organisms. They have people who recognize the need for change and can push the organizations to do so. We call them adaptive leaders.

People First, Other Things Second

The topic of adaptive leadership is subject of Raising the Bar, a new book by Don Vandergriff that explores how the U.S. Army is developing new leaders in order to command and lead troops into ever more perilous forms of warfare. On page 68 of his book, Vandergriff, a retired Army major, quotes John Boyd, a controversial but visionary Air Force military strategist who postulated that great militaries are built on three things: “people first, then ideas and finally hardware.” That’s not too different from Jim Collins mantra in Good to Great, which underscores the need for “disciplined people, disciplined thought and disciplined action.” Central to Boyd and Collins—and Vandergriff—is the concept of leadership, adaptive leaders who value people and put them in a position to succeed.

Today’s manager may not be fighting a battle on the streets of Baghdad, but she is struggling in and around riptides of enormous consequence. If you doubt it, think back 15 years. Could you have imagined that the Internet would be the primary source of business communication as well as a leading source of commerce, not to mention a life changing technology for people of all ages? Think back 10 years: Could you have imagined that a start¿up company (Google) formed in a garage and whose only offering was a service to help people find things would be one of the world’s most valued companies? And think back five years: Could you have imagined that do it yourself everything (marketing, entertainment, video, music—you name it) would become so popular that Time magazine would mark 2006 as the year of You?

Managers not only live in this world, they must shape it. Not only their own future but the future of their company depends upon it. And for that reason, Vandergriff’s tome, while intended for the military, has applications for all of us in the civilian sector. At the core of his book is something he calls the Adaptive Course Model, a program of instruction that teaches officers the art and practice of adaptability. Let me itemize a few selections.

Experience. In the adaptive leadership program, the parameters are always changing. Why? Because that’s what today’s armed conflict is all about. The challenge is to prepare an officer for the unexpected. How? By simulating such experiences in the classroom but more especially during physical training on mock battlefields. Emphasis is placed on what Vandergriff describes as making decisions quickly, maintaining situational awareness when all hell breaks loose and developing new tactics for solving emerging problems. These points are vital to any manager working in a fast changing environment, be it product development, marketing, or IT. Things change and you have to be read for that change. Sooner than later. 

Debrief. What did you learn? That is the operative principle in adaptive leadership. The emphasis is on continuous learning; not simply what you learned at the planning stage, but what you learned as you executed. Learning as you go is essential. Managers sometimes focus only on a review of planning rather than a review of execution. Both are essential. It is not simply what you planned, but also how you got the job done. It is not enough to ask whether the project was completed on time and on budget, but more important was our customer satisfied and did we add value to our enterprise. If not, why not? And what can we do better?

Think big. Vandergriff believes that adaptive leaders can only be developed by other adaptive leaders. “Learning through many scenarios relies on a teacher’s ability to introduce increasingly difficult unit tasks in the development of adaptive leaders,” he says. Critical to this approach is the ability to avoid getting “wrapped around the task” but rather to “show students how the task fits into solving the larger problem.” Managers, too, must focus on the needs of all stakeholders. Easy to say, yes, but in the heat of a project burn it is all too easy to get so tangled in minutiae that the end goal becomes lost in a fog of detail. Stand back then to gain perspective. Ask questions to find out what you know and don’t know. Then decide. That discipline is essential to adaptation.

Remaining Flexible

Adaptability does not mean try anything any time. It does, however, put a premium on thinking ahead as well as on your feet. That is something that Lance Corporal Jason Dunham took to heart during his tour in Iraq in 2004. Dunham wondered just how protective the Kevlar helmets he and his fellow Marines wore were. He even had discussions about whether these helmets would protect them from a close range grenade blast. And so when an enemy insurgent tossed a live grenade his way, Dunham did not think twice about what to do. He leaped on the grenade covering it with his helmet and his body. Dunham’s fellow Marines survived; Dunham died eight days later in a military hospital in Germany. This January Dunham became the first Marine to win the Congressional Medal of Honor for service in Iraq. Adaptive—incredibly yes; brave—heroically so! (Source: Michael M. Phillips “In Combat, Marine Put Theory to Test, Comrades Believe,” Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2004.)

For Vandergriff, change is vital to the institution to which he has devoted his career. But such change will only happen when the culture of tried and true is replace by a culture of learning. In the military as well as in the civilian sector, change will only come when men and women have the freedom to experiment and to try new things. “Learning to learn” is essential; it enables us to form questions to which answers may only be questions but which in turn may lead us in to answers. Not today, but perhaps tomorrow. In other words, adapt or get out of the way.

By the way, do you have any predictions for the next five years? You can bet that someone somewhere—likely an adaptive leader—is already hard at work on the next big thing.

John Baldoni is a leadership communications consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies as well as non-profits including the University of Michigan. He is a frequent keynote and workshop speaker as well as the author of six books on leadership; the latest is How Great Leaders Get Great Results (McGraw-Hill). Readers are welcome to visit his leadership resource website at