It has been said that more change has taken place in the last five years than in the previous five thous and years. This rapid rate of change has proven to be quite a challenge for leadership in the 21st century. The environment leaders currently face has been described as a VUCA world. VUCA is an acronym that emerged from the US military in the 1990’s and describes “The fog of war”, the chaotic conditions that exist on a modern battle field.

It also describes the environment in which business is conducted every day, where leadership as usual will sink your business. Leading in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous world requires a new set of competencies. Ron Heifitz from Harvard has described the issues that today’s leaders face as “adaptive challenges”. These are challenges that are unfamiliar, that have never been experienced before.

In a world gone by where the problems are known and the solutions are clear, leaders could look back at their experience and use a solution from the tool kit in the memory bank. This is the authoritative leader, who has been there before. What happens though in a VUCA world, where the problems haven’t been seen before? What happens when we reach deep into our experience and the databank draws a blank? What happens when we don’t know the answers? As Leaders we have been conditioned to believe that by virtue of our title and authority, we must know all the answers required by our team. The real danger lies when we blunder unconsciously forward using our mind maps from the past in attempting to navigate unchartered territory.

“Adaptive Leadership” is going to a key skill for leaders in this turbulent world. Charles Darwin, in his paradigm-shifting book “The origin of species”, highlighted this reality when he said, “ It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change”

How do we develop adaptive leadership?

Adaptive Leadership is premised on two core fundamental ideas – “We do not see the world as it is, but as we are” and “We lead out of who we are”.

The two statements above represent what I believe is the real tough work of Leadership and the key to a leader developing self-awareness. We have all been conditioned differently and this dramatically influences the lenses through which we see the world and the lenses through which we see other people.

The ability to think about what we are thinking about and to identify how those thought processes influence our emotional state. The ability to identify how our emotional state influences our behavior and how that influences other people. This awareness is crucial and is the first building block upon which we build effective relationships with other people. Our ability to recognize the unconscious biases that cloud our judgment is crucial. Most of us, unfortunately, w ander through our lives as complete strangers to ourselves.

We cannot lead separately from who we are. We take ourselves wherever we go. Below are a few key components for Leaders to work on to develop adaptive leadership.

Character development:

Our character is intricately linked to how we lead. All great leaders lead from a place of great authenticity. They walk their talk. Four key components form the basis of our character:

  • Integrity
  • Adopting a win/win mentality
  • Credibility
  • An abundance mentality

Emotional intelligence

  • Self- awareness
  • Self- management (Self-motivation, managing our emotional states, adaptability)
  • Social awareness (Empathy, being present)
  • Relationship management (Building inter-personal relationships, assertiveness, dealing with conflict)

Leading Diversity

Research shows that diversity drives innovation and creativity. Gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity and generational diversity all influence a rich diversity of thought which drives innovation. We cannot lead diversity effectively until we have developed a high awareness of self and a high level of empathy.

The ability to recognize our unconscious biases is crucial in the work of leading diversity. One of my favorite quotes is from the great 13th century Persian poet Rumi – “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field; I’ll meet you there”. We all need to find that place where there is no judgment and no evaluation. That place where our own head doesn’t get in the way of us truly building effective relationships with others.


Alvin Toffler once said that “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”. All great leaders recognize the ingredients leading to expert performance and continuous learning. All great leaders have a mastery mindset which requires passion and perseverance over many years. The ability to stick to your lane and really focus on the long haul of developing crucial skills for mastery of your field.

Of course, there is no single “right way” as a leader navigates the path to developing their character and to develop the skills required for adaptive and influential leadership, but we cannot separate ourselves from ourselves, so this work is crucial to the long-term success of any great leader.

I wish you all the best on your journey.