• Published April 15, 2020
  • 4 Minute Read

Adaptable Leadership: What It Takes to Be a Quick-Change Artist

Published April 15, 2020
Adaptable Leadership: What It Takes to Be a Quick-Change Artist


In today’s business world, change and disruption are the new normal. It’s not uncommon for companies, industries, and even the world at large to be turned upside down seemingly overnight. With the fast pace of change, adaptable leadership is no longer just an asset, it’s a necessity.

Though managing change is one of the biggest challenges faced by leaders today, there is little understanding of what adaptable leadership really looks like. Our research has found that an executive’s inability to adapt to change is the top reason for experiencing career derailment, while a high level of adaptability is the most frequently cited factor for managerial success. Executives who display adaptable leadership seek new and innovative ways to solve problems, master new skills, and view disruption as a challenge rather than a threat — skills needed to prevail through uncertain times.

Adaptable leadership is a term that’s used often without a concrete definition or understanding of what it is. Adaptability is required to foster progress and to help the organization and its members remain effective and productive in the face of change. Without it, new initiatives can be halted or stifled before they’re given a chance, or simply left to fade away. To understand and get on board with a new organizational vision or shift in strategy, and to inspire subordinates to do the same, managers and leaders must be adaptable.

To clarify what it means to be adaptable, and to describe what adaptable leadership looks like, we conducted extensive research in collaboration with George Mason University and the U.S. Army to help leaders approach the concept in a more practical way, and to provide a foundation for recognizing and developing the skill in themselves and others. We analyzed the behaviors of executives attending our high-impact leadership development program for senior leaders, Leading for Organizational Impact, which includes an interactive business simulation which allows senior leaders to experience and understand how well they adapt to change.

A good way to start to understand adaptable leadership is to break down the specific behaviors and components that make up an adaptable leader.

3 Components of Adaptable Leadership

Our study on the behaviors of adaptable leaders focuses on 3 main components of flexibility needed for adaptable leadership: cognitive flexibility, dispositional flexibility, and emotional flexibility. Following is a look at the behaviors that signify proficiency in each adaptive leadership component.

Cognitive Flexibility

Adaptability requires effective interpretation of change, and the first step is acknowledging that change has occurred. Successful adaptable leaders then address key aspects of the change — for example, how a new vision will create new markets, competitors, and organizational roles.

The ability to identify how a change will affect the way the organization functions, to formulate alternative strategies, or to demonstrate divergent thinking, are also important signifiers of cognitive adaptable. Leaders who are strong in this area of adaptability are good at collaborating across boundaries, and can consider the implications of a change for themselves and others in the organization, and communicate that information effectively.

Dispositional Flexibility

The ability to remain optimistic and realistic is a key part of having adaptable leadership. Adaptable leaders approach change as an opportunity, not as a threat. They take the attitude that they can continue to be effective in a new environment and see positive aspects about new situations. Optimism also appears to boost managers’ self-confidence in their ability to be effective during times of change.

Leaders who are adept at the dispositional aspects of adaptability also encourage others to see the benefits of a change and elicit contributions from others to support the organizational change and new group dynamics.

Emotional Flexibility

Resistance to change is natural; recognition and awareness of change are the keys to the emotional element of leadership adaptability. It’s all right for managers to admit resistance to change — in fact, it’s preferable, because emotions that go unacknowledged or denied will eventually resurface and have to be dealt with later on.

The ability to concede resistance to change is part of coping with it, so adaptable leaders express their emotions about a change without letting the feelings get the best of them and keep their focus on the task at hand. Managers who are able to encourage others to do the same enables others in the organization to cope with the change as well.

In this white paper we’ll clarify what it means to be an adaptable leader, and expand on the 3 behaviors that our research at CCL has identified as critical, and outline 5 action steps for increasing leadership adaptability in yourself and at your organization. As a result, you’ll be able to approach adaptable leadership in a more practical way and establish a foundation for recognizing and developing the skill in yourself and others on your team.

Download White Paper

Download White Paper

Download this white paper to learn the qualities that define adaptable leadership and how to foster it in your organization.

  • Published April 15, 2020
  • 4 Minute Read

Based on Research by

Allan Calarco
Allan Calarco, MA
Former Senior Faculty

Al worked with us for more than 20 years as a faculty member and executive coach, designing leadership development programs, facilitating teams and groups, and coaching executive leaders. He co-authored the guidebook Adaptability: Responding Effectively to Change.

Al worked with us for more than 20 years as a faculty member and executive coach, designing leadership development programs, facilitating teams and groups, and coaching executive leaders. He co-authored the guidebook Adaptability: Responding Effectively to Change.

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About CCL

At the Center for Creative Leadership, our drive to create a ripple effect of positive change underpins everything we do. For 50+ years, we've pioneered leadership development solutions for everyone from frontline workers to global CEOs. Consistently ranked among the world's top providers of executive education, our research-based programs and solutions inspire individuals in organizations across the world — including 2/3 of the Fortune 1000 — to ignite remarkable transformations.