Adaptive Leadership

Most battle plans do not survive the first skirmish. I have found this to be true in everyday life and in my leadership at work too. Plans are important, they help decide your direction of travel, what resources are needed and where they can be deployed. I would like to propose, however that things have changed to such an extent over the last two years, the fallout of which is still being assessed, that we now need to adopt a different way of leading. What is needed is agile or adaptive leadership.

“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” – President Dwight Eisenhower

Agile leaders understand the need to change tack when circumstances require it. Living in an uncertain and complex world, a change of view is often needed. I came across the term VUCA whilst reading The Leadership of Teams by Mike Brent and Fiona Elsa Dent.It is an acronym coined by the American Military in the early 1990s to help frame the theatre of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a helpful framework which describes the place you, as a leader, may resonate with at this time.

It stands for: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.

  • Volatile – The reality is we live in a turbulent world where situations are liable to change rapidly and unpredictably, often for the worse.
  • Uncertain – The feeling of uncertainty is more pronounced than ever before, where it is less likely that future events can be predicted.
  • Complex – Our world has become ever more multifaceted which has led to increased difficulty in understanding.
  • Ambiguous – Many of the issues we confront are capable of being understood in more than one way, and thus consensus is difficult to achieve and conflict becomes more likely.

In a VUCA world, leaders need to be more agile and flexible. Leaders need to be prepared to help those they lead to be the same. Teams will succeed to the extent they can adapt and change course to meet the changes in circumstances that threaten the achievement of their goal.

What is Agile or Adaptive Leadership?


“…adaptive leadership, which is defined as the ability to anticipate future needs, articulate those needs to build collective support and understanding, adapt your responses based on continuous learning, and demonstrate accountability through transparency in your decision-making process.”*

To be agile in your leadership you will need to:

  • Remain curious – to keep growing. To invest in your own development to stay at the forefront of what is happening in the leadership space.
  • Move from reactive to proactive (fewer answers, more questions and principles to help guide you through).
  • Challenge yourself by reading things you don’t agree with; spend time with people who have a different point of view to you.
  • Spend time with leaders who have more experience than you; get together with other leaders and spend time working on the challenges and opportunities you are facing.
  • Connect and collaborate – Build a team who have permission to be creative, innovative, and to take risks.
  • Decide where you are going, make a plan, and be prepared to adapt the route to your destination as circumstances change.
  • Be vulnerable – confessing you find it challenging facing the uncertainty and complexity of leading gives permission to your team to contribute their strengths to solving the problem with you.

To lead in a world which is volatile, uncertain, complex, and uncertain needs agility.

How agile are you? Book time with me to explore being agile in your leadership.

Stay safe.

* Harvard Business Review article “5 Principles to Guide Adaptive Leadership.” September 11, 2020

Mark Billage

Mark Billage

Mark’s passion is to help realise individuals’ potential, be they leaders or team members, through empowering organisational culture. He has spent 7 years leading an organisation based in the non profit sector. In that time, he focused on creating a culture that enabled and empowered individuals, with the aim of seeing a high performing team better able to achieve the organisation’s mission.

Our Vision

To train and equip leaders to transform culture, build successful teams and organisations where everyone is seen, heard and valued for their unique contribution.

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