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Four approaches to strengthening adaptive leadership

Adaptive leadership is becoming increasingly important. Managers who are too slow to adapt, or are not prepared to go far enough, will lose not only customers but also talented employees. You can strengthen your future prospects by practicing these four approaches:

  • Accepting changes and defeats
  • Enhancing your cognitive flexibility
  • Training in emotional flexibility
  • Foster dispositional flexibility

Every day we are confronted with change: physical meetings are switched to online platforms, health authorities force shops to close down… the list goes on. In this environment, adaptive leadership is becoming more and more of an essential survival skill. The ability to adapt quickly to changed circumstances and to engage flexibly with the most varied challenges is crucial for leaders. Because, as a leader, the way you think and act, influences the entire company, at the strategic, organizational, cultural and personal levels.

The following observations can help you to determine for yourself to what extent you already have developed adaptive leadership:

  • You treat suggestions for improvement and new approaches with skepticism, and you dismiss most of them.
  • You receive repeated feedback that your approach is very one-sided.
  • It takes a big personal effort for you to engage with alternative solutions to problems.
  • When required to make quick decisions, you find you need to consult several times with other people.
  • You find that you always seem to get bogged down in certain situations or with certain people.

If any of these statements resonate with you, this article will provide you with helpful starting points for training your adaptability.

Research from the George Mason University and the Center for Creative Leadership shows, that successful adaptability consists of three components: cognitive flexibility, emotional flexibility and dispositional flexibility. In each of these components, acceptance is the underlying factor.

Acceptance: embracing change – even when it is painful

We all know what it is like to face challenging events and situations which cause us real difficulty: out of the blue a key high-performing employee resigns, a thunderstorm destroys a large part of the production facility, the IT system is hacked and you are being blackmailed, someone close to you dies…

Our automatic reflex when faced with something unpleasant is to turn away from it, to try and dodge the pain. For example, I find again and again that when called on to make hard personal decisions, managers step back and leave it to Human Resources to do the firing. But deep down we all know that defeat, failure and loss are just as much part of life as success, victory and happiness. A fulfilled life consists of riding all the different waves. This is why it is so important that we deal with difficulty in a productive way. And this starts with facing up to and accepting the challenges. In this light, we can think of acceptance as the ability to engage with the situation we find ourselves in with sincerity, openness and affirmation, without being judgmental. Often it is a long process before we are able to embrace a new situation.

While as leaders we are often instigators of change and developments, at times we are also called on to be on the receiving end and to embrace change – and sometimes we find it hard to accept something that has been instigated by someone else, or by circumstances beyond our control. And in situations where we have to rely on our own meagre resources to battle through, it can be even harder to accept difficult challenges. In this context it can help to take your time and digest the circumstances in manageable does: take a little time now and then to reflect, either alone or with a business sparring partner or Executive Coach.

It can also be helpful to distinguish between what we are able to influence, and what is beyond our control. American theologist Reinhold Niebuhr expresses this poignantly in the following prayer:

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.”

To do this, you need to develop your inner strength. World-renowned neurobiologist Dan Siegel describes the brain’s ability to regulate itself as ‘integration’. Being in an integrated state means that your nervous system is connected fluidly and flexibly with your brain and your body. However, if we lose our balance and are overwhelmed by change, we either revert to inner rigidity, or we lose control. In our coaching sessions we facilitate various physical exercises which promote integration, so as to enable greater flow. This way we can avoid falling into a rigid, entrenched mindset, or being swept up in a feeling of chaos that leads to emotional outbursts.

Cognitive flexibility: processing information more quickly and developing more creative solutions

Having cognitive flexibility does not mean betraying your principles. On the contrary, in a next blog article we will explore why it is essential to remain true to your vision, to be guided faithfully by your own pole star. But, given that we are sure to meet impasses, detours and other unpredictable events on our journey, cognitive agility is essential for survival. What we are talking about here is the ability to switch between different mindsets, strategies, models and mental patterns.

Switching like this is often challenging. If you have ever taken part in a stand-up comedy training, you know: you have just seconds to come up with freely associated combinations of words or sentences and to respond spontaneously to all kinds of situations, both possible and impossible. As a member of a standup comedy training group, I have experienced for myself the stimulating physical effects of spontaneity: you end up bypassing old mental circuits and making new neural connections. On a daily basis, you can train your cognitive flexibility by introducing small changes into your everyday routine, such as cleaning your teeth with your non-dominant hand, going to work by a different route, rearranging your daily schedule, etc. Behavioral scientist Jennifer Verdolin also recommends exposing yourself to new experiences by trying out new sports and exotic dishes, meeting new people, perhaps through volunteering, etc. Regardless of which approach appeals to you, the most important thing is to have fun with these exercises, while enhancing your own agility and vibrancy!

Behavioral research shows that improving our cognitive flexibility enables us to identify and process new information more quickly, be more creative in our problem-solving and, finally, deal more effectively with volatile situations.

Emotional flexibility: becoming aware of your feelings, acknowledging them explicity and guiding them in a constructive way

As a prerequisite for emotional flexibility, we need to be able to access our own feelings and connect with the rich world of moods, sensitivities, desires, and the associated deeper needs. Unfortunately, in the business world, emotions tend to be demonized and are kept firmly under wraps through rational arguments. As a result, we end up blocking the access to our own inner core, and as leaders we risk failing to engage with people holistically and win them over for a bigger cause. Highly rational people tend to shut off their emotions (connection to self and to others) and their intuitions (instinct, autonomy); this lowers their charisma and thus their impact.

Harvard psychologist Susan David describes the benefits of emotional flexibility: instead of letting ourselves be trapped by our own experiences and emotions, so that our lives are diminished and our relationships with others become clouded, we can learn from them; we can learn to better recognize inner signs, embrace them, and ultimately guide them in a productive manner.

Instead of ignoring or suppressing feelings such as frustration, anger, shame and grief, or responding impulsively to these emotions, emotional flexibility training is about being aware of your own emotions. No matter how intense the emotion is, you can be sure that right now there are ten thousand other people in the world experiencing exactly the same feeling as you do. Psychologist Kristin Neff calls this «common humanity». In this approach, instead of cocooning ourselves against the unpleasant emotions, we connect with ourselves, and therefore also with the people around us. An expert coach with excellent emotional competence can help you to directly see the emotions you project outwardly. This enables you to reconcile your own feelings with the external effect, so as to develop an emotional vocabulary.

The better you become at recognizing your different emotional states, the more options you have for dealing with them. In psychology we call this emotional self-regulation. Instead of the two instinctive responses, either “external projection” or “internal suppression”, there is a middle way, through acceptance. In the words of neurobiologist Dan Siegel, you have to “name it to tame it” – simply giving a name to an emotional state has a positive and relaxing effect on your brain. This creates a space needed to gradually develop alternative responses. Aggressive accusations or insults or hasty ruptures then lead to a verbal pause. Initially, this may still be accompanied by feelings of anger. But over time and with a lot of training, impulsive, hurtful responses can be converted into an open, questioning response based on a desire to understand.

Dispositional flexibility: transforming obstructive beliefs

This third form of adaptive leadership has to do with our inner disposition. If you work with people who are guided by strong principles which they adhere to at all times, you experience the opposite of flexibility, i.e. stubbornness, obstinacy, narrow-mindedness or rigidity. If you catch yourself clinging to narrow or fixed beliefs, or if you receive feedback from others to this effect, you have clear indications that you need to work on making your attitude more flexible. You could view the feedback as an invitation to examine your beliefs a bit more closely. Examples for obstructive beliefs are: “I have to keep a close eye on my employees when they’re working from home,” “people who address conflicts are troublemakers,” “any criticism is an attack against me,” “acknowledging mistakes is a sign of weakness,” etc.If you work through your obstructive beliefs with an executive coach, the first step is to list all of the prejudices associated with these beliefs. Because your experience has led you to establish this belief, and this needs to be acknowledged. In the next step, you work on developing alternative, beneficial beliefs that will help you to overcome future challenges. In a executive coaching I have once been working with a leader who told me that ever since his childhood he had developed the belief that self-praise is abominable, and that success can only be achieved by being ultra-harsh on yourself. This led to a physical breakdown. After a year and a half of intensive work, he now takes joy in talking about his strengths and successes, and he has developed a healthy life balance.


Integration: A Central Process in the Journey to Thriving – Garrison Institute (Juni 2018)

14 Signs Of An Adaptable Person ( (September 2015)

Adaptability: Responding Effectively to Change – Allan Calarco, Joan Gurvis – Google Books (2006)

Die Grenzen der kognitiven Flexibilität ( (November 2013)

3 Ways to Improve Your Cognitive Flexibility | Psychology Today (Dezember 2019)

Frontiers | Flexible Emotion Regulation: How Situational Demands and Individual Differences Influence the Effectiveness of Regulatory Strategies | Psychology ( (Februar 2019)

People Who Are Emotionally Flexible Tend to Recover From Negative Emotions More Quickly | by Thomas Oppong | Mind Cafe | Medium (August 2020)

Susan David, Ph.D. (2017)