Recently a CEO asked me an interesting question: What did I think is the most important quality or skill that leaders will need as they lead into the future?

It is an intriguing question yet I found my answer without the slightest hesitation: Adaptive intelligence.

The context of leadership is that of relentless change and connectedness. Change is exponential; technology has contributed to fusing together a global inter-connectedness; predictability and certainty are no longer the norm. Futurists maintain that whereas past thinking amongst themselves held to the belief that 80% of the future was what they termed, ‘continuations’ – in other words, what would emerge in our tomorrows would resemble something of what we know today; 15% of the future would be ‘cycles’ and a mere 5% of our tomorrows would be ‘novelties’ – meaning the unpredictable, the curve ball, being surprised. But this was what futurists used to think. Currently thinking amongst those whose job it is to know the future is that this table is now inverted. 80% of our tomorrows are what they term ‘novelties’. That is some turn-around! This means that it becomes increasing difficult to ‘plan our way into the future’. Planning in a context of such unpredictability just doesn’t make sense. We have build impressive and elaborate models that facilitate such planning through data capturing, analysis, questioning and eventually resulting in elaborate plans for the future. There is often significant investment in both the learning and practice of such models and methodologies, which once formulated, no doubt provide some degree of comfort and security. All of this makes us reluctant to jettison our strategic plans when the situation requires us to – as was the case in September 2008 at the onset of the global economic meltdown when the rules of the game were unequivocally changed. It is of course understandable to desire the security and wellbeing that such plans and the work entailed induce but, in the context in which we now find ourselves, to stubbornly cling to such mindsets and practices, is extremely dangerous and fatally flawed!

Which brings me to my answer: the most important quality or skill that leaders need to adopt if you are to navigate the future successfully is to display an adaptive intelligence.  Darwin highlighted this reality in his well-worn quote from his classic work The Origin of Species, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change”.

But what exactly is ‘adaptive intelligence’ and how does one develop it? Research done by Gunderson and Holling in 2002 (on coral reefs) provides four helpful pointers – albeit from an unusual source, for those leaders wishing to develop adaptive intelligence. They found that the following four things contributed towards the DNA of what it means to develop adaptive intelligence:

  1. The ability to live with change and uncertainty. As we have seen this is no longer an option for those in leadership. Acknowledging this reality and then intentionally building helpful frameworks at both a personal and corporate level is required. Individually we respond differently to change and so understanding our personal change tolerance as well as that of our organization, is important groundwork.
  2. Nurturing diversity for resilience. Diversity at multiple levels – cultural, structural, generational, and personal – is what infuses the daily life for every leader. Which of you, if asked at the onset of the economic crisis, whether or not you would like a ‘resilient company’ made up of ‘resilient individuals’, would have given any answer other than an emphatic, “absolutely”? Resilience is a character trait that contributes directly towards adaptive intelligence and so an important question is, ‘how best do I nurture resilience? Extensive research done by Werner and Werner reveals both individual and corporate characteristics that contribute towards resilience. The corporate characteristics include: Caring relationships; high expectations and opportunities to participate. So how does your corporate culture measure up against these very tangible and practical characteristics?
  3. Combining different types of knowledge for learning. Through the rigid and somewhat unimaginative methodology embraced by the majority of business schools and those entrusted with our corporate learning – there is much exploration to be done in this area. Such exploration invites fresh and deeper discovery when it comes to learning, unlearning and relearning what we need to in order to confidently engage the future. The willingness to endure discomfort and disequilibrium; to be willing to try new things and to risk failure and the boldness to challenge existing ‘successful’ models of leadership education, will all form part of the necessary terrain that marks this point in growing adaptive intelligence.
  4. Creating opportunities for selforganization towards sustainability. This final point warrants deeper thought, discussion and mention than is possible here. It invites deeper interrogation within your particular context that whilst desiring sustainability, we may be less tolerate of self-organization. What this means and what this looks like would be worthy discussion for any executive team agenda. Semler, in his account of his leadership journey at Semco (ref: Maverick and / or The Seven Day Weekend) provides some interesting insights into what becomes of a willingness to trust the process of self-organization.

The research findings of Gunderson and Holling provide a rich framework from which to engage and develop adaptive intelligence. The framework can be applied at both a personal and organization level and helps to link the theory to the practice in this vital area. In TomorrowToday we have done a lot of thinking and work in this area. I believe that to ignore intentionally developing adaptive intelligence is to run the risk of becoming captive to the past and risk increasingly irrelevance. It seems to me that undertaking the work of adaptive intelligence is a daily challenge and I suspect, a work that is never complete.

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