Article by Wendy Campbell

Adaptable Leadership: Where Kindness Matters

by Wendy Campbell
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During November 2009, celebrations were held for the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s book. To commemorate the occasion a television series was broadcast, telling the story of the book’s creation. While watching the first episode of this series, I enjoyed once more the story of Darwin’s journey as a very effective change leader. His travels and research had shown him that all life on earth has a pattern of evolution in which humans share. This thoughtful and private man overcame much personal angst for himself and his family to make public his theories on evolution. In so doing he was the catalyst for profound changes in the beliefs of his community.

Considering the thinking of the times, Charles Darwin’s achievement is even more remarkable. In 1859, the Church’s stance that humans were separate from all other living creatures on earth was the dominant view. However, Darwin’s study and experience clearly and persistently demonstrated that natural selection was the factor which determined whether a species thrived. In extending this theory to humans, Darwin directly opposed all that the church then stood for. Hence he was labelled a heretic; a severe test for this sensitive man.

As the 2009 television series progressed, Darwin’s main premise became clear: adapting to change is the most important factor for survival. In other words, species which adapted themselves to be fit to live in a changed environment — especially during periods of extreme change — were the ones which thrived. They were not necessarily the strongest. I was surprised at this. At school I had been taught that Darwin’s point was that the fittest survive, and that this translated into the strongest surviving. However the documentary explained that ‘fittest’ was not ‘strongest.’ ‘Fittest’ in Darwin’s eyes was the species that adapted to become ‘best fit for purpose’ in the changed environment.

Since that documentary series I have reflected on our leaders, as we still struggle to rebuild our human world after the global financial crash of 2008 and its continued fallout. It seems to me that a seismic shift is occurring in what underpins successful leadership in our changed world. For some time I could not pinpoint the core of this shift. Then I remembered Darwin’s premise – the most adaptable thrive in the changed environment.

The emerging leaders who are succeeding with prosperous strategies for thriving futures are not the strongest, nor the most charismatic, nor those whose organisations have the best share price. Rather, these leaders are the most adaptable. In other words they demonstrate the resilience to bounce back from knock downs that changes in their environment deliver, and the ability to make the best of these changes. As well, they encourage this adaptability in their people.

This adaptability is built on:
the courage to look at their current situation with open eyes. This allows them to work with their people to co-develop the best way forward for all their stakeholders, including their physical environment.
the grounding in good, solid core values that keeps all their decision-making honest and fair.
the humility to give credit where credit is due, for the benefit of all their stakeholders.

After this flash of insight, I wondered if there were a concept or view that tied all this together …

Of course! This adaptability is grounded in what sustainable social responsibility is all about. The practice of sustainable social responsibility gives leaders the adaptable framework which will enable them to thrive during periods of change, especially in turbulent times such as we see today.

Indeed, such adaptability in the face of apparent catastrophe is crucial to an organisation’s thriving future. I enjoy the recently created term ‘thrivability,’ which perfectly encapsulates this adaptability.

Please let me explain …

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