Donna Rae Smith: Accelerating adaptive leadership

Donna Rae Smith, Founder and CEO, Bright Side Inc.

“Because of the explosive power of exponential growth, the 21st century will be equivalent to 20,000 years of progress at today’s rate of progress, which is a thousand times greater than the 20th century.” — author and futurist Ray Kurzweil

The accelerated rate of change in our world is staggering and yet undeniable. We all ask about it, but what does the astounding rate of change really mean for our daily lives? One of the implications is that leaders must be able to adapt to increasingly complex, interdependent and ever-changing environments. Adaptability is no longer a desirable skill but a necessary one.

Leaders and their organizations won’t survive without it. Here I share the building blocks that every adaptive leader must master.

Be open to learning

Often when we say someone is “open to learning,” we mean they’re open to learning new information. Certainly this is an admirable and desirable trait. There is another form of being open to learning that is critical, yet more uncomfortable and often neglected: openness to learning about our own personal behaviors.

This openness to learning requires that we look inward and examine how we continue to apply old behaviors to new challenges.

Consider a project team with a goal to deliver a product by a certain deadline. The deadline is not met. In assessing what went wrong, the project manager blames a host of external factors: the client, the supply chain and individual team members.

An adaptive leader considers these same factors but also turns the microscope inward on himself. He observes his own behaviors, evaluates their effectiveness, learns what worked and what didn’t, and then takes action to visibly modify his personal leadership behaviors so that the next time he encounters a similar situation, he can move himself and those around him closer to the desired goal.

Practice openness to learning by asking yourself: What is the business impact I desire to have in this situation? What’s the discrepancy between my desired impact and what’s really taking place? How do my behaviors and habits contribute to this discrepancy and what can I do differently?

Embrace the truth

Embracing the truth requires being truthful in the moment — truthful about ourselves, about our business environment and about the impact we are having on performance. An adaptive leader constantly seeks to understand the impact she is having on others — as opposed to what she wants to see — and embraces the truth no matter how unpleasant it is. She is not mechanically repeating rote behaviors that might have worked for her in the past.

Instead she is consciously experimenting with new and different behaviors with the intent to have an improved impact on her performance and the performance of others.

Increasingly, there’s a lack of transparent and honest behavior within many companies. I meet many men and women who are hungry for greater transparency and honesty within their companies and don’t know how to lead the charge. Adaptive leaders that embrace the truth can set the tone for this change through their behaviors of transparency, authenticity and truthfulness.

Have a broad range of leadership habits

There’s a well-known Bruce Barton quote that says, “When you’re through changing, you’re through.” An adaptive leader is never through changing. He continually seeks opportunities to develop new skills and more productive and effective habits. He acknowledges when he doesn’t have the necessary tools/skills to handle a situation and seeks to build new skills and create new habits.

The adaptive leader also actively seeks to expand his palette of already exiting healthy behaviors and strengths by applying them in new and different situations. Leaders need to identify a healthy behavior that would benefit from being expanded, or a new behavior that needs to be added to the palette. Like an underused muscle, it needs to be exercised. How can you slowly begin to use it in new situations?

Continue personal improvement

Continuous personal improvement is the bedrock of the other three traits. It’s the consistent discipline of and commitment to constant personal improvement. It requires moving from awareness of your behaviors to intentional, observable action. Awareness only matters insofar as it affects action.

A leader may know that he’s a bad listener, but only when he starts visibly demonstrating better listening skills does that self-knowledge become useful.

An adaptive leader is continually looking at the results of his actions and asking if they were what he intended. If the results were not intended, he asks what he can do differently in the future in order to achieve his desired impact. He does this every time, no matter what. No excuses. No exceptions. <<


Donna Rae Smith is a guest blogger for Smart Business. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a transformational change catalyst company that has partnered with more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies. For more information, please visit or contact Donna Rae Smith at [email protected]