Leadership is a lot like a ropes course – you are confronted with challenge after challenge, each one testing your skills and giving you an opportunity for personal development and team growth. In this series, we are looking at elements of “The Leadership Ropes Course” that all leaders need to face – and master!
Balance beams in gymnastics are straight lines. Balance beams on ropes courses aren’t so simple. On the Zig-Zag Balance Beam, for instance, the participant must change directions every few steps, maintaining balance all the while.
In business, it would be nice if you could walk in a straight line from goal to execution, challenge to solution, and vision to reality. But, as a leader, you know it is not that simple. To get where you want to go, you frequently have to change direction mid-stream. James Sipe and Don Frick, in their classic book Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership, observe that “A systems-thinking Servant-Leader is adaptable because he or she knows reality is fluid and new issues call for new responses. This is a courageous stance!”
Almost every leader will agree that adaptability is required in business. However, saying you have to be adaptable is very different from actually being adaptable. When confronted with specific issues, leaders often resist change. After all, change brings chaos. Change moves us from a place that is known to a future that is unknown. It is common to feel anxious, angry, or fearful when the need for change is indicated. We may want to cling to the present state of affairs because it is comfortable or because we are invested emotionally in the status quo. That is why Sipe and Frick rightly affirm that adaptability is “a courageous stance.”
To know when a change is called for and to strengthen your resolve to make the change, you need good data. For instance, a leader in manufacturing should always have his or her finger on the pulse of what customers are saying about their products (both positive and negative), how the supply chain is operating in the midst of economic and societal pressures, what the competition is doing, and how innovative technologies might disrupt the marketplace. Adaptability starts with a firm grip on the facts. Not emotion; not intuition; not preference … facts.
Consider the case of a software development company. The company collects customer feedback and, based on that data, launches a new software-as-a-service (SaaS) product. This new solution represents a significant investment of time, effort, and resources. But, to the leadership team’s surprise, the new software product does not sell nearly as well as they had expected.
The leadership team is now faced with a choice. First, they can simply keep marketing. After all, they did research upfront and got solid data. This is what their customers said they wanted. Surely, it will reap a return on their investment given enough time. The problem with this option is that it is based on past data from their customers’ feedback. Something in the present is influencing their customers’ decisions not to license the new SaaS solution.
This points to the second option: go on a fact-finding mission and gather new data directly from the customers. Was the new product not designed properly? Is the licensing structure an obstacle? Have customer needs changed? Once the leadership team finds out where the disconnect is, they can decide on an appropriate course correction.
Business demands this kind of adaptability. Leaders must learn to look dispassionately at data and go where it indicates, even if that means altering their original course. Such changes of direction often entail challenges. They can be frustrating. They can be intimidating. They always call upon agility and balance. But a good leader knows that on a Zig-Zag Balance Beam walking a straight line will only land them in the dirt. To reach the end successfully, they need to navigate many changes in direction with skill.