One of the quotes ascribed to Charles Darwin is, “it isn’t the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, it is the one that is most adaptable to change”.
What applies to the species of animals, also applies to leaders. The leaders that survive and thrive are the ones that adapt to changing environments and stay ahead of the curve. Of course, staying ahead of the curve is never as easy as it sounds, and it is a place that comes with its own risks. Ask any surfer, that brief moment at the top of wave when you are never sure if you will be wiped out or ride the wave. Yet being far enough in front of the wave, you get that sweet spot where you can ride it into shore is indeed exhilarating.
Taking the analogy of the surfer further, a skilled surfer is a person who has put in the hours, sitting, waiting for waves that will both hone their skill and push them further. They become comfortable and find peace in the un-comfortability of the ocean. They get used to reading a changing environment and when they get up on the board they know how and when to make all those minute adjustments to their centre of gravity to keep them upright and allow them to ride the wave. A skilled surfer is not just someone who has learnt the technical skill of surfing, they have learnt all those other intuitive skills, they no longer think about because they are so innate.
So, with leadership, there are technical skills leaders can learn through formal study such as MBA’s and other leadership courses. However, a skilled leader needs more than technical skills. Just like a skilled surfer, a skilled leader needs innate abilities that aren’t taught in formal courses of study that allows them to adapt to changing situations.
One example of an innate skill a leader needs is the ability to hold her/his nerve when things become precarious. Despite our best plans and how we think things will go, often when dealing with change, the unexpected will arise, like a king wave out of nowhere. A skilled leader learns to hold their nerve rather than panic and retreat.
The ability to hold one’s nerve comes by remembering not only the goal or the final outcome of the changes we are going through, but it is also remembering the previous crisis we have navigated. When we are faced with a new challenge that is bigger than we anticipated we often forget the situations we have previously faced. We need to remember them, to remember what we learnt from those situations that we can apply to the current situation.
In remembering previous situations, it is important to remember those situations we didn’t manage well, situations where we felt we failed. Failure is part of leadership. We want to forget our failures because they remind us of the pain we felt at the time. Pain, that is often infused by a sense of shame. So we don’t want to revisit these times. Yet ironically a good leader is someone who has failed and who can endure the pain of revisiting those times of failure to reflect upon them and extract those essential lessons that only failure can provide.
It is the combination of learnt technical skills and innate abilities we have developed that allows us as leaders to stay in that uncomfortable spot, ahead of the curve so we can adapt to changing environments.