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Four tips on how to be an adaptive leader during complex times

There is no doubt that we are in turbulent, complex times. Even before Covid-19 the demand on our leaders to think, work and behave differently were apparent. In response, Strategy Execution, now part of Korn Ferry, and Duke Corporate Education teamed up to develop the Adaptive Strategic Execution Program (ASEP) to provide a holistic transformative learning journey to enable leaders to thrive in complexity.

Jonathan Gilbert, a co-writer of ASEP digs a little deeper into some of key qualities of an Adaptive Leader and shares some of his insights and experiences around how we have led through complexity in the past and what leaders need to focus on now. Read what he has to say below.


After working in complex environments for a large part of my career, here are four things I’ve found extremely useful-and quite simple- for increasing the probability of successful outcomes while leading in complexity:

  1. As many times as you are (or should be!) washing your hands these days, you should be asking this question: What context are we in? While this question is intended to build our awareness of our situation, it also will remind us that we will need to act and behave differently depending on whether we’re in a complicated context or complexity. Asking this question also helps us to remember our thinking bias’s (our default ways of thinking) and helps us to make sure we’re taking the right approach for a given context. 
  1. Understand (as deeply as you can) how complexity affects the people you lead. Complexity creates disequilibrium. How do humans behave when exposed to constant or increasing levels disequilibrium?  So, spend time asking your teams this question: How does disequilibrium effect:
    a. My thinking?
    b. My feelings?
    c. My body?
  1. Imagine, create, develop and maintain an adaptive mindset. 
  1. Let go and let self-organization occur. Our overwhelmingly desired response as leaders in complexity, uncertainty and volatility is to try to grasp control of the situation.  Try to hold off on that reflex for as long as you can, and instead let happen what’s already happening (but nobody wants to admit to) around you as your team responds to crises: self-organization of the people in the midst of the swirl. There is a latent expertise that exists in your teams that usually flourishes through a self-organized team. Get out of the way, hold the teams accountable for the results or solved problem, and let go of how they get there.

These are my go-to strategies for dealing with complexity.  And they are quite simple- but NOT easy. But nothing successful ever is.

Taking time to check in with yourself (emotional intelligence) to identify how you are feeling and responding or reacting to situations, and being able to let go. As Jonathan says, these are not so easy to do, but they are skills and behaviors than can be learned. If you like to know how, check out the Adaptive Strategic Execution program here.


Join us for a free adaptive leadership masterclass, called “5 Critical Questions to Tackle Disruption in a Rapidly Changing Environment”.

April 21, 2020
Session 1: 8:00 AM ET / 1:00 PM GMT / 8:00 PM SGT

Session 2: 9:00 AM PDT / 12:00 PM EDT / 5:00 PM BST

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About Jonathan Gilbert

Jonathan Gilbert
Executive Director, Client Solutions

Discover the new Adaptive Strategic Execution Programme

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