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Strategic Courage In A V.U.C.A. World ‒The Adaptable Mindset

Written by: Prof. Dr. Frank Lee Harper, Jr., Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


The “A.G.I.L.E. L.E.A.D.E.R.S.H.I.P. with a G.R.I.P.™ framework, referred to hereafter as "The Agile Leadership Framework,” contributes to devising the appropriate answers to the assorted reasons why the growth of the digital economy is burdened with a tremendous amount of failed digital initiatives. According to Forbes magazine, over 70% of digital transformation projects fail. The Agile Leadership Framework provides globally proven agile leadership concepts aligned to the nine agile leadership principles categorized as communication, commitment, and collaboration. Its qualities—e.g., flexible, upfront & visionary, and in-control—are essential to devising and developing solutions to the daunting array of problems that, because of a V.U.C.A. world, are multi-dimensional, multi-jurisdictional, and multi-disciplinary. These problems include but are not limited to: digital disruption, climate changes, global pandemics, failed states, narco-crime, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and environmental degradation. The Agile Leadership Framework embraces inventing innovative systems involving streamlined operations, automated processes, and real-time descriptive/predictive/prescriptive information.

This article expounds on my motto, "Leaders Are Born to Be Made," by focusing on the “A” in A.G.I.L.E., which introduces Adaptable Mindset and Behaviors. From Mahatma Gandhi and Winston Churchill to Martin Luther King and Stephen Jobs to Condoleezza Wright and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to Doctors Curtis & Elsie Cofield and Fred Hassan, there can be many ways to lead people as there are leaders. Fortunately, businesspeople and psychologists have developed practical frameworks describing the main ways people lead. The Agile Leadership Framework is my contribution to this great body of work. The following quote is the essence of this article:

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change.” —Charles Darwin.

It also serves as an excellent segway into this story; I heard from my daily mentor Darren Hardy, about being able to adapt to adversity. It involves a potato, an egg, and coffee beans. So once upon a time, a daughter complained to her father that her life was miserable and she did not know how she would make it. She was tired of fighting and struggling all the time, she said. It seemed like as soon as one problem was solved, another would appear, as she explained. Her father, who was a chef, took her into the kitchen. He filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Once the three pots began to boil. He put potatoes in one pot, eggs into a second pot, and ground coffee beans into a third pot. He then let them sit to boil without saying a word to his daughter. The daughter moaned, griped, and complained impatiently, wondering what her father was doing. After 20 minutes, he took the potatoes out and placed them into a bowl. He took the eggs out and put them into another bowl. He ladled the coffee into a cup.

Turning to his daughter, he says, "Daughter, what do you see?" She says, in a snarky voice, of course, "potatoes and coffee!" He says, "look closer." He instructs her to touch the potato. She did and noticed they were soft. He then asked her to break an egg. She picked up an egg and realized that the liquid egg had become solid after peeling it. He then asked her to take a sip of the coffee out of the cup. Its rich aroma brought a smile to her face.

She then asks, "Father, what does this all mean?" He then explains that the potatoes, eggs, and coffee beans had each faced the same adversity ‒ the boiling water. But each reacted to it differently. The potatoes were firm, complex, and unrelenting, but they became soft and weak once they went into the water. The egg was fragile with its thin outer shell and liquid interior until put into the boiling water. Then the inside of the egg became hard. However, the ground coffee beans were unique. Once they were exposed to boiling water, they became something new. He then asked his daughter, “Which one are you? How do you change with adversity?”

Everybody wants things to be better, but nobody wants things to be different. How do you handle the adversity that change brings? Do you become soft and weak? Do you become hard and bitter? Or, Do you leverage the adversity to become something new, improved, and better?

You don't have to be "THE" leader to be "A" leader. The Agile Leadership Framework brings to reality the many different styles of leadership that can allow the right leader to be successful. There is not one style of leadership that is innately more successful than another. Specific skill sets are learnable and vital. For example, you must have good communication skills. Poor communication inhibits one’s ability to inspire, motivate, and attract resources necessary for success.

A true champion can adapt to anything. The word adapt is the inspiration behind assigning “Adaptive Mindset” as the first world-class mindset uncovering adaptive behaviors of the framework.

According to Jeff Boss, an adaptability coach and contributing author on leadership strategy for Forbes Magazine (Boss, 2015), here are some practical examples of modifiable behaviors for an adaptive mindset:

Table 1: Adaptive Behaviors

What Adaptable People Do

Adaptable people experiment.

To adapt, you must be open to change, which means you must have the will—emotional tolerance, mental fortitude, spiritual guidance—to not only face uncertainty but smack it in the face and press on.

Adaptable people see opportunity, whereas others see failure.

To adapt is to grow, to change, and to change, you must forego what you once believed to be "right," classify it as "wrong," and then adopt what you now consider to be the new "right." If you don't, you stagnate. This is something that not only individuals but organizations struggle with—habits that have defined their success in the past rather than questioning whether or not those same habits will continue defining success in the future. Chances are, they won't. If they did, then Blockbuster, Borders, Kodak, and every other company that failed to adapt to a "new right" (i.e., new reality) would still be in business. To verify these facts, read the book "Built to Last" to find out how many companies once at the top of their industry are no longer in business.

Adaptable people are resourceful.

You can take away a person's resources but can't remove resourcefulness. Rather than getting stuck on one solution to solve a problem, adaptable people have a contingency plan in place for when Plan A doesn’t work. In other words… (see next)

Adaptable people think ahead.

Always open to opportunity (see below), adaptable people are always on the lookout for improvement; minor tweaks will turn ordinary into extraordinary because they're not married to the one-size-fits-all solution.

Adaptable people don't complain.

If they can’t change or influence a decision, they--yup, you guessed it—adapt and move on.

Adaptable people talk to themselves.

But not in a weird way. When they feel their blood pressure rising, their teeth were coming together, and their fists clenching, they flip the "mental switch" through self-talk. Engaging in positive self-talk is the single most extraordinary habit you can learn for yourself.

Adaptable people don't blame

They're not a victim of external influences because they're proactive. To adapt to something new, you must forego the old. Adaptable people don’t hold grudges or eschew blame needlessly but instead absorb, understand and move on.

Adaptable people don't claim fame.

They don’t care about the limelight because they know it’ll soon burn out. Rather than wasting effort on a temporary issue, they focus on the next obstacle to get ahead of the game so that when everybody else finally jumps on board, they've already moved on to the next challenge.

Adaptable people are curious.

Without curiosity, there is no adaptability. Adaptable people learn—and keep learning. Interest enables growth; it pulls you along, as opposed to willpower, which pushes you forward. Resolve only lasts so long as you like being forced. Does anybody like being made? I didn't think so.

Adaptable people adapt

​How's that for defining a definition with its own meaning?

Adaptable people stay current.

To adapt to change, you must know what to adapt to and why it's essential. Communication is at the heart of everything we do, and adaptable people realize the impact their words, tone, and body language have on others which is why they plug and play according to the personalities involved. Said another way, they are emotionally intelligent.

Adaptable people see the big picture.

Adaptable people see the entire forest rather than just a few trees. They have to; otherwise, they would lack the repertoire of context from which they base their decisions on to adapt. They embrace the super-systems map.

Adaptable people are growth-minded.

One of the characteristics of a growth-minded person is that they are open-minded. They are not conversationally biased. If you're not willing to listen to others' points of view, you'll be limited in your thinking, which means you'll also be limited in your adaptability. The more context you have, the more choices position you toward change.

Adaptable people know what they stand for.

The choice to change isn't easy; however, neither is the choice to remain the same. Choosing to adapt to something new and forego the old requires a strong understanding of personal values, knowing what's important to you—and what isn't—that catapults you along the pathway of adaptability.

Adaptive Mindset and C.H.a.N.G.E.

An adaptive mindset enables C.H.a.N.G.E.—a titled acronym for Creating a Healthy and New Growth to become Extraordinary.

Leading and managing C.H.a.N.G.E. requires having the courage to be an innovator, implementer, and instigator. An organization cannot be what its people are not. This requires a willingness, or courage, to improve, participate, and sustain better ways to survive and thrive. Being extraordinary in life comes from the Choices you make, the Challenges you overcome, and the Changes you make. When an innovator, implementer, and instigator of C.H.a.N.G.E. embraces the three C's, they can:

  • see the merits of new or different approaches to accomplishing work tasks

  • ask questions to understand the objectives of changes

  • seek opportunities to make changes work rather than identifying reasons why changes won’t be successful

  • make suggestions for increasing the effectiveness of changes

  • show a willingness to learn new methods, procedures, techniques, or systems resulting from the environment, departmental, or enterprise-wide changes

  • shift strategy in response to the demands of a situation, etc.

The Agile Leadership Framework encourages developing customized strategies and tactics to enable aspiring and seasoned leaders to create an adaptive culture for C.H.a.N.G.E.

Adaptive: Leadership Culture and Design Thinking

The new century brings tremendous opportunity in this industrial age of transformation. This requires aligning business strategy, transformation ambition, and execution discipline. The three components of transformation are:

  • Change: where the shift happens;

  • Adoption: where those impacted by the change decided to participate and sustain the change; and

  • Leadership: creates the culture that allows change and adoption to exist harmoniously.

According to the Center of Creative Leadership, three (3) types of leadership culture exist—dependent, independent, and interdependent. Each speaks to the leaders' level of involvement in orchestrating the change. To summarize, organizations that grow from dependent to independent to interdependent leadership cultures become increasingly capable of creative action in the face of complexity needed to sustain the change. Industry pundits agree that “up to 75% of change initiatives fail”. Why does this happen? Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy, best-selling authors of “Confronting Reality: Doing What Matters to Get Things Done," write:

“The usual reason for the failure of an initiative is that it was launched halfheartedly or was beyond the ability of the organization to master. Here's what tends to happen: the leaders announce a bold new program and then walk away from it, leaving the job to others. The program will wander and drift without clear impetus from the top. An initiative, after all, is add-on work, and people already have full plates. Few of them can take it seriously if the boss doesn't. Eventually, the effort bogs down and dies."

…Real results do not come from bold announcements about how the organization will change. They come from thoughtful, committed leaders who understand the details of an initiative, anticipate its consequences for the organization, make sure their people can achieve it, put their emotional weight behind it, and communicate its urgency to everyone."

In a dependent leadership culture mentioned previously, change work starts at the top and is led only by people in positions of authority. This form of leadership mindset is based on conformance or tradition. However, to master the change discussed by Drs. Charran and Bossidy, sustained change require changes in beliefs. The shift to an independent leadership culture embraces a leadership mindset where people assume leadership from various people based on their expertise. The growth of interdependent leadership culture enables holistic enterprise thinking, which fuels becoming increasingly capable of creative action in the face of complexity. Said another way, in interdependent leadership culture, leaders become adaptive design thinkers grounded on fundamental thinking paradigms of being holistic, uninhibited, collaborative, iterative, and visual. Design thinking fosters integrative and cross-disciplinary thinking.

Keys To Transition to An Adaptive Mindset

Here are some useful tips on how to help move toward a C.H.a.N.G.E. and interdependent culture:

  • Encourage curious, imaginative minds

  • Motivate by sharing

  • Create a spirit of collaboration

  • Passion starts with leaders

  • Foster adaptability

  • Celebrate small wins

  • Encourage new ideas to flourish

  • Encourage intelligent risk-taking

  • Maximize diversity

  • Foster a C.H.a.N.G.E. climate

  • Encourage autonomy

  • Embrace mistakes and failure

  • Start small

  • Create a learning environment

For any region to be relevant in this emerging digital economy, ideas must be nurtured to build and grow companies that participate in new methods of value creation. The Strategic Hustler™ is the explorer and author of this new way of life and work. The experience shared supports the argument that having a culture based on the collaboration of otherwise independent groups or leaders is essential to effective strategy execution.

In summary, within the context of C.H.a.N.G.E., the remaining articles will share the agile leadership concepts to move you to excellence and innovation. An adaptive mindset is a foundation for surviving and growing in a highly competitive digital world driven by excellence and innovation. Deciding “NOT to Adapt” demonstrates the lack of courage to BE THE EXCEPTION!

My next article will cover the "G" in A.G.I.L.E., Growth Mindset. Until then, all the best for continued success.

Follow me on Facebook, LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!


Prof. Dr. Frank Lee Harper, Jr., Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Dr. Frank Lee Harper, Jr. is the founder and world champion of agile leadership concepts. He is President ‒ UBTS International Corp having strategic affiliates in over 55 countries, Provost / Associate Professor ‒ Cambridge Corporate University, having branches in over 25 countries while serving on for-profit and not-for-profit advisory boards. He is an award-winning IT leader and published author who is adept at influencing and teaching strategic transformations across multiple countries, industries, disciplines, and technologies for businesses having global revenues ($1+ Trillion); savings/growth ($10+ Billion); with budgets ($4+ Billion). His favorite motto is, "Leaders Are Born To Be Made."



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