Gumby, Iron Man, and the Importance of Adaptive Leadership

By: Craig Robbins  

Imagine Gumby and Iron Man as leaders in your organization. We all know what your teams would do to Gumby as their boss. They’d pull, twist, and bend him in every way possible. Gumby would ask the team to do something and they’d literally tie his hands behind his back and stick a foot in his yapper. Poor Gumby can’t lead. Why? Because he’s simply too flexible.

Now imagine Iron Man bursting through the door (or window) for his first day on the job. Iron Man was hired to take charge and lead those teams through anything that life throws their way. We can probably guess how this scenario would play out. Iron Man would walk in and find his teams huddled closely together in the janitor’s closet. Iron Man can’t lead either. Why? Because he’s simply too rigid.

I’ve worked with hundreds of leaders throughout the world and most of them fall at a fixed point somewhere on this continuum between overly flexible and overly rigid. The very best leaders I’ve worked with have mastered a very important skill; they’ve developed the ability to lead from different points along the continuum depending on the needs of their current situation. I call this Adaptive Leadership; in my opinion, using an adaptive leadership style is the most effective way to lead in the world today.

Why Adaptive Leadership Works

Our world is more interconnected today than it has ever been, and situations change with the blink of an eye. It’s not uncommon to be in a casual morning meeting with your peers and later find yourself at a formal dinner with people from a very different culture than your own. Within your own office, you likely experience uniquely different personalities because, in today’s workforce, our employees typically come from a wide range of backgrounds and life experiences. As a manager, you will sometimes need to be more like Gumby and at other times more like Iron Man.

The Continuum Exercise

Imagine a scale from one to ten, with one being extremely rigid and ten being extremely flexible. Think about where you fall on this scale as a leader. Now think of three different scenarios that could occur in one day, each requiring you to fall at a different point on the scale. For example, you might have to deal with an employee who violated a sexual harassment prevention policy that calls for an immediate and rigid response. Later in the day, you might find yourself in a typical meeting. You remain flexible enough to encourage collaboration and let the team steer the conversation toward a positive outcome, yet rigid enough to keep the team on point and on time. Later that evening, you’re invited to attend a casual dinner with foreign business partners. You’re not well versed in their cultural practices so you take a watch-and-learn approach, remaining flexible enough to adapt to their behaviors. These examples should help you think of different scenarios in your own workplace that require adaptation.

Three Key Adaptations

There are many ways for you as a leader to adapt to a given situation, but I find three areas to be most important. At a minimum, you should be able to adapt mentally, physically, and communicatively.

Adapting mentally requires you to change your mindset to based on your perspectives, emotions, biases, and more. This is not easy to do, but actively thinking about the way you think and feel is the best place to start. You might be engaged in one activity that requires a direct communication style and later engaged in an activity that requires you to simply listen and understand. You must find ways to manage your mindset, or switch modes. Also, be sure to consider your cultural biases and perspectives and manage them as you work with people that are different from you.

Adapting physically requires you to change your physical behavior. This includes nonverbal behavior, such as how much space you leave between yourself and those around you. Sometimes you’ll need to be more physically authoritative and other times you’ll need to be more relaxed and laid back. Physical fitness also plays a role here. It’s well researched that peak performance and physical conditioning go hand in hand. If you’re preparing for three long months of travel, you should exercise regularly before you travel; if you’re going on a business outing that requires you and your team to hike, climb, run, or play sports, you should prepare yourself to keep up with your team. There are many ways to physically adapt to your situation, but most of us don’t think about this often enough.

Communicative adaptation requires you to change the way you communicate and manage relationships. Different people on your team will respond better or worse to different communication styles. Observe your team and adapt your communication style when necessary. Some people don’t respond well to an overly rigid communication style, while others don’t respond to leaders who are too flexible. Iron Man should sometimes talk like Gumby, and Gumby like Iron Man.

Adapt and Thrive

Adaptive leadership can help you overcome a number of challenging situations and will certainly improve your ability to lead others. To be an exceptional leader, you must consciously manage the rigid-flexible continuum and learn how to walk the line. This will require a strong sense of self-awareness and the discipline to allow you to manage your mindset, physical presence, and communication style. Know that if you’re able to demonstrate Gumby-like flexibility and Iron Man-like rigidness in a controlled and purposeful manner, you will thrive as a leader.