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Leadership in Change and Uncertainty

Three traits are needed to succeed in change and uncertainty

by Brad Wolff
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leading-through-changeSuccessful leadership requires navigating your organization through periods of change and uncertainty.  Learn how to do this well, and you can adapt and thrive in any environment.

Bob Electro was the CEO of Electro Brothers, Inc., a manufacturer and distributor of electronic components. After many successful years, the strategies and tactics that once worked well were failing. Bob’s trusted leadership team averaged 20 years of industry experience, yet their attempts at implementing new strategies were ineffective. Electro Brothers couldn’t adjust to the changes in customer demands and competition. 

Over the past two years, revenue dropped 36 percent with no foreseeable solutions to their dilemma. Bob swallowed his pride and hired an organizational expert, RoughSeas Navigation. RoughSeas helped the leadership team create a flexible, adaptive culture to succeed in the change and uncertainty that they faced. This wasn’t a quick fix, but within 18 months, revenue climbed 39 percent. Now the leadership team is more optimistic about the future than they’d been in years.

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Three traits are needed to succeed in change and uncertainty:

  1. Flexibility - the willingness to change or compromise
  2. Adaptability - the ability to successfully adjust to change 
  3. Learnability - the ability to quickly acquire new knowledge and skills 

When you combine these characteristics, you become a Flexible, Adaptive, Learning Organization—a FALO. A FALO is a culture that provides a competitive edge in our unstable world

The FALO equation is: Flexibility + Learnability = Adaptability. This is like E=mc² for business.

Here’s a closer look:

What happens when you have high flexibility but low learnability? Organizations and people like this are lost and directionless. Flexibility needs to be purposeful instead of just agreeable.

What happens when you have high learnability and low flexibility? People and organizations like this have knowledge and skills but aren’t open to ideas and solutions that differ from their current ones. They’re rigid.

You need a high-enough level of both traits to effectively adapt to change.

Focus on culture before strategy

Culture is the habitual manner of behaving that’s considered acceptable in your organization

Since culture is a habit, it takes time, effort, and continuous reinforcement to make lasting changes. Many leaders give up too soon. You need to be patient and persistent to create a new culture. 

Changing a strategy is quick and easy in comparison. It allows you to feel like you’ve taken smart and decisive action to meet your objectives. But strategy needs to be executed to be effective. This requires a culture that supports the strategy. Have you ever asked people to do things differently to meet new strategic initiatives? Did you get any pushback? Did anyone keep doing things the old way due to their habits?

Changing your culture requires the leaders to set the example by moving out of their comfort zones into new ways of thinking and behaving. It’s imperative to set the example with your own actions first. If you tell your people to do things you’re not doing, your efforts will fail! This is the truth of culture. Peter Drucker, the well-known management consultant said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast!” In truth, it eats strategy for lunch and dinner, too.

In the 1990s, Louis Gerstner led IBM to one of the greatest corporate turnarounds in US history. Most experts said that IBM was crazy to hire Gerstner since he had no computer industry experience and thus lacked the necessary strategic knowledge. What did Gerstner do? He focused on changing the culture at IBM before addressing the strategy. In 2002, he shared two lessons with MBA students at Harvard Business School: 

  1. "You don't win with strategy," … and 
  2. "Culture is everything."

Put Flexibility + learnability = adaptability into action 

To increase flexibility:

  • Build a culture that conditions everyone to consider multiple options and challenge beliefs and assumptions when making decisions.
  • Build a culture where you look for the opportunities in undesirable changes rather than getting stuck in resistance and complaining 
  • Build a culture where you stop insisting you’re right just because you believe you are 

To increase learnability:

  • Build a culture where people practice openness and authenticity. We all have weaknesses and don’t have all the answers. You can’t learn if you already know. Starting with ignorance opens the door to learning.
  • Build a culture where everyone participates in training and development programs. Grow knowledge and skills that are relevant to the opportunities and challenges facing your organization
  • Build a culture where leaders and teams openly discuss mistakes as well as concerns, and complaints raised by clients and employees. Don’t make excuses to avoid unpleasant realities. 
  • Build a culture of doing. Put what’s been learned in training and development and experiences into action. Information without action is just entertainment.

When you put the above principles into action you grow and develop as leaders and people.  This drives a culture of growth and development with your employees. When your people develop, they help your organization adapt to change and uncertainty. They also stop requiring the constant direction, monitoring, and babysitting that draw your energy away from making your desired contribution. 

Imagine what could happen if you adopt this approach in your organization.

Brad Wolff specializes in leadership development to increase productivity, profitability and engagement.  25 years in recruiting and retention taught him how leaders’ actions impact results with their people.  Brad’s passion is making the science of human potential simple and practical to achieve greater success with less stress and more satisfaction.  He’s a speaker and author of, People Problems? How to Create People Solutions for a Competitive Advantage. For more information please visit: or email him at