How Do We Develop Adaptability?

working the table

Adaptive leadership is an evolving process involving these key activities: 1) observing events and patterns around you; 2) interpreting or orienting too what you are observing (developing multiple hypotheses about what is really going on); 3) developing courses of action based on the observations and orientations to address the adaptive challenge you have identified. Each of these activities builds on the ones that come before it; and the process overall is iterative and continues throughout the tactical situation: you will repeatedly refine your observations, orientations, decisions and actions.

Adaptive leadership is not exclusively about “a leader” it is actually about the leader and how he leads and develops his people. If you believe as I do that leadership is a day to day thing and NOT an event driven thing, then you are half way to understanding adaptive leadership. Adaptive leaders understand that a high level of professionalism is what is required to enable us to execute effectively in crisis situations. We cannot come to work sit behind a desk day in and day out while ignoring the training needs of our people and when crisis strikes magically put our leadership skills into play effectively. Leadership and inspiring effective courses of action just does not work that way. We must develop our people to a high standard not only on paper but for real so they can adapt to rapidly changing circumstances that requires thinking leaders, leading thinking cops. This in my view is what real leadership is about, day in and day out development of our people so that they can effectively police considering the full context of what policing is.

Outcomes and Measures of Effectiveness

Developing adaptability is focused on achieving desired outcomes defined in broad, plain English, and taking whole (considering all perspectives), assessed through measures of effectiveness that define what each outcome means, not time. This builds on the tactical decision-making and communication skills already in place. The main difference between this type of development and the others is the level of complexity that the students must deal with in the scenarios. Officer development must now focus on identifying the problem and solving it using the tools available. We must accept less standardization, with more focus on achieving desired outcomes. Strategic and tactical judgment must replace detailed rules and development of our people must be designed to include decision-making and develop adaptability which requires risk taking and judgment. In other words we must shift from developing leaders how to apply solutions and enforce standards, to teaching them how to frame problems and solve them.

Decision Making Exercises and After Action Reviews

Sand Table

The best methodology in developing people is that all ‘teaching’ is scenario-based. No PowerPoint presentations or lectures! No rote memorization of information! The purpose of Adaptive Leadership is to create and nurture adaptability, strength of character, effective communications skills, and decision-making abilities. You only develop these attributes through being engaged in actively solving dilemmas.

Developing adaptability you must use real problems as the basis for training that generally start with the particular rather than the abstract theory. Development must focus on the why, not just what and how. All teaching must combine doing with explaining and student understanding; all training requires employing skills to solve problems. Standardize by outcomes, not by inputs or processes and allow both teachers and students the opportunity to try new approaches. Minimize controls so we create an environment in which it’s ok to make mistakes, penalize only failure to think or failure to try.

Constant feedback is essential and must be acted upon and this is why effective communications and social skills are so important. After action reviews or, decision-making critiques must be seen as a means to continuous improvement and not as unwelcomes criticism or to punish. If we cannot take feedback we cannot and will not learn and evolve.

Assess what’s important rather than what’s easy to measure. Let’s stop looking at some list of how to do things as the be all end all to assessments and lets start focusing in on the attributes and values that make adaptable and effective cops.

Critical Principles of Adaptability


Adaptive Leadership is based on four key principles: 1) the worst thing to do is to make no decision at all. 2) There is no single, scientific solution to a tactical problem. 3) It is about “How To Think” not “What To Think.” 4) Communication must be effective.

We develop people who are able to go beyond merely repeating of information from policy and procedures, rules and regulations, and checklists by effectively analyzing the enemy threat as it is unfolding considering real time and risk.

Adaptive leadership is a combination of all these principles evolving parallel throughout the organization and requires the leader to create an environment where the people doing the work are driving the change and committed to high performance.

Conclusion: Build Confidence and Enhance Leadership

Focusing our efforts on identifying outcomes and measures of effectiveness to judge learning and our ability to continuously improve is a critical factor in developing adaptive decision makers. identifying core values, outcomes and measures of effectiveness combined with the art of facilitation, coaching and mentoring while conducting decision making exercises, tactical decision games and mastering the after action review, is how we create and nurture adaptability in our organizations. This not only develops adaptability, it builds confidence in individuals while enhancing their own leadership and instruction methods. A great model for any organization to follow!

Stay Oriented!


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