Leaders don’t come much greater than Admiral Lord Nelson. A highly effective leader who inspired his men through empathy rather than authority and a master of naval strategy and unconventional tactics. He remains one of Britain’s most celebrated figures.
Most famously, he led his fleet into the battle of Trafalgar. Outnumbered and outgunned, the British stood little chance against the combined fleets of the French and Spanish navies. If Nelson’s leadership was Britain’s last hope of beating the odds, it was a fleeting one. Nelson was shot and died during the battle.
So how could a navy - outnumbered and without its inspirational commander – win victory so spectacularly? By the end of the battle, 22 of the 37 French and Spanish ships had been sunk. The British lost none, and recorded a decisive and famous victory.
The answer gets to the heart of what makes a leader great, and how they should understand their role.
An ever changing world
We’re used to the notion that the world is changing at breakneck speed. Schools attempt to prepare students for careers that do not yet exist. Companies rise and fall on their ability to predict what’s over the horizon. E-commerce, streaming services, sub-prime mortgages, the price of oil – all have precipitated the failure of decades-old household names. We tend to think of rapid and unpredictable change being a result of technology, but the unpredictable nature of the immediate future was a consideration even for Nelson,
“[It is] almost impossible to bring a fleet… into a line of battle in variable winds, thick weather and other circumstances that must occur… Something must be left to chance, nothing is sure in a sea fight beyond all others. Shot will carry away the masts and yards of friends as well as foes.”
The notion of the unpredictability of the future is described in the military today through the acronym VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. It’s what soldiers face in the heat of battle, and, less dramatically, what all of us face in the world of work. Having the skills to thrive in your role now doesn’t necessarily mean you will be well equipped to do it in five years. Equally, passing on your technical skills to your team might not stand them in good stead in the future.
But there’s the challenge: if we don’t know what the future holds, how can we possibly prepare ourselves and our teams for it?
The answer is that we do know what is coming: Change. VUCA. However able you, your team or your company are today, you’ll need to adapt to remain able in the future. Perhaps you’ll need to learn code or employ developers. Perhaps language skills will be important. Maybe data skills, creative thinking, salesmanship or problem solving will become vital.
It’s impossible at this point to resist referencing Charles Darwin, the original authority on responding to change. As Darwin tells us, it’s not the strongest that survive, but the most adaptable to change. Only those that best fit the new environment survive and thrive.
And that’s the skill you, your team and your company need most of all: adaptability.
Overcoming the odds
When Nelson lined up against the superior French and Spanish fleets, he knew that the traditional way of battle would see him lose. Naval battles of the time involved the opposing fleets forming two parallel lines and opening fire, their cannons facing each other. Faced with fairly inevitable defeat, Nelson adapted:
“Nelson’s plan required his ships to approach the enemy head-on in two perpendicular lines. Their goal was to divide the enemy line into three pieces as quickly as possible. Nelson believed that without a clear line of sight to their leader, [the enemy] would crumble.”
Nelson introduced VUCA to the battle, and relied on his better adaptability to win the day.
But more than this – and as his death in the battle demonstrated – he relied on the adaptability of his men to make the difference.
Nelson spent years getting to know his captains well and encouraged them to share their ideas on naval strategy as well as listening to his own. He provided foundation, but encouraged them to think for themselves too. At the battle of Trafalgar, Nelson dictated the perpendicular approach strategy. Once the resulting VUCA materialised, he gave each of his captains discretion to choose their own targets and methods of attack. He relied not only on his men’s sailing skills, but their own strategic minds, speed of thought, autonomy and ability to adapt – all of which he had instilled through his leadership.
“The only commands he issued to his fleet during the battle were at its onset: “Prepare to anchor after the close of day”, “Engage the enemy more closely”, and famously “England expects that every man will do his duty”.”
Again, this notion of communicating ‘Commander’s Intent’ persists in the armed forces today:
"Superiors should state a minimum of control measures, so as not to constrain subordinates’ freedom of action. This grants the subordinate considerable latitude… Mission Command is intended to avoid the production of long and detailed orders, and to allow initiative and the seizure of fleeting opportunities.” - Major Jim Storr, British Army.
Employ minds, not bodies
Nelson’s greatness was not just his strategic insight and creative adaptability. It was his creation of these same skills in his men; he made use of the power of their minds as well as their limbs. A leader whose team need to defer to them when faced with a new or challenging situation is a bottleneck. A leader whose team can adapt to new situations and demonstrate problem solving skills, creativity and independent thought leads a much more powerful and capable unit.
You may think that your line of work doesn’t require much adaptability, either in the day to day or on the horizon. But in reality, it’s hard to conceive of a role that isn’t better performed with high levels of adaptability. If a good candidate for an adaptability-free role might appear to be the workers on a production line, for example, then Toyota prove the opposite to be the case.
Toyota realise that when looking for ways to make the production line more efficient, no amount of external auditors or senior decision makers have the same level of insight as the factory floor workers themselves. That’s why Toyota install pull cords along the production line – if anyone on the factory floor sees a process that isn’t working well, or conceive of a better way of doing things, they are encouraged to pull the cord. The production line stops, and that person has the ear of senior managers. Encouraging an adaptive mindset in all their employees gives Toyota access to huge levels of insight into every part of their business.
The value of adaptability explains why a measure of a child’s creativity correlates three times more strongly to lifetime success than IQ (American psychologist Ellis Paul Torrence).
Nurturing adaptability in your team will set them up for future success, will allow them to face every hurdle and new challenge more capably, and will mean they can think, adapt, improve, solve and create for themselves. If done well, it makes you expendable. You might still have a hugely valuable input to make, and an important pastoral care and strategic leadership role to play, but in terms of the team being able to perform its central task well, they should be as able to proceed without you just as Nelson’s fleet was at the Battle of Trafalgar.
If adaptability is a skill to be prioritised and nurtured, how should leaders go about doing so? Regular readers of the 4and20million blog will recognise some familiar themes here.
Firstly, it is impossible to encourage independent thinking and adaptability in environments where people don’t feel psychological safety. This is the idea that team members feel “able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career" (William Kahn, 1990). Psychological safety has been shown to be integral to workplace effectiveness, innovation and collaboration. Leaders should create an environment where it’s safe to experiment, to suggest a new idea without fear of ridicule or negative judgment, to admit weakness, to ask for help and to offer an opinion. This sets the conditions for employees to find their own voice, develop their own ideas and perspective, and to think for themselves.
It’s also important that your reward structure doesn’t stifle adaptability. If your team is targeted purely on short term productivity (monthly sales, billable hours, utilisation %), then activities like conceptual thinking and developing new methods are inherently discouraged. Time is better spent cracking on with the task at hand. But where these short-term pressures are less prioritised, individuals are freed to invest time in considering new approaches, sharing ideas, trying new things and broadening their perspective, experience and adaptability.
Even when independent thinking is prioritised, it’s not effective to demand only great new ideas. People should be encouraged to think, share and develop as much as feasibly possible. An average proposal or half-idea might develop into something greater, or combine with someone else’s thinking to make something better. Not only does this acceptance demonstrate the value of a collaborative team in co-creating and building on each others’ thinking, it also allows people to contribute their best without the stifling fear that their thoughts aren’t good enough.
Only through contributing, refining and revising will people become better and more confident at independent thought and adaptability. Rather than ask your team for three good alternatives, you should instead ask for 10 possible ones, and then work together to develop the best ones further. That way, everyone can bring something to the table.
Like Nelson, leaders should regularly seek their team’s views. From the moment your most inexperienced member of staff is first asked “what do you think?”, they know that they not only have permission to have an opinion, they are expected to think for themselves. Knowing that your ideas and perspective are as valued as your technical skills ensures that the development of both become a priority.
This requires a style of leadership that avoids micro-managing, but is not laissez-faire either. Leaving your people to it doesn’t challenge them to think for themselves, it just leaves them to follow the current path. Instead, inviting their opinion, challenging them and encouraging creativity and experimentation will push them to become independent thinkers with their own contribution to make.
Finally, it’s important to remember just how much vulnerability is required to put yourself out there and think differently, or challenge convention. Much as leaders might seek to establish the psychological safety necessary to allow this, it’s not enough just to preach it; leaders must show the same vulnerability themselves. If this isn’t present, the message is that to become more senior, vulnerability must be avoided. So leaders must also be prepared to be wrong, to share their failures, to show that they are not expert in everything and to ask others for help. The behaviours that a leader models are copied, so embody the traits you expect from your team every day.
Adaptability might not always be at the top of your list of desirable skills, but it should be. It’s how manufacturing company 3M invented products as diverse as Post-It notes, waterproof sandpaper and sound-proofing materials. It’s how David defeated Goliath. It’s how an 1800s paper company called Nokia became the world leader in mobile phone technology 200 years later. It’s why dinosaurs no longer exist.
If production line workers, paper companies and naval fleets can benefit from developing adaptability, the chances are you can too.
Many of the examples of the importance of adaptability quoted here are taken from the excellent Primed to Perform by Neel Doshi & Lindsay McGregor. If you found this article interesting, we'd recommend it for your reading list!