By align5 Coach, Ross Shott

Do even a cursory internet search for leadership and you will find hundreds of thousands of books, articles, and speeches illuminating the topic. (Amazon alone has over 150,000 books tagged with leadership). There are tens of thousands of consultants and trainers equally charged with spreading leadership knowledge. Why then, are so many leaders struggling to find their proper footing? The answer is simple – leadership is adaptive. There is no single characteristic or single style of leadership that will ensure your success in every scenario. Therefore, the best approach to leadership is to learn as many techniques as possible and have a flexible leadership methodology that adapts to the needs at hand.

During my time in the military, I received formal classroom training on leadership, daily reinforcement, and in-the-field practical experience in low-risk situations to start off. But I was what they call a fast burner, meaning I made rank quickly. At one point I passed all my peers and even a few former supervisors who used to out rank me but now worked for me. In a sense I rose to a high level of leadership before all that training had time to be ingrained and pay off. It was during this time that I learned my greatest leadership lesson.

Fluidity over Rigidity

Something was amiss, things were going terribly wrong. I pulled one of my crew members aside privately. I started off by saying that I was confused, that something felt wrong. The unit morale used to be amazing, our productivity used to be off the charts, and our camaraderie after work used to be legendary. But now I felt all of that was gone, nothing was working. The unit was not performing well and the crew I used to party with after hours were shunning me. I asked him if there was something crazy going on, were people overworked, or was I just being overly sensitive. He looked me square in the eyes and responded, “Since you made rank you have become a real a–hole!” Stunned, I simply replied “Thank you, Troy.” And I walked away.

I stayed up all night thinking about what he said. Eventually I decided to make a list of leadership qualities I admired. The list came from people I read about in fiction and non-fiction biographies, people from my youth like teachers, scoutmasters, sports coaches, managers I worked with and lastly, a few officers and NCO’s I served with during my previous assignments. It was a long list of qualities and characteristics of proven leadership under many different contexts and circumstances.

I returned to the unit at the crack of dawn. We always had a weekly kickoff meeting with all the crews together. I stood before them and acknowledged my failure. Told them how my behavior was not the leader I wanted to be. Instead, I wanted to be this leader and I shared the list of qualities and examples of leadership I would master and emulate going forward. I asked them for a second chance to be that person. Thankfully, they allowed me that honor. A year later we had surpassed our previous performance with a series of outstanding Inspector General wartime readiness assessments and were put in for one of the highest commendations awarded outside of a combat theater.

Leadership is Highly Adaptive 

For over three decades I have used this lesson to train other managers and executives. One of the best ways for managers to use this experience is to ask their team members which qualities of leadership they value and why. From the list generated, pick the three most important and work diligently the emulate those three with your team. As a young leader you can master three and then expand later once you are successful at leading people. Over time as you apply this approach in different contexts and with different team dynamics you will build a compliment of leadership skills.

As an executive you can adapt to the current team and scenario. I usually recommend selecting three qualities as the basis or foundation for a leadership style that will get you through most situations. For example, in one context (team and situation) the strongest leadership approach may be to lead with vision, confidence, and inspiration. Another context might benefit more from transparency, honesty, and compassion. Another might drive success most through discipline, focus, and perseverance. Remember you are not throwing out the many good qualities you have but you are homing in on the ones that will best get you and your team beyond the current challenge.

When in Doubt, ask your Team 

Where to start? Give your team a chance to weigh in. You can start with an exercise or two to understand this adaptive approach. Here are some suggestions for gathering feedback from your Team.

Word Cloud

Share this article with your team. Have everyone contribute to a list or word cloud of the characteristics they respect and admire most in a leader. You may be surprised how long the list is and some of the qualities appreciated. Ask them to prioritize or vote on the top 3-5.

Situational Application

Make a list of leadership qualities that would be needed in regularly occurring, specific situations. Be prepared to practice those qualities each time the situation arises.

Quarterly Theme

Define a theme for the quarter, such as Transparency, and choose 3 ways that the Leadership Team can put this theme into practice on a daily basis. This is a great way to round out skill mastery with various qualities that may come in handy later.


Effective leadership doesn’t just happen, it requires on-going, intentional practice. It requires the ability to accept feedback and adjust. It asks that you adapt to the situation and to the people you are leading. No wonder there are numerous books written on this subject!

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