Ben Eaton via Unsplash

How to Get Really Comfortable with Adaptability

We experienced some cold winters when Sue and I lived in Chicago. We had Lake Michigan to thank for the biting winds that felt like they reached right through the heaviest of coats. That’s why I had to chuckle when I heard that surfers are now heading to Lake Michigan in growing numbers so they can ride the 20 to 30-foot waves—especially from November through March.

To me, surfing Lake Michigan in the winter sounds like running toward the bulls in Spain. But these hearty souls have made surfing the Great Lakes more popular than ever, in part because these lakes boast 3,200 miles of coastline—more than East and West Coasts combined. Some call it America’s Third Coast.

Third Coast surfers are no strangers to wearing full wetsuits, booties, gloves and hoods during the winter—and those who have facial hair come away with “ice beards” as icicles form while the surf’s up. It’s clearly a case of making the most of a situation even when the conditions aren’t idyllic. Local surfer, Mike Calabro says, “If you want to live here and surf, you can’t let a little cold stop you.”

There are many times in life when we can enjoy what’s waiting on the other side if we’re willing to adapt. Some of the best decisions I’ve made in my life are those that took me out of my comfort zone. Sometimes you have to do uncomfortable things in order to advance. I find that leaders who get too comfortable have trouble making tough decisions.

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If you’re wondering how to avoid getting too comfortable, Allan Calarco, coauthor of Adaptability: Responding Effectively to Change, says that adaptable people show three kinds of flexibility:

  1. Cognitive – the ability to use different thinking strategies and mental frameworks. Leaders with this skill readily learn from experience and recognize when old practices don’t work anymore. 
  2. Emotional – the ability to vary one’s approach to dealing with emotions and those of others. An emotionally flexible leader is comfortable with the process of transition, including complaining and resistance (to change, for example).
  3. Dispositional – the ability to remain optimistic, and, at the same time, realistic. These leaders are neither blindly positive nor pessimistic. Ambiguity is well-tolerated.

Third Coast surfers show the best of these kinds of flexibility—particularly cognitive and dispositional—with the adaptations they’ve applied to tradition surfing. Perhaps they even exhibit emotional flexibility since there might have been some initial complaining and resistance to the cold weather.

While you’re in the comfort of your warm and cozy office, ask yourself these four questions inspired by Center for Creative Leadership to see if you’re ready to adapt to change:

  • Are you asking questions, wondering, exploring and withholding judgment before you decide?
  • Do you get attached to a single plan or do you have Plan B and C at the ready?
  • Do you have a support network of mentors, friends, coaches and trusted peers? Do you encourage your employees to do the same?
  • Do you practice adapting to change? In other words, do you join activities, meet new people and try new things on a regular basis?

Consider taking a page out of Calarco’s advice and don’t let a little discomfort stop you the next time you have a chance to explore new ways of thinking, collaborating with your team or just catching a wave.

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