Attempting to stay ahead in the change game is a dizzying task. There’s so much going on in every direction and it’s impossible to follow everything. But there are some clear trends. One of them is that big cumbersome organisations are increasingly losing out to smaller, more adaptable competitors.

Only a few years ago, Australian supermarket giant Woolworths rode high with 650 stores, steadily-growing revenues and world-leading margins. Today, it is reeling.

Hubristically it entered and failed spectacularly in the hardware sector, but, most notably, Woolies (along with old duopoly partner Coles) is being undone in its core supermarket business by upstart Aldi.

Aldi’s low cost, no-nonsense, small-store model arrived at a time when frugal became cool again. The German discounter has grown to over 10 percent market share and shows no signs of stopping. It might be the David to the Woolies Goliath, but remember how that scrap ended!

Even 5 years into the fight, it’s far from clear how Woolworths plans to adapt to compete. It’s perfectly possible that the supermarket giant could stumble in the same way that Kodak, Nokia, Blockbuster and many lesser-known former sector-leaders have done – all because they failed to adapt.

This, of course, is not new news. As Charles Darwin observed over a century ago...   

It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.

How Adaptability Fits In Our Leadership Model

Adaptability is one of the 16 pillars of the i4 Neuroleader Model. It sits within the competency of Agility. As I unpack in the ‘Agility’ post, the 4 pillars are:

The 3 Elements Of Adaptability

Adaptability refers to the ability to adjust effectively to changes in our environment.

The ability to remain flexible, to accept and adapt to the unexpected is key to our success – particularly in relation to a world that is increasingly ambiguous. In turn, Adaptability is made up of three elements:


Versatility is about being flexible and quickly getting used to new situations and environments. While change is uncomfortable for many of us, we now know the process of neuroplasticity enables our brain to effectively ‘rewire’. The brain is malleable and continuously grows new cells and connections. Every part of the brain can rewire in direct response to what we think, see and do – irrespective of our age.

That’s the good news. From a leadership perspective, the challenge is – well to accept the challenge! It’s about deciding to change ourselves and, in turn, to help others to do so. Knowing that our brains can adapt is useful and still little understood. This makes it a great motivational and educational tool for leaders to encourage their teams to step out. 

To compete in today’s market, we simply have to develop alternative traits, approaches & attitudes. As D H Lawrence, so beautifully put it, in far simpler times...

Never set a child afloat on the flat sea of life with only one sail to catch the wind.

Dealing With Uncertainty

Uncertainty feels like the hallmark of our age, but it may not be that different from how it was experienced by our ancestors. Our bodies are prepared to deal with uncertain scenarios by increasing our heart rate, making abundant energy available and secreting adrenaline (or non-adrenaline) for us to either run away or stay and fight (referred to as the flight, fight or freeze reactions). 

It is now clear that our brains are more akin to pattern recognition machines than to some kind of random and chaotic organism. Chaos amplifies discomfort, often triggering our ‘reptilian brain’ reactions.

These are rarely useful in a business context. As leaders, we can help by making sense of change for our people. Practically, that may mean creating a clear vision for the future we are working towards and mapping out the first few steps (even when we know the subsequent actions. In fact, it is likely that we will not know. That’s the ambiguous part. We can’t change that, but we can make it easier by chunking big unknowns into smaller, logical steps that we have experienced before.


Self-correction is the ability to look within and assess how we conduct ourselves in both our work and home lives.

From the moment we are born we learn by repeating behaviours that reinforce connection between the cells in our brains, thus creating habits. These habits condition how we act in later life and how we perceive the world. Correcting old habits is often a big part of the change equation, but it is possible. Awareness is the first step to changing these deeply embedded neural connections.

I find that self-awareness is lacking in so many of today’s leaders – often encouraged by old leadership frameworks and work processes. However, once we become self-aware (often by becoming vulnerable and admitting our own flaws), change can be rapid and very positive. Leading others must start with first leading ourselves. Once we are aware of where we are ‘at’ and what we need to change to develop, our leadership effectiveness skyrockets. 

Adaptability Is An Attitude

It’s notable that the elements of adaptability are based around mindset rather than knowledge or experience. Perhaps that is why more experienced and often older leaders (and the business they lead) lose sight of its importance. Continuing into the future by extending the past has been a successful business formula for decades.

In today’s VUCA world it appears that the rules have changed. We must be constantly questioning. What if? How can we do this differently? If we were starting today, what would we do? And then we must adapt…

Originally posted on: 10 January 2017
Last updated on: 25 February 2024
Mark Hodgson

Mark Hodgson

Mark Hodgson comes from an international corporate leadership background. He is one of our i4 Partners and runs his own leadership practise. A natural disruptor, he helps executives and consultants to position themselves as leading influencers. He also volunteers as a Telephone Crisis Support worker for Lifeline.

Mark is an Executive Coach, keynote Speaker and the Author. His first book is: ‘Time to Shine: Adapting who you are and what you know to succeed in the ideas economy’.

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