Published on 31 Dec 2020

Adaptability: What can we learn from this black swan?

Research found that during a VUCA environment or crisis or black swan such as COVID-19, leaders’ experience is a better predictor than intelligence in leading the people out of the daunting challenges.

By Dr Cheng Boon Koh


COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) affects all of us – as an individual, family, group, organisation, nation to the world. This black swan,a n unpredictable event that has potentially severe consequences, has given the world, nations, societies, organisations and individuals a rude awakening.

The series of ripple effects from social behaviours to economic impacts and world order is going to be far-reaching.

Pandemics or plagues are just one facet of the VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world that we are living in now. Old keys will not open new doors; we need to know and accept the fact that there are no textbook answers, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) or proven solutions for all problems in the VUCA environment. 

How can leaders lead in times of uncertainty?

Leaders need to be adaptive in order to win the future. How to be adaptive is an important lesson that all leaders need to learn and develop quickly. Research found that during a VUCA environment or crisis or black swan such as COVID-19, leaders’ experience is a better predictor than intelligence in leading the people out of the daunting challenges.   

What are some good leadership qualities?

In my research, the acronym, CARE which means Creative, Adaptive, Resilient and Emotional Intelligence, are important leadership qualities for crisis management. 

Among the four qualities, Adaptive is the key to the door of successful crisis management and leadership. 

Adaptive leadership requires leaders to modify their decision-making process to meet new challenges by being proactive and flexible.  The three aspects of adaptive leadership relevant to today’s situation are:

Sense-making of the situation, especially in the face of a crisis.  This involves the ability to understand what is happening (situational awareness) and to expect the unexpected.  Leaders need to quickly analyse the internal and external environments and keep abreast of the new, high risk, and ever-changing situation, through the ability to gather the necessary information and a good understanding of the crisis from a systems perspective. For example, when there is an outbreak of a pandemic, system thinking of understanding the whole and the parts as well as the ability to see the connectivity are essential leadership skills.

Sense-giving involves the leaders helping their people to identify and prioritise meaning and purpose. Increased complexity and volatility can overwhelm leaders and the people during crises. Our study revealed that crisis leadership was to be able to be aware and maintain the right priority in the VUCA environment.  This also includes leaders’ ability to set a direction when team members do not know how to handle the situation or crisis.

Meaning-making refers to understanding the if-then model to anticipate potential problems as the events unfold.  This is similar to having a mental map of what is happening that can be used to guide future actions.  The key is the problem-solving experience in realistic training that personalises and contextualises adaptive leadership skills.  According to studies, these prescriptive mental models derived from experiential learning, experience sharing, and self-awareness provide a good model of plan or reference during a crisis and under time pressure.  These mental maps are vital for leaders who need to recognise changing situations and respond dynamically to contingencies in VUCA and crisis environments. 

What if they failed in some areas?

We can find comfort in research in cognitive resource theory that pointed out that experience is a better predictor than intelligence in successful crisis management and leadership. 

So,when the next black swan appears again, which we know it is a matter of when rather than if, the most important thing is whether we have learned this lesson from this experience? More essentially, we need to continue to embrace change and adapt to this new world order of VUCA as part of our daily life. 

Lessons are meant for the future, not the present and past

Studies revealed that leaders who have demonstrated these qualities are able to lead effectively and will be perceived as effective leaders by their followers.

So, are you ready to adapt to the next black swan, COVID-20 or Circuit Breaker version 2? 
About the author
Dr Cheng Boon Koh is a senior lecturer at Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University. He teaches Leadership, Organisational Behaviour, Principles of Management, Team, and Independent Research Module as undergraduate and Masters levels. His research interests include Crisis Leadership Qualities, Leadership Effectiveness: Actual and Perceived, and Emotional Intelligence. Dr Koh developed few psychometric tools, including the Crisis Leadership Survey, Leadership Style Profiler, and Leadership Preference Survey.  He is also a qualified coach and counsellor.