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Illustration by David Vogin

How to Succeed as an Adaptable Leader

Change and complexity are both inevitable in the security industry, and success for security managers and leaders depends on being flexible and agile—in a word, adaptable. 

In fact, recent research supports the importance of adaptability in leadership. The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) surveyed managers in North America on the question of what it takes to succeed as a leader. The most frequently cited success factor was the ability to develop or adapt. Conversely, the inability to develop or adapt was the most frequently cited reason for career derailment. 

What exactly is adaptability? Stephen Zaccaro, an organizational psychologist and leadership development expert at George Mason University, developed an adaptability framework a few decades ago that still holds up. Zaccaro’s three adaptability attributes are: cognitive flexibility, or the ability to use different thinking strategies and mental frameworks; emotional flexibility, the ability to vary one’s approach in dealing with one’s own emotions and those of others; and dispositional flexibility, the ability to remain both optimistic and realistic. 

Very adaptable people rate high in all three areas, Zaccaro found. And all three of these traits can be learned by managers willing to make the effort.

This adaptability can influence your day-to-day management style. Consider the following examples in the day-to-day security workplace that show adaptability in four areas: resolving workplace conflicts; bridging skill gaps; managing oneself and one’s own bias; and adjusting to changing workplace communication standards.


The Imperative of Compromise

Resolving conflicts and problems in today’s workplace sometimes requires a paradigm shift away from the traditional competitive model, in which a disagreement ends with a win-lose outcome, and toward a win-win cooperative model.

To do this, security managers must check their egos and personal agendas at the door, and then undertake an openminded search for possible solutions that offer all parties something valuable to gain without losing anything of importance.

Take, for example, John Rony, who recently transitioned into a new security management position. In his new job, John seemed to have stepped onto a bed of hot coals. Workplace conflicts were intense. Traditionally, the firm’s culture was competition-driven, and when conflicts occurred, the party that was the most invested in winning—and therefore fought the hardest—usually prevailed.

But John realized this Darwinian ethos was no longer working, as conflict intensity was becoming too disruptive. Upper management was also starting to see this, and so, showing cognitive flexibility, John sensed that the time was ripe for a perspective change.

John borrowed some ideas from an online game called The Prisoner’s Dilemma. With a focus on the prisoner’s perspective, the game allowed both win-lose and win-win outcomes. Prisoners could be competitive and focus on how to get the best sentence for themselves at others’ expense, or they could be cooperative and choose what was best for the whole group.

John encouraged staff to try playing the game to help teach them what it felt like to be a loser under a win-lose system, as opposed to being a winner alongside everyone else. This little experiment yielded big results. John discussed his new conflict resolution proposal with staff before rolling it out to address any possible negative connotations, such as the argument—common in highly competitive cultures—that compromise is a sign of weakness or failure.

The first opportunity to employ this new perspective came with an invitation to bid on a large job. The organization’s sales team firmly believed they could get the job by using highly competitive pricing in the bid, but the operations team was concerned that they would not be able to meet the required performance standards under the bid amount.

John gave both teams a cooperative, win-win proposal: develop an exact pricing model based on the job’s cost factors that would be competitive enough to win and realistic enough not to lose the company money if selected.

But John quickly learned that complex business challenges often require more than one creative solution. For example, the firm was debating lowering the firm’s hiring standards to get enough applicants vs. being more selective and risking not getting enough workers to staff the bid jobs. Here again, John proposed another win-win compromise, designed to address both the quality and the quality of applicants. The proposal called for refining the general selection criteria with more specific and relevant job-related success factors, changing advertising strategies, identifying new recruiting sources, and increasing referral bonuses.

In this way, John was able to adapt his company’s conflict resolution culture so that it allowed both sides to work together to find a viable solution in which both parties gained what they most looking without giving up crucial. It still allows individuals to compete against each other in proposing ideas, but it also makes cooperation crucial. It facilitates win-win outcomes.

There is still one valuable lesson waiting in the wings for John: be cautious about embracing current solutions as final solutions. The competition–cooperation compromise may work well for several years, but a new paradigm shift may be called for in the long-term. The cognitive flexibility of adaptable managers never ceases; they stay agile, alert, and anticipating.

Bridging the Gaps

In the security industry, gaps have been a common problem in both training and job performance. For example, a guard service provider might say their guards are well trained, but sometimes clients find their skill sets to be less than advertised. How can a manager help ensure that what is delivered matches what is promised? Let’s look at two adaptable managers, and how both dealt with such a gap.

Harry Stanfill worked in security sales and marketing as a senior executive. He has been in the security industry for 40 years, and his knowledge base has been key to his success. His skills and abilities were as good as they get, and his security expertise was greatly respected. Still, many of his customers had complained that there was a wide gap between his own skill level—which is clearly high—and the security officers his company places at work sites. The firm was still financially viable, but the complaints were taking a toll.

Harry decided to jump in the trenches and become more familiar with security officers’ baseline skill levels. Unfortunately, it was lower than he suspected. Still, this did not discourage him. Harry demonstrated dispositional flexibility; he was realistic about the officers’ current skill levels and optimistic that they could be improved.

So, Harry adopted a new focus on the basics of good security performance. He learned what his company’s officers knew and could or couldn’t do in the areas of report writing, observation, legal liability, safety, patrolling, emergency response, and interpersonal relations.

Harry knew that, from a marketing perspective, some security companies promised the new shiny bells and whistles when it came to training and performance. But Harry learned from getting in the trenches that the company that practiced the basics consistently would get and keep the most business.

And so, Harry drove the effort to raise that skill baseline so each officer could consistently deliver consistent, solid service. He managed this process by helping the trainer identify the main skills and knowledge areas that the company’s clients were concerned about.

He then developed some practical metrics that could be used to track quality of performance and identity where remedial training was needed to put performance in line with the client’s requirements and expectations. It took time and effort to reach this level and maintain this consistency, but the results spoke for themselves. The company went from being financially viable to wildly successful.

Marge Britten had her hands full trying to manage her large and diverse security officer force. She had an MBA and was knowledgeable about business theory, but her knowledge of day-to-day security practice was limited. Her education taught her the importance of staying flexible and using critical thinking to adapt to change.

It also enhanced her natural cognitive flexibility. On the job, she smartly shifted from being a talker to a listener, and from teacher to student. What she heard helped her discover another serious gap in the security industry—some employees saw it as a professional career, while others considered it just a job to pay the bills.

In a perfect world, Marge would only manage career-minded security officers, but this was reality. So, Marge decided to adapt training content, methods, and performance evaluations to her split audience. She did this by developing two separate tracks—with more advanced training content and methods for the career-minded security professional and more basic core curriculum for the jobbers. It took quite a bit of time to develop different training curriculum and methods, and tailor performance reviews to individual goals, but she eventually succeeded. Both tracks shared basic security principles, and this commonality served as a bridge that crossed the career gap.

Marge also identified another important gap, one that she had first experienced in the military: It was easier to simply know what to do, then actually do it. Many managers know adaptation strategies to help keep up with the diversifying workforce, but applying those strategies consistently and proactively—such as in dual-track content development—is much more challenging.

Self-Management and Bias

 Even the most virtuous security leader has a terrible twin within—a darker, weaker side. But instead of ignoring it, a manager should adapt to it to allow for better management of these weaknesses and the biases that come with them.

Sam Howell failed in his first management job. He was bright, but he did not know about the importance of developing emotional intelligence—in particular, effectively managing oneself before trying to manage others. Fortunately, he did develop some of his abilities, and his skills at dealing with turnover and scheduling helped him earn a new job, a security management position at a security company in the Pacific Northwest.

In his new job, he decided to approach things differently. He exercised emotional flexibility and spent more time trying to engage and connect with staff. He also tried to learn as much as he could about operations, to see what was right and what wasn’t, so he could make positive changes. However, he wanted to manage the changes from the inside out, as part of the team, rather than imposing them externally.

He was lucky enough to have a sharp assistant who was knowledgeable about emotional intelligence and self-management. After discussing these concepts with his assistant, Sam decided to take a test to measure his current emotional intelligence level, and it was clear there were several areas in which Sam needed improvement.

A series of previous negative experiences in life and work had led Sam to be untrusting of other people. In addition, Sam had the tendency to lose patience with employees who had trouble comprehending what he was trying to say.

The test also made him consider his usual approach to situations, and his cognitive flexibility increased. By broadening his perspective, he learned that most people seemed to conform to his expectations, and vice-versa. When he expected other people to be less than honest, he became untrusting, and they often became dishonest. When others expected him to blow up on them, he usually did so.

He pondered his dilemma. Could he change his expectations, even though they were based on past experiences and judgments? Could he un-see what he had already seen?

He decided that he would benefit greatly from a strong self-management initiative. To manage his distrust and anger, he became vigilant at catching himself when those feelings began to emerge and modified his behavior. And so his efforts at increasing his own emotional and cognitive flexibility made it easier for him to change his behavior, and his new behavior, in turn, allowed him to make further progress on his adaptability.

With this self-evaluation, he gain perspective on why he failed at his previous job. He had taken it for the wrong reasons: to make good money and accrue some power. His staff didn’t care what he knew about the industry because they didn’t think he cared about them. He hid that he actually cared because he thought it would keep him from getting the respect and authority he wanted.

Here again, Sam had to learn the connection between his expectations and what he usually got from them. His improved self-awareness allowed him to realize that it really wasn’t power that he wanted, but rather the ability to influence and help people in a positive way. Once the employees finally felt he did genuinely care for them, they became devoted followers.

Adapting to Communication Changes

Greater cultural, value, and age diversity in the workplace is driving change in the communication process. So is the fall of the command-and-control management model. Today’s leaders must earn their following from employees by being expert communicators.

And of course, technology has had a major influence on leadership and workplace communication—from flash memos fired off via email, to text messages and instant messenger programs, to Twitter and other social media platforms.

How can a security manager navigate these shifting standards? Mary Brown migrated to the security industry from a communications background. She came armed with a very important insight—new technology isn’t necessarily an improvement in every way over older technology.

She noticed that in her new workplace some people were sacrificing quality in favor of speed in their communications with both internal and external stakeholders. This was resulting in grammatical and factual errors, as well as reputation damage to the company, due to unprofessional, mistake-filled emails and letters. Mary knew change was needed.

Earlier in in her communications career, she used a checklist of the eight C’s to make sure her written communication was effective: clear, correct, concise, courteous, cohesive, credible, consistent, and complete. The practice was valuable, but she had enough cognitive flexibility to realize that to some younger staffers, it would be considered old-fashioned and outdated, like a dusty grammar book.

So, she knew she had to use emotional flexibility to ensure she was not dismissive of these employees’ views. When she outlined her proposed communications policy change, she explicitly said that she respected such views, but explained how the use of her checklist would result in several tangible benefits. Mary anticipated some of the staffers’ emotional responses by conceding that the practice might be annoying at first, and she herself made a few jokes about it in the rollout, but she also expressed a quiet confidence that it would be worth it.

It was. Not long after she instituted the checklist policy and taught her staff how to use it, communications markedly improved, which had several internal and external benefits. It also turned out into a good time management strategy, because it prevented miscommunications that would take extra time to correct.


After completing its research on adaptability, the CCL offered managers some guidance on being adaptable, which many of the leaders in the above examples used.

Be curious. Ask lots of questions. Wonder and consider before you judge and decide. Take the view that different is not right or wrong, just different, and it may be interesting to explore.

Don’t get too attached to a single plan or strategy. Be wary of popular short-term fixes that are repackaged as ultimate solutions. Have plans B and C at the ready.

Create support systems. Look for mentors, coaches, trusted peers, professional colleagues, and others who are proven adapters to serve as your support system in times of change. Encourage employees to do the same.

Understand your own reaction to change. Leading change by example requires honesty and authenticity. Be clear about your own emotions and thoughts about changes, then be straightforward with others.

Immerse yourself in new environments and situations. Jump right in to meet the people and learn the ropes in a new situation. Do this when you are confronted by change—get practice by joining activities, meeting new people, and trying new things on a regular basis.

Reflect upon your own personal development journey. Look for ways to use some of your personal experiences at adapting to your professional career.


William Cottringer, PhD, is currently executive vice president for Cascade Security Corporation companies in Bellevue, Washington, and adjunct professor of criminal justice at Northwest University. He has worked in the security industry for a half century and is author of numerous books available at Amazon.