Zero Sum Adaptability Thinking

As I explore the metaphor of elastic leadership with groups, they continue to find new ways to apply it. One participant recently observed that if an elastic is stretched hard in one direction, it doesn’t have much give available to be stretched in other directions. Sounds familiar, right? We can only stretch so far before we snap, and the demands on our stretchiness feel cumulative.

But a metaphor is helpful until it isn’t. While it’s true that elastics snap when stretched too far too fast (or can also become brittle and snap when underused), I’m not sure the same is automatically true for humans. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Each person’s capacity to adapt is different. We therefore shouldn’t impose our expectations of “stretchiness” on other people.
  • We each have preferred ways of adapting. We can therefore stretch in certain directions far more easily than in others, perhaps well beyond what’s expected.
  • Adaptability is a set of learnable skills that can be improved over time. It therefore isn’t fixed or scarce.
  • Adaptability is both an individual and collective experience. We can therefore increase our stretch by drawing on the adaptive capacity of others rather than snapping alone.
  • I suspect that the stories we tell ourselves about our capacity to adapt are far more powerful in predicting and extending our actual adaptability than any external measure of our stretch. (Chris Helder’s small but mighty book Useful Belief is my go-to on this.)

Zero sum thinking can creep in uninvited. If you’re feeling overstretched today, snapping isn’t your only option.

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