Leaders adapt to their context

Many folks assume that in order to lead well, you need to stay clear of the details – sticking only to the 10,000 foot perspective. I don’t agree. The best leaders I’ve worked with have had an ability to be keen observers and able to ask the right questions so that they can get into the details.

They do this because they know it’s important to adapt to their environments and they can’t do that if they’re always abstracted from every single detail.

To see what I’m talking about, let’s spend a second thinking about the octopus.

When I was a kid and learned that an octopus could camouflage itself in order to hide, I figured it was just an automatic thing. In my mental model, at the time, the octopus would lay on the ocean floor and then magically would just automatically have their skin just change colors.

It turns out that it doesn’t work that way at all. As much as we assume it’s easy and automatic, the truth is that it takes work and the octopus is an active participant in the process.

Hear what Scientific American says,

Many of these creatures have special pigment cells called chromatophores in their skin. By controlling the size of the cells they can vary their color and even create changing patterns.

Chromatophores are connected to the nervous system, and their size is determined by muscular contractions.

The cephalopods also have extremely well developed eyes, which are believed to detect both the color and intensity of light. Using their excellent eyesight and chromatophores, cephalopods camouflage themselves by creating color patterns that closely match the underlying seafloor.

Now you’re probably wondering what that has to do with leadership. Well, here’s my observation.

In order to camouflage themselves, two things are required – 1) the effort and skill to control muscle contractions to adjust the size of their “color” cells, and 2) the work of paying attention to the details of their environment that they need to match.

In other words, it takes work. Practice. Effort.

In that way, leaders are just like the octopus. In order to ply their skills, they need to practice and develop them so that they can adjust to the environments they find themselves in. And in order to do it well, they need to develop their ability to pay close attention, to make detailed observations of their context.

This is why I say that leaders, the good ones, know how to adapt to their contexts. Because like the octopus, they’ve been working on it their whole lives.