Survival of the Fittest and Leadership Flexibility

Oh Crap Was That TodayHawaiians and other Polynesians are the descendants of peoples who traveled by boat from East Asia to settle their islands.  Those most likely to survive the long and arduous journey were those with “thrifty genes”.  They were those ancestors who were best able to process and use the limited food on their boat trips.  Today, in a world of cheap and plentiful food, these same “thrifty genes” have led to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes among their descendants.  What worked in one time may not work in another.

I share this anecdote to drive home the point that “survival of the fittest” does not mean survival of the toughest or meanest in a dog eat dog world.  Rather, the survival and success of the fittest requires that we be flexible and adaptive in our leadership focus, style, and vision depending on the needs of the marketplace and our companies.

As a small example, in my last three leadership roles, I have had to change my approach to business processes each time.  In the first leadership position, I had to create and then maintain business processes.  In my next position, I worked on abandoning many ineffective processes and then radically simplifying and streamlining all the other processes.  Finally, I am currently working on building up processes and creating compliance with these processes.  Each approach reflected the needs of the business.

Such leadership flexibility is required in three areas:

  • Area of Focus: As leaders, we need to determine the key area of focus for our business. Is it business development? Operational improvement? Team building?  Importantly, the leader needs to be able to change if the area of focus changes, e.g. the business development effort pays off and all the new business requires a shift in focus to operational excellence


  • Leadership style: As written about in Leadership and the One Minute Manager, we need to manage our direct reports as they need to be managed. Some require relentless follow up; others require support and encouragement.  Some need to have narrow guardrails; others have greater autonomy. In short, we need the flexibility to use the leadership style that gets the best out of each individual.

“Different strokes for different folks.”


  • Leadership vision: As leaders we need to be flexible in changing the direction of our companies as the internal and external situation warrants. The fundamental of a successful leader is ensuring that their company has a strong position in a growing and profitable market.  The flexibility in leadership vision occurs most often in start-ups that begin focused on one product or market and then pivot to another completely different product or market that offers a greater chance for success.  For leaders of more established companies, this flexibility is shown in being opportunistic in pursuing new product, market or acquisition opportunities that may pop up unplanned.


In summary, leadership flexibility is vital.  To survive in today’s world, we need to be the leader –  in area of focus, leadership style, and vision – that we are required to be. This leadership flexibility can be difficult because it may take us out of our comfort zone.  But, we are not paid to be comfortable; we are paid to move our companies forward.


About David Shedd

David has been a President - CEO - COO of an up to $350M group of manufacturing, distribution, specialty retail and services companies, having led 22 different businesses from turnarounds to start-ups to fast growth companies.
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