Leadership and Adaptability Quotient (AQ): Moving from EQ to AQ

Mr Damian Panozza

Much has been written and understood in the development and leadership research literature on the importance of emotional intelligence over the last thirty plus years. Made prominent at the end of the last century by Daniel Goleman and other leading academics, most notably Peter Salovey, John Mayer and Konstantinos Petrides, the term ‘EQ’ or ‘EQ trait’ was coined. Indeed, it has been widely accepted that while cognitive intelligence (IQ) may help a person gain tertiary qualifications and eventually attain a leadership position, it is a person’s level of EQ that may prove to be more predictive of whether they will achieve ultimate success in their career over time. This thinking may need to change. Or at least make room for an increasingly relevant adaptive concept.

One of the initial reasons for attributing ongoing career success to EQ is our ability to understand and navigate our own emotions as well as the emotions of others, to respond appropriately to any given challenging situation. For example, higher levels of EQ enable a person to build and maintain healthy connections with others, and to better leverage those relationships in challenging situations in order to achieve outcomes consistently. As our environment becomes increasingly complex, more unsure and technology driven with a faster and faster pace, another important capability is emerging – our capacity to adapt.

The importance of adaptability is clearly a well-regarded concept, with most people associating an ability to ‘adapt to survive’ with Darwin’s notion of evolutionary success. More recently, it has been recognised that leaders responding to complexity are increasingly being asked to be nimble, to navigate volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity in the environment (also commonly referred to as VUCA). All of this while being expected to successfully manage their own stress, as well as that of others to avoid burnout in the workplace.

While, the above notions are not new, the belief that we can measure and develop our levels of adaptability is. At the Creative Thinking Institute, we have termed this your Adaptability Quotient or ‘AQ’. A person’s AQ will not only determine how he or she will thrive personally in the rapidly changing VUCA environment, it will also play a significant role in how effectively he or she is able to lead others through these increasingly chaotic times.

We will elaborate on the link between being more adaptive (that is, having higher levels of AQ) and reducing the risk of burnout in a blog to follow. The relationship, however, between higher AQ and leadership effectiveness is also becoming increasingly obvious and is the focus of this blog.

In order to develop VUCA-adept leaders, multiple leadership theories and new approaches have evolved, such as Adaptive Leadership (Heifetz) or more recently Eco-leadership (Weston). As we have outlined, previously, Agile project methodologies have also transformed organisations seeking to innovate within rapidly changing and disruptive markets. Human-centred design approach has risen to the forefront of designing new products and services. At the heart of all of these new business paradigms is a mindset shift that relies almost entirely upon the ability of leaders to adapt. If leaders cannot adapt, organisations simply fall behind the marketplace and do not survive. It is critical, therefore, to define, measure, and develop a leader’s Adaptability Quotient.

Definition of Adaptability Quotient

The Creative Thinking Institute’s research has found AQ to in effect be a bubbling out of the EQ realm. There are some similar root components in each, of self-awareness and personal management, as well as aspects of managing others. In the case of EQ, the central tenet is navigating emotions and applying social skills. Whereas, AQ incorporates these human elements and builds on them with ‘flexibility mindsets and abilities’ in order to achieve more favourable outcomes. The Creative Thinking Institute therefore defines AQ as the capacity to:

cope and thrive with change, by demonstrating flexibility to self and others, remaining open and curious, unlearning and relearning, refocusing resilience to persist, delaying personal gratification for greater gain, applying problem-solving skills, and tolerating failure through to succeeding.

AQ EQ IQ PQ adaptability quotient emotional intelligence

Thus, AQ has “evolved” out of EQ in a social navigation context but adds important additional separate dimensions of persevering through solving the challenges of the external environment. Let us consider each of the AQ elements within a leadership context.


A leader demonstrating flexibility to self and others portrays movement, being less rigid, involving the quality of bending, stretching, expanding, or accommodating. This requires a willingness to change on behalf of the leader. Flexible leaders role-model the message that it’s ok to change thinking, practices, feelings, ways of working or doing. They recognise a need to let go of potential biases because they understand that others may have different beliefs and values to oneself, and that these differing values are equally important. Being flexible makes way for others to contribute new thoughts, ideas and approaches.

It enables diversity to be embraced and included. Ultimately, it gives one the opportunity to improve. If a reed in the river cannot be flexible, allowing water to flow around it in constantly new ways, then it potentially may obstruct the flow or break.


A core component of adaptability is the capacity to remain open and curious. Whilst a leader may be able to draw on experience to guide others, they may find themselves in times of stress or in completely new situations applying inadequate thinking or unable to accommodate new potential. Through evolutionary design our brains are pre-wired to a negativity bias. It looks for threats at four times the rate that it scans for rewards or positives in the environment. This means we naturally have an unconscious bias to be suspicious of the new, the unfamiliar, or of differences. We may miss critical new information.

We can, however, train our brains to be more open and curious. This may for example, take a strengths-based approach toward people or ideas. Instead of a predisposition for finding fault, flaws or holes in others or their ideas, we might instead follow a process of building them up to assess their merit. One way to alter this neural negativity predisposition is to cultivate a practice that suspends judgement long enough to understand something new or in more detail. Thus, in unfamiliar territory, being open and curious enables a leader to take in critical new information to make more effective decisions. It may also involve ‘letting go of the known’ to make room for new concepts.

Learning and Unlearning

Letting go of the known especially at a more conscious level, means a leader must also learn to unlearn, and relearn, if he or she is to succeed. Most famously it was one of the world’s greatest futurists, Alvin Toffler, who observed “the illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”. Similarly, Mark Twain observed it as important for a person to “learn it all over again in a different way every 24-hours”.

Ironically these observations hold more truth in our time as the rate of change increases. Leaders are constantly being asked to learn new things, whether it is a new technology or online platform, a new way of working, or merely an innovation to an existing process. The isolation due to the Coronavirus pandemic has accelerated so many changes in multiple ways.

People, businesses, economies have had to unlearn, and relearn new ways of doing business. These times will be looked back on as a turning point in human history, one that will be seen as a stunning example of the need to unlearn and relearn new ways of working and of being - importantly, to be able to work in these new ways quickly, indeed instantaneously.

Regardless, to adopt ‘the new’ a leader must be able to unlearn and allow space for it by letting go of ‘the old’. It takes time and effort to unlearn and relearn however, but the rewards for the leader who does so will be reaped many times over.

Refocused Resilience

This capacity to quickly recover or bounce back from setbacks is a critical element of leading others, commonly referred to as resilience, this is a similar concept to ‘grit’. At the Creative Thinking Institute, we build on the traditional view of resilience. Increasingly referred to as ‘the R-word’ owing in part to a perceived over-promotion of its importance particularly within medical institutions, organisations, schools and sporting communities to name a few. For many, hearing that we need to be more resilient has unfortunately gained a negative association with the assumption that people are somehow weak or inadequate to begin with. This is clearly not the case; however, the association has been made.

Regardless, there is merit in the concept that refocussing on a higher-level goal helps to increase one’s ability to tolerate the discomfort of change or setback, and to persist despite the experience of not succeeding. For this reason, resilience remains an important aspect of adaptability.

At the Creative Thinking Institute, we see resilience as an ongoing process of constantly linking in with our highest-level purpose and goals, reframing set-back as an important step toward achieving what matters most in our lives and our work. This selective cognitive reframing and repositioning is an active process we have coined refocused resilience . Leaders help build refocussed resilience in a workforce through a conscious process of clearly linking with mission and staying true to purpose.

Tolerance for Failure

The capacity to endure making mistakes forms an important part of a leader’s adaptability to ultimately succeed. This includes one’s own mistakes as well as the mistakes of others. To build a tolerance for failure means being able to reframe failure as an opportunity to learn. Often referred to as ‘failing fast’ or as ‘happy failing’, it is regarded as more favourable to find out what doesn’t work early before investing heavily in a solution or product only to find out later that it is ineffectual or wrong. Thomas Edison famously said “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”!

The process of trial and error is an important part of human endeavour for innovation and achieving excellence. However, it is often mis-handled by leaders when things don’t go right! Building a culture of support for people to test, try and fail, is critical to keep up with the pace of change and technical innovation. This can be more challenging in situations where mistakes have high consequences, such as surgery. It is possible, nonetheless, to build a culture where people feel it is safe to acknowledge ‘failure’. For example, to openly communicate or broach topics that in previous paradigms may not be open for discussion.

The point of doing so is not to assign blame, far from it. Instead to learn as a team and as individuals in order to avoid a similar mistake in the future. Thus, it is an important element of AQ for a leader to be able to reframe failure and handle it in a constructive way, for themselves as well as for others.

Problem Solving Skills

Perhaps one of the single greatest skills in the leader’s arsenal of abilities is the ability to find effective solutions to challenges and problems. At the Creative Thinking Institute this aspect of adaptability is seen in the context as one’s capacity to generate different or unique solutions to a problem, increasingly through a human-centred approach.

This involves being able to take in a wide range and type of information and synthesise it to create lateral or novel ideas. Inherent in this process is the leader’s skill in engaging others to co-create ideas, and then to distil a wide range of ideas into a higher impact, tangible prototype outcome. Following on from this, to be able to encourage others to test the prototype in order to learn what works and what does not, then to feed this information back into the development of the prototype for continuous improvement.

This iterative ‘design process’ involves a leader applying other elements of AQ, such as learning and unlearning, remaining curious, or at stated the ability to tolerate failure.

Delayed Gratification

Staying true to purpose involves effort and sacrifice. Inherent in this are the rewards (both intrinsic and extrinsic) that are realised along the way, and when we ultimately reach our goal. What, for instance, if you as a leader were given the option to receive a reward now, or to delay that reward, and if by leading others successfully through more difficult times you could earn a significantly greater reward at a later time?

Therein lies the concept of a ‘delayed gratification’. It takes motivation to choose the discomfort of long-term discipline over the shorter-term ease of distraction or indulgence. However, a longer-term reward is typically a far greater prize. With greater sacrifice comes greater success and greater rewards. Of ‘The Big 5’ personality traits, Conscientiousness is widely considered to be the most important contributor to achieving ongoing success. The leader’s discipline to stay on course and to delay gratification for greater gain is a key ingredient of achieving more and greater success.

This may be counter-intuitive to many who have grown up in the digital age of instant gratification and reward for small or random successes. Developing an understanding of recognition and reward, in particular intrinsic reward, is a key element of keeping self-motivated and of motivating others to achieve important goals.

Developing your AQ

In conclusion, higher levels of AQ are required for leaders to succeed in this present age of rapid change, uncertainty, and increasing work life complexity.

This applies for leaders in their own sustainability, the people they lead and for their own organisations. The Coronavirus pandemic has well demonstrated this. While developing AQ takes time and is not a simple quick fix, here are some suggested changes to begin to grow your own AQ or that of your leaders and people.

Try them as new micro-habits to foster a renewed identity and behaviour towards the need to be adaptable in our lives.

  1. Flexibility: Embrace diversity by trying a different approach to a situation or try to challenge how you normally would do something. Ask someone who you consider acts or thinks differently to you how they might approach it.
  2. Curiosity: Be aware of your own biases and suspend your own judgement long enough to gain new information or perspectives.
  3. Unlearning and relearning: When something new feels too hard give yourself permission to understand that it may take some practise to become competent at it, then continue to try again.
  4. Refocused resilience: Be clear on your ultimate purpose and regularly focus on this to gain renewed perspective on something that hasn’t work out for you. Consider it as merely a step that needed to be taken, and then try something else.
  5. Tolerance to failure: Form the habit of asking ‘when things don’t quite go as planned what did I/we learn’, or ‘how could I/we have done things differently’, as a key leadership tool for developing self and others.
  6. Problem solving: Ask ‘what is the real problem I/we are trying to solve’. Find a novel way to test a new idea, product or service as early as possible on someone, before fleshing it out or investing in it.
  7. Delayed gratification: Build in more frequent recognition and rewards linked to smaller milestones. Identify intrinsic rewards for others. Set larger rewards for larger outcomes.

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