Our student ministry leaders gathered in preparation for camp. Bags were packed; agendas were scheduled; Bible studies were planned; and prayers were offered in anticipation of what God would do among our students. As we waited for our final instructions, our student minister distributed a bag of cookies among the group and encouraged all of us to take one. If you know me, I never refuse a cookie.
He held a cookie in the air and told us, “These might look like ordinary cookies, but these are actually flexi-cookies.” He continued to share how leaders must approach camp with a flexible attitude. We would need to be ready to eat a flexi-cookie at any moment when plans changed or when God moved unexpectedly. It was a lesson for that day, for that week, and, as a leader, it was a lesson for a lifetime.
I’ve been in ministry leadership for many years, and there hasn’t been a time when I didn’t have to figuratively eat a “flexi-cookie” in the midst of my plans. (I’ll admit, when faced with an unexpected situation, eating literal cookies or cupcakes has been an option.) Whether it was adapting to a move of the Holy Spirit or simply walking into an environment that didn’t meet my expectations, I’ve learned that a leader who can adjust to what is thrown at him/her is a competent, calm, and confident leader.
It may seem like a simple task, but adaptability takes intentionality while at the same time being able to think quickly in the moment. Any leader who lived through 2020 knows that while the pandemic caught us off guard, the word pivot became a daily reality. Whether you were canceling plans, changing plans, or creating a new plan, leaders who learned how to bend or be flexible became leaders who did not break.
So how can you learn to be a more adaptable leader? Whether you are facing a major crisis or just need to be more flexible in the moment, here are five ways you can be a more adaptable leader.
1. Stop and pray for guidance. Throughout Scripture, leaders like Moses or David first sought the Lord before they proceeded with an unexpected circumstance. They wanted to hear God’s voice before they heard the voice of man because they knew they could trust God’s commands above the noise of the crowd. One of my favorite stories in the Old Testament is found in Judges 7 when the Lord selects Gideon’s army. Facing an enemy Midianite force of 135,000 (see Judg. 8:10), the Lord reduced Gideon’s army from 32,000 to just 300 men. Gideon wasn’t adaptable because it was the obvious decision but because the God of Armies gave him specific directions and he was obedient to listen and obey.
As a leader, the solution may seem difficult, but if you are confident of the Lord’s direction, you can be confident of the Lord’s provision.
2. Seek advice from other leaders and your team. Asking the Lord for direction is the best first step, but asking godly leaders and team members to provide solutions is an obvious second. Some of your team may have experienced a similar situation, or they have information you don’t have. Listen first and speak second. As James 1:19 reminds us, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (CSB). Ask good questions of those you respect and include others who offer creative alternatives. If you are asked to adapt because of someone else’s actions, again learn to listen. Sympathize and empathize with others before you place blame for something not going the way you originally planned.
3. Sift through your options and have multiple plans. If I learned anything last year, it was to have a backup plan for everything. Adaptable leaders must not only be ready to pivot but also have several pivoting choices. As I was learning to adapt from live events to digital events, I found myself watching how others were facing the same challenges. I couldn’t predict what the future was going to hold, but I could have options depending on the situation. Whether it was choosing online Bible studies or providing direction on how to meet safely with social distancing, having multiple plans provided options without panic. And because opinions varied as much as the colors of a tie-dyed sweatshirt, I needed to know how to communicate my choices.
4. Skillfully evaluate yourself. In other words, do you know your default response when faced with change? Self-awareness often provides an opportunity for leaders to learn how they normally react to circumstances and how they react to others. Some leaders automatically lash out, while some may retreat in isolation. Adaptable leaders know themselves and consciously make efforts to change negative responses to positive ones. Adaptable leaders adopt the psalmist’s heartfelt prayer from Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my concerns. See if there is any offensive way in me; lead me in the everlasting ways” (CSB).
5. Stretch yourself outside your comfort zone. Adaptable leaders attempt uncomfortable tasks. Never is this more prominently seen than taking a group on an international mission trip. Not only have I learned adaptability in the midst of serving where the language is different, but the customs and culture will often stretch you in new ways. I’ve eaten things I couldn’t identify, worn specific clothing accepted in various countries, learned to use a squatty potty, and navigated difficult methods of travel all with the purpose of taking the gospel to a difficult place. While you may never leave the comforts you are accustomed to, you may be asked to do something you’ve never attempted, such as reading Scripture in front of a group, leading a committee, or cooking for campers when your only specialty is cinnamon toast. No matter how you are stretched, getting outside your comfort zone will not only make you more adaptable, but also more valuable as a leader.
When you are stretched, your character will be revealed. People will know you are adaptable by the way you serve one another. So stand firm in the Lord but eat a flexi-cookie and adapt to the challenges you are facing today.
Kelly D. King is the Manager of Magazines/Devotional Publishing and Women’s Ministry Training for Lifeway Christian Resources. She is the author of Ministry to Women: The Essential Guide for Leading Women in the Local Church. You can hear Kelly at Lifeway’s You Lead events that are held in several cities around the country or listen to her co-host the Marked Podcast with Elizabeth Hyndman.