Lessons from the Court: Adaptive Leadership and Strategy
By: Jen O’Meara, Ph.D.
As Winter turns into Spring, there are only two words on my mind: Beach Bash. The annual premiere outdoor racquetball tournament is held at the historic handball courts in Hollywood, Florida. The courts are literally steps from the beach, and the full slate of professional and amateur draws regularly attract the best players from North and South America.
For those of us from Michigan, the Beach Bash – as fun as it is to play – presents a competitive challenge. The outdoor racquetball courts around Metro Detroit all have three walls, so three-wall is the variant of the outdoor game with which we are most familiar. The Beach Bash courts, however, have only a front wall, which means that we have to radically alter our shot selection and overall strategy if we hope to advance late into the draws.
In one-wall, for example, there is no point in hitting a shot close to the side wall to prevent an opponent from taking an aggressive swing at the ball. There is no side wall. Likewise, there are no desperation shots off the back wall to keep the ball in play. The back wall isn’t there, and the ball usually ends up flying over the fence, across the street, and straight into the pool of the resort next door.
Not that I’d know that…of course. *nervous laugh*
From personal experience. Maybe more than once.
In this, the Beach Bash teaches a good leadership lesson: as a leader, you need to adapt your leadership strategies to individual situations. If your company has recently downsized, you will need to deal with your team differently than if your company has just expanded. If one of your team members has suffered a loss, you may want to deal with them a bit more sensitively than usual. If your team is midway through a tough project, you should adopt a leadership persona that is different from both the one you had at the outset of the project and the one you’ll have toward the end of the project.
This need for adaptability also applies to business in general, of course. A quick web search for “greatest pivots in business history” reveals that a number of today’s successful companies have undergone radical strategy shifts in the past. Nintendo used to sell playing cards. YouTube was a dating platform. Groupon started as a place to support social and charitable causes. Play-Doh was initially used to remove residue left by coal heaters. William Wrigley Jr. gave away chewing gum until he realized that the gum was more popular than the soap and baking powder he was actually selling.
In short, the most successful companies and leaders are ultimately the ones that can recognize a change in circumstances and pivot accordingly. Every situation requires awareness, analysis, and a specific style of leadership because there really is no one-size-fits-all strategy – in racquetball, in business, or in leadership.
Jen O’Meara is an Associate Professor of Business Communications and a 3-time US Open national racquetball champion.