HOW ADAPTABLE ARE YOU?
It’s impossible to help being struck by the phenomenal differences between George Bush and his world, and David Petraeus and his. As many of us have long known, General Petraeus is a super-achiever, deeply reflective, demanding, and a holder of a PhD in international relations from Princeton. In one description of Petraeus, Linda Robinson of the Hopkins School for Advanced International Relations enumerates his empowering characteristics: he puts no special store in his gut intuitions, surrounds himself with officers who are as analytical and driven as he, and continually adapts to the lessons of experience. His greatest gift, Robinson argues, is not leadership, but intellectual rigor, which compelled him to mount a sustained effort to understand the Iraqi problem.
Adaptable is the key descriptive in this summary. Adaptation has a long history in the study of human intelligence. In the early 20th century Alfred Binet defined intelligence as the ability to adapt to circumstances. More recent definitions such as that of Robert Sternberg, vary little from Binet: intelligence is goal-directed, adaptive behavior.
So what does all this have to do with business professionalism? In October 2006, the Economist—that enemy of business simple-mindedness--enclosed a major report on the search for talent. The editors argued that the talent wars have to be taken seriously, that companies of all stripes have become aware of the need to gather talent, that the talent war is global, and that the war for talent is shifting the balance of power from companies to workers.
And how, with their knowledge of global business, did the editors of the Economist choose to talk about talent? They took it to mean brainpower—the ability to solve complex problems or invent new solutions. Solving complex problems and adaptability are correlates. Based on that insight, Petraeus is a very talented guy—with a still greater future standing in front of him.
“Interesting,” you might respond, “but I ain’t David Petraeus. The guy obviously was born with a lot more gray matter than me.”
Don’t be to quick to judge. Admittedly, the background suggests a superb inheritance. Petraeus’ father was a Dutch merchant marine captain during World War II who emigrated to the US. His mother was an Oberlin grad (not too shabby educational background) who loved books. A lot of the right genes, I’d say. But think with me about so-called innate intelligence.
The fact is, new studies show that there’s only one certain conclusion about innate intelligence: it’s impossible to judge or assess a person’s ultimate capacity. All the rest of the so-called innate limitations—or capabilities--have been shot down by very solid neuroscience research (see my web research).
Here’s the rest of the information about Petraeus. He is a “striver to the max.” He is driven to compete, but he’s also a team player. He keeps a well organized sense of his priorities. He worked his Army network exceptionally well and was mentored by General Jack Galvin, one of the most intellectual officers of his generation. According to Galvin, Petraeus would challenge ideas from anyone. He’s a can-do guy, and won’t wait for you to tell him what needs to be done.
There’s only one piece in this entire description that’s innate—we don’t really know how much capacity he has. What we do know is that he’s worked his ass off and managed to carry it off in classic style. He is, after all, a “striver to the max.”
What’s my point?
Just this. Worrying about how much capacity you have, or even using that as a barometer, is a waste of time. With long-term coaching of more than 400 clients under my belt, I know that in the new economy it’s the strivers that are successful. I’ve had plenty of high achieving clients who I’m quite willing to argue don’t have that much innate. . . but they put their nose to the grindstone. They work at adaptability and problem solving—and they succeed.
One of the favorite aphorisms of the billionaire Warren Buffett is this: Intensity is the price of excellence. That’s the real game of life—not innate intelligence.
What do you think?