Adaptive intelligence: more important than IQ or EQ?

publication date: Jul 22, 2013

Writing in The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin asserted, "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change." Leaders should listen to Darwin, says leadership coach Keith Coats, blogging on

Adaptive intelligence, Coats believes, is the most important quality or skill that leaders will need in the future. Coats draws on research with other species to suggest traits that contribute towards this adaptive intelligence.

Comfort with change and uncertainty

The first supporting trait is the ability to live with change and uncertainty, which may be a prerequisite for survival in the nonprofit sector at any level.

We need to be aware of our personal tolerance for change and uncertainty, as well as our organization's capacity for those challenging experiences. Then we need to build helpful frameworks, both individually and corporately, to acknowledge and affirm that ambiguity as the constant reality of our working lives.

Nurturing diversity for resilience

"Diversity at multiple levels - cultural, structural, generational, and personal - is what infuses the daily life for every leader," Coats declares. Since it's a reality, leaders must ask how they nurture resilience in an environment filled with diversity.

Again, Coats turns to research to buttress his idea that resilience thrives in an organizational environment of caring relationships, high expectations and opportunities to participate. It's up to leaders to shape a workplace culture that incorporates those values.

Combining different types of knowledge for learning

Coats criticizes business schools for what he describes as "rigid and somewhat unimaginative methodology" that fails to strengthen adaptive intelligence. We will learn, unlearn and relearn what we need for the future, he contends, only by enduring discomfort and disequilibrium, trying new things, risking failure and challenging existing models of leadership education.

Nonprofits, especially charities, may be particularly vulnerable here. Just as the call for greater attention to "business practices" is heard from charity watchdogs and some media, he counters that leaders grounded in traditional business education may not be adequately prepared for the future. And the threadbare budgets of most nonprofits offer little scope for experimentation, the risk of failure and the costs of breaking away from the status quo.

"I believe that to ignore intentionally developing adaptive intelligence is to run the risk of becoming captive to the past and risk increasing irrelevance," Coats concludes. For nonprofits, characterized as they are by change and uncertainty, the greater risk may be the inability to act on the adaptive intelligence that their environment nurtures by its very nature.

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