Adapt or die

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Patrick Reese
  • 354th Medical Support Squadron commander
The three words stood emblazoned on the small plaque behind the colonel's head.

In his typical freight-train style he explained his philosophy to me - the new lieutenant. We have those moments early in our careers when we hear something from a senior leader that sticks with us. I was having my moment.

Heard well before the flat world described by Thomas Friedman or Spencer Johnson's movement of cheese, the Adapt or Die philosophy has been an invaluable guideline for me since that first assignment.

Adapt or Die is simple. Every new leader we encounter has a unique style, interlaced with likes, dislikes, pet peeves, and idiosyncrasies. Your job is to figure those out and chart a course through them to success. Don't expect the leader to change their style to accommodate you.

Work hard to make your end-product suit your leader. That is when smiles begin and once you get the boss smiling, that is a good day.

Adaptation is also important in dealing with colleagues. Knowing the environment you're entering before wading in with a request can mean the difference between hitting brick walls and hurdling them in-stride. See the issue from both sides, orient yourself to the different points of view involved, and then adapt your attack to achieve your ultimate goal. Smashing through a door with a big hammer will get you through the door once; but figuring out how to turn the handle and open the door will allow you to use it many times.

I once asked the colonel if he had ever said to anyone, "You're not adapting!" He said that he had used that phrase with two officers in his career and neither of them stayed in the Air Force for very long. He went on to note that he hadn't processed them out of the Air Force. Neither officer was able to adapt to their next leader, at which juncture they were encouraged to seek their fortunes in venues outside of the Air Force.

A corollary to the 'Adapt or Die' principle became evident when the colonel organized staff work. He would calmly announce to all of us young officers, "I'm not writing the response, that's what captains and lieutenants are for."

At first, this caused a lot of choice words uttered under our breath, but I began to realize the power which the colonel was placing in our hands. A well-prepared memo was often signed quickly. A well-thought plan received his enthusiastic backing. In short, he gave us the power to shape policy and make things happen in his name. What once sounded like a flippant remark was turned into "I decide what the response will say and write the memo, the colonel signs it."

Too often we are more than willing to abdicate our responsibility to be an active voice for our leaders. The attitude of "send it through and the boss will bleed all over it, then we'll write it the way they want" can bring organizations to a screaming halt. Soon, the entire unit adopts a passive posture, waiting for the leader to give direction before they do anything.

Don't fall into this trap! Adapt to the leader's style and forge ahead. In many units, there is the Airman, NCO, or CGO who always seems to know what's going on. They are the person to whom everyone else is willing to listen and value their judgment. The challenge is to be that person - the one who makes things happen, not wonder what happened.

Adapt or Die - do one or the other.