When my grandkids visit my winter residence in Arizona, they love chasing the little desert geckos that hang out by the pool. The speedy creatures are nearly invisible as they cling to a wall or the trunk of a palm tree, their skin color blending into their surroundings, only to dart away when they see curious preschooler hands approaching.

The other day, I noticed one sunning itself by the pool and watched as it changed colors to match the sand-colored rock, the green leaves, and the gray cement patio. It occurred to me that the ability of geckos and chameleons to survive by adapting to their surroundings is similar to how business leaders must adapt to their business surroundings. (Don’t laugh at how I get inspiration for my column. Writing is an art, not a science!)

Just as chameleons change their skin color in response to light and ambient temperature, business leaders must also change their leadership styles in response to the type of business environment in which they find themselves. In short, the leadership style that is requisite for managing a healthy, growing business is not the same as what’s needed to lead a troubled business.

I’ve watched leaders who lack chameleon characteristics many times over the years. Numerous corporate directors have said to me, “I just don’t know what happened to Fred, our CEO. He was doing such a great job until our company was hit with these difficulties, and now he seems to have gridlocked and doesn’t know what to do. ” And with the current recession affecting many businesses, there are probably a lot of CEOs and corporate directors out there asking the same question. I think I can shine some light on this question with a little anthropological, sociological, and psychological behavioral analysis. Have I got your attention now?

Unfortunately, the lack of agile leadership is a dilemma that’s been around for a while, even back in the first century B.C., when Publilius Syrus, a Latin writer and philosopher, said, “Anyone can steer the ship when the sea is calm.” And even more unfortunate is that most business schools and business leaders still to this day don’t understand that it takes different types of leadership attributes to steer the ship when it is in 30-foot waves. The diagram below illustrates how specific attributes manifest themselves in healthy companies and troubled companies.

A brief examination of each of these attributes demonstrates why it’s critical for leaders to change their style when in a crisis situation, or for the board of directors to change leadership of the company if the current leader is incapable of adapting his or her leadership style to the crisis.

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