Monday, October 6, 2014

Bristling with Adaptive Capacity


One of my favorite leadership books is Geeks and Geezers, by Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas, in part because the book introduced the notion of "adaptive capacity" in leaders:
... adaptive capacity is applied creativity. It is the ability to look at a problem or crisis and see an array of unconventional solutions.
According to Bennis and Thomas, adaptive capacity permits individuals to:
...confront unfamiliar situations with confidence and optimism. Those with well developed adaptive capacity are not paralyzed by fear or undermined by anxiety in difficult situations. They believe that if they leap, a net will appear--or, if it doesn't, they will be able to find or fashion one in time. Where others see only chaos and confusion, they see opportunity.
If you are in the insurance business, you know that good claims leaders absolutely bristle with adaptive capacity. Flexibility and resiliency are requisites for managing claims, and successful claims leaders find meaning and strength by grappling with the adversity and uncertainty they face every day. The best claims leaders also have the confidence and the will to get personally involved in contentious and difficult situations and creatively move them toward successful resolution. They embrace challenges, overcome obstacles, and learn and grow and become more confident as they go. In other words, they act a lot like Teddy Roosevelt!

I was watching the Ken Burns documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History last week and I was reminded of a story I once read about the 1912 presidential campaign. Teddy Roosevelt had served two terms as president and had decided not to run again in 1908, so his Secretary of War and hand-picked successor William Howard Taft won the presidency. Teddy wasn't happy with Taft's term, however. He also missed the action and excitement of national politics, so he decided to challenge Taft and seek the Republican nomination for president in the 1912 election. He didn't secure the nomination, so he decided to run as a third-party candidate representing the new Progressive (also known as Bull Moose) party.

It was an arduous campaign, raucous and hard fought. So intense and relentless that at one point Roosevelt was shot in the chest during a campaign appearance in Milwaukee, but went on to deliver a 90 minute speech before agreeing to go to the hospital. He was fighting an uphill battle with voters, and his campaign was running short of time and money, but his staff decided to push forward and print an elegant pamphlet with Teddy's photo on the cover for distribution to voters during the final round of whistle-stop tours.

They had three million copies printed, but as they were readying the pamphlets for distribution someone noticed that Moffett Studios in Chicago held a copyright on the cover photo of Teddy. Unfortunately, no one had bothered to obtain permission from Moffett Studios to use the photo. The potential penalty for unauthorized use was staggering-- $1 per pamphlet, or $3 million. The campaign didn't have the time or funds necessary to reprint the pamphlets using another photo, and simply moving forward and incurring the penalty and bad publicity associated with using the photo without permission was not an option. Staff members knew they had no choice but to strike a deal with the photographer, but they hesitated because they believed their bargaining position was weak.

Enter George Perkins, executive secretary of the Progressive Party and Roosevelt's campaign manager, who after being briefed on the situation took immediate action, sending this cable to Moffett:
We are planning to distribute millions of pamphlets with Teddy's photo on the cover. This will be great publicity for the studio who took the photo. How much will you pay us to use yours? Reply immediately.
Moffett replied immediately:
We've never done this before, but under the circumstances we'll offer you $250.
Problem solved!

I have always enjoyed that story, and I've told it many times to illustrate what adaptive capacity looks like. While you might not agree with his approach to Moffett, Perkins was a successful businessman, a heavy hitter, well connected to financier J. P. Morgan, and he knew how to get things done. He had the ability to look at a problem and quickly come up with an unconventional yet brilliant solution, and in this situation he converted a $3 million exposure into a $250 revenue item rather handily. Adaptive capacity, personified! Of course Theodore Roosevelt himself could have served as an adaptive capacity poster boy--a charismatic leader who also happened to be a tireless and prolific writer, an innovator, a problem solver, an obstacle surmounter and an odds-defying achiever and adventurer. Take a look at what he accomplished during his remarkable life here.

Well, the pamphlet got distributed as planned, but as we all know Woodrow Wilson went on to win the 1912 election with 42% of the votes, followed by Roosevelt at 27% and Taft at 23%. The Progressive party nominated Teddy as its presidential candidate again in 1916, but he refused the nomination and never got directly involved in politics again. Two and a half years later he died in his sleep at Sagamore Hill, his family home at Oyster Bay, NY.

Dean K. Harring, CPCU, CIC is a retired Chief Claims Officer and an expert and advisor on property casualty insurance claims and operations.  He can be reached at or through  LinkedIn or Twitter.

No comments:

Post a Comment