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Chameleons are highly adapted lizards with highly specialized colour-changing skin that gives them an offensive and defensive advantage to match the colour of their environment. It is believed that their skin is a dual-layered overlapping pattern of nanocrystals. When excited or relaxed, the distance between nanocrystals changes, affecting the wavelengths of light that are reflected and absorbed. The result is the ability to change colour and temperature. Leaders are chameleons.
Leaders shape their approach to become like the person, group or setting in which they are engaging. This gives them the best chance of relating to others by making others comfortable and obtaining buy-in. By humbly altering non-verbals, volume, tone, language, physical distance and overall approach, the chameleon leader understands where to meet each person, adjusted to accommodate them specifically.
Compare the approaches with Mandy and Greg, who at different times of their careers were underperforming by making errors. Same problem in the same pharmacy but different personalities, job roles and experiences.
After Mandy was making too many errors, I tried the typical supportive, coaching approach. Actually, I tried it twice, with a review of the errors and a self-directed chart of root causes to make her better. The errors continued so I needed a different approach. Mandy was a great pharmacy worker, but the supportive approach undermined the problem. It was not strong or direct enough. She grew up a in a rough end of town, dyed her hair a different colour regularly, had a few tattoos and supported herself from a young age due to unsupportive parents. She was great with customers and did not take any back-talk from anyone. I picked the appropriate time, changed the tone and delivered her a message that she could understand. I explained that I believed in her, that I was on her side and she was capable of more accuracy than what she was showing. We needed to see dramatically improved accuracy immediately. She delivered with flying colours. It was tough to deliver and tough for her to hear, but the errors went away and she never felt belittled or threatened. Her background and way of understanding the world required her to be directly challenged by authority in a to-the-point message. Without the positive working relationship, that message could not have been delivered with buy-in. The chameleon leader molds to the audience’s need and speaks to them so they hear it.
Contrast the approach that Pharmacist Greg required. He is a licensed health care provider, whose signature has the power to dispense and inject medication. He was a parent and had been a Pharmacist for over 20-years to my ten. He generally avoided confrontation and was going through a divorce. If the Mandy-approach was used, he would have broke down in tears and been nervous about making future errors. He needed a boss who was on his side. My approach had to be gentle. Not soft, but calmly supportive. This means explaining that I wanted to acknowledge that he was an accurate Pharmacist, important to the team and has been less accurate than his usual capability. I chose the right time without others around so that I did not need to call him into the office. I gave a few specific examples without dwelling on superfluous information. He appreciated me not lamenting on the errors and felt supported at the same time. I told him he did not need me to figure that part out for him, but I was available for whatever he needed now and in the future. Things for Greg turned out fine with time and he approached me with little updates along the way, something that was uncommon for him before. His errors went away because he bought-in to the message. He felt believed in, while understanding he needed to improve something specific.
Changing the way leaders approach, coach, guide and generally converse with the variety of different personalities, experiences, behaviours and skillsets on the team is hard work. It means being truly human and being flexible in style.
Being a chameleon puts the other person at the center of the conversation. It means the leader is capable of communicating along ranges of flexibility and stability, empathy and sternness, autonomy and structure. Operating on an adaptable platform allows leaders to empower a variety of talent, mobilizing more people to do their best work.
Be aware of the variety around you by adapting to your environment.
It’s hard work and it’s your job.
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