Wednesday, 28 March 2012 02:58

Chameleon Leader - the Ultimate Change Manager

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We are often asked 'Why are you called Kameleons?' The answer is simple - we think the humble little chameleon is one of the best examples of leadership in the animal kingdom. Small, rare and often misunderstood, the chameleon is the ultimate in adapting to change and seeing the big picture. Here are some of the reasons why.

Animals have been used as metaphors for human qualities for thousands of years. In astrology, seven of the twelve zodiac signs are animals and used to personal characteristics. The Chinese calendar focuses on years, with each successive year represented by one of 12 animals. Further, children’s tales depict the owl as wise, the elephant ‘never forgets’ and the lion as ‘the king of the jungle’ representing strength in leadership. Lions, eagles and bears have been used many times to represent the leadership traits that we have wanted to see demonstrated by our leaders; loyalty, strength, decisiveness and purpose.

Chameleon as Leader

While these traits are still admirable in leaders, they do not fully represent the qualities that a modern leader must demonstrate in the workforce. Leaders today face unprecented change, the need to sift and glean information for a variety of sources, as well as the ability to read both their internal and external environments and adapt as required. With these requirements in mind, the bold, strong animal images of leadership no longer suffice. I would contend that the little known and often misunderstood chameleon possesses the required traits to represent the modern leader and that ‘chameleon leaders’ are the way of the future.

The chameleon is a widely misunderstood animal. Children’s cartoons would have you believe that the chameleon can change the colour of its body to any colour or arrangement you can imagine, rendering it ‘invisible’ to all other animals around it. Closer to the truth is that several species of chameleon can adapt the colour of their skin to specific hues within their natural environment, responding to social cues, emotional change and danger in their environment.

Adapting to Change

Because of these traits, the chameleon can be viewed as the ultimate change manager. The way many managers respond to change reminds me of cooking a lobster. If the change is sudden, large and immediate (such as putting a lobster into boiling water), then the manager reacts like a lion; bold, direct and able to deal with the change head on. If however, the change is more subtle (such as the lobster being immersed into cold water with the temperature rising slowly to a boil) the manager misses the required cues to change as needed. Just as the lobster cooks peacefully without recognising the slow change in temperature, many managers miss the required environmental cues to adapt to change.

800px-Caméléon Madagascar 02
The chameleon has a completely different make-up and ability to deal with change. The chameleon places itself in environments where it can recognise and understand the subtle changes that could effect its colour, even when other animals do not. Steven Jobs and Apple have demonstrated some excellent chameleon leadership traits. Who knew that we needed or wanted an iPod or Ipad before they existed? Apple had the ability to read the market before others and change its offering, or in the case of the iPad, provide a platform so attuned to its market that it overtook first entry options. Like a chameleon blending into its environment, Apple products blend and sync seamlessly together.

Understanding Strengths

Not only does the chameleon place itself it environments it can adapt, it doesn’t place itself in environments where it can’t. For example, a chameleon that can change its colour from light to dark green is not going to place itself in an environment of brown hues. Chameleon leaders are those that understand that success is not guaranteed in every leadership opportunity that is presented to them. Leaders that behave like chameleons have a very clear understanding of what skills, behaviours and traits are their strengths, and place themselves in environments where those strengths can be used fully. Corporate history is filled with leaders that were successful in one company and not successful in others. Writers such as Michael Watkins (The First 90 Days) and Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffmann (First, Break all the Rules) would contend that these leaders did not understand the behaviours that made them successful in their chosen environment. Chameleon leaders not only know their strengths, they know where they will best be employed.

692px-Chamaeleo chamaeleon Frightened thus black
Conversely, the chameleon leader knows what environments and skills are not in their skill set; they have a clear understanding of their innate weaknesses. Rather than try to cover up, battle through or bluff through their weakness, chameleon leaders are open to what they cannot achieve. Rather than trying to be superman and be all things to all people, chameleon leaders employ skilled people that demonstrate strength in their areas of weakness.

The idea of playing to strength is exemplified in Brad Pitt’s recent movie Moneyball. Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s GM, used statistical data to pick players that could play specific roles in specific environments, rather than employ ‘stars’ who were thought to be perfect at everything. Through employing chameleon leadership, Beane took his Oakland A’s to finish first in their league in 2002, winning 20 straight games.

Fine Detail and the ‘Helicopter’ View

It is not just the ability to change colour that makes the chameleon such an amazing leader through change. The chameleon has the most distinctive eyes of any reptile. The eyes of the chameleon can rotate and focus independently, resulting in the ability to observe two different objects simultaneously. It also provides the chameleon with a full 360-degree view around its body. Not only can the chameleon leader multi-task skilfully, they scan their environment (both internally and externally) and keep up to date with current information. A chameleon leader can look back to the past and understand why processes or procedures were developed, yet also look forward and adapt those processes to the current requirement. When needed, the chameleon can focus those independent eyes together resulting in amazing depth perception and vision. A chameleon leader demonstrates the ability to focus keenly on an individual task, being able to break a task down to its component pieces for improvement. They also demonstrate the ability to consider a business from a ‘helicopter view’, looking beyond the day-to-day tasks and consider business goals from a different perspective.

How do you recognise a chameleon leader in your workplace?

  1. They completely understand the strengths and skills that have made them successful and place themselves in environments they can be used.
  2. They are not afraid to communicate their weaker skills with others.
  3. They are not afraid to hire people with better skills than their own in specific areas.
  4. They can identify potential based on skills, behaviours and traits – they understand that success does not always breed success across companies.
  5. 776px-Cameleon TunisieThey build trusted relationships with their people who in turn provide clear feedback and information to their Manager.
  6. They don’t change for changes sake. They recognize what can be used from the past and adapted to the future if required.
  7. They have the ability to focus in detail on a specific task as well as view the broader task set holistically.
  8. They will likely have people following their actions without making a big fuss about it.

Why do you need chameleon leaders in your workplace?

Look for the people that aren’t afraid to question to status quo or are willing to change a process to fit a current setting. They may not be at the head of the pack like a lion shouting their virtues from the rooftops; they could be right in front of you, blending into the corporate environment and making changes you haven’t seen, going about their tasks without fanfare. Don’t just look for them at the top of the tree; chameleons leaders can demonstrate their traits at all levels of the business.

Not recognising their strengths and abilities could be fatal in an environment of constant change and seemingly endless communication. Take the time to find the chameleon leaders them and embrace their unique skill sets. After all, would you rather be working with lobsters?



0902-014 n1 cweb4x6Need help with addressing negativity in your workplace? Having trouble challenging behaviour that stifles creativity? Michael Peiniger is a leadership and team development specialist who helps CEO's and heads of business 'develop leaders' within their organisations. As a specialist facilitator working with the top businesses in the country, he can provide your managers, supervisors and aspiring leaders with the skills, knowledge, behaviour traits and attitudes that will make them successful in challenging negativity in your business. To discuss your needs, call Michael on 0409 627 270, email

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Last modified on Thursday, 03 May 2012 03:05

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