Adaptive Leadership


Adaptive Leadership - 1So many of the world’s problems, and the issues that organizations, businesses, and people face every day can seem intractable and unsolvable. Leadership consultants Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky discussed a new way to lead the charge to change in their book in 2009 entitled, “Adaptive Leadership”.

Adaptive Leadership calls for moving beyond outdated approaches and embracing new skills and attitudes to guide your organization in the 21st century. Adaptive leadership combines established ways of leading with new skills and new perspectives for dealing with unprecedented challenges.

But, if it were easy, everyone would be adaptive leaders and everyone would be successful.  Before you begin the process of bringing lasting change to an organization you must recognize that for most stakeholders, the status quo is acceptable. People and systems create the environment in which they’re most comfortable, regardless of how dysfunctional it may in fact be. People fear the loss of the familiar far more than change, per se. Many will even resist change when they know that it’s a good thing and necessary for the ultimate survival of the organization.

As leaders we must adjust our approach to assess and address how we guide people through their “losses.”  We must learn to discern between “technical” and “adaptive” issues. For example, in a merger or an acquisition, stitching together two firms’ computer environments is a technical job.  Figuring out and implementing the synergies between each company’s culture and values is an adaptive challenge. Before embarking on major organizational change, assess the pace and strategy required to generate more than lip-service support from others so you can enlist their engagement and backing. Sell the idea early.  And sell it often.  Be prepared to engage people around you in making “hard choices.” That may result in big changes to their comfort zone.

So what is the leadership lesson here?

Adaptive Leadership - 2Adaptive leadership is built on the successes of the past.  Keeping the knowledge, wisdom, values and the energy that created an organization is crucial to finding new ways of leading and facing new challenges.  Adaptive leadership happens when we experiment in calculated and strategic ways.  In other words, attempting new approaches in controlled settings and tolerating expected failures helps organizations discover, refine and embed useful change before applying it widely across the entire organization.

And here is one final leadership truth.  People don’t learn by staring in the mirror; they learn by engaging with others. Adaptive leaders welcome different viewpoints and manage conflict across boundaries.  But conflict is inevitable.  And change is disruptive.  People will chafe at the risk of losses in the new and unknown. People who lead adaptive change must prepare for and offset these negative reactions.

What kind of leader are you?  Do you see a need for adaptive leadership in your organization?  Do you see yourself as an adaptive leader?  And if you are not one currently, do you see yourself developing the skills to become one?

Photo credit: Foter / CC BY-SA
Photo credit: portable_soul / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
Photo credit: DeaPeaJay / Foter / CC BY-SA

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I am the husband of a beautiful and wonderful woman. I am the father of two of the greatest kids on the planet. I am a father-in-law to a great young woman. And I am Papa to three very special grandchildren. In my spare time I am an active blogger and writer. And if there is any time left over, I work with small non-profit organizations and churches on the topics of change management, crisis intervention and leadership development.

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