Adaptive Leadership in Uncertain Times

Jim Roberts, CEO
July, 26, 2017 -

Unless you are living in some altered reality, it is unquestionably clear – we are living in Uncertain Times. Politically, financially, geopolitically, environmentally, internationally, culturally, socially, “the times they are a chang’n.” Unfortunately, these changes aren’t necessarily for the better. Except for annoying political nonsense, the last eight years have been pretty stable. But now... it feels like our normative order is being turned on its head. Angst and fear have blanketed the hearts of far too many as uncertainty burgeons like an explosion of wildflowers after a rainy season.

The natural instinct for so many--too many--is to think “the sky is falling.” Worry, stress, fear, anger and depression are explainable human response — but these reaction do nothing but make us sick and ineffective. Now is the time for Leadership which adapts to a rapidly changing environment; thinking quickly and acting creatively in order to create solutions and restore stability, and sanity I might add.

Remember, Leadership is all about taking people to a place where they won’t go on their own. Effective leaders: 1) create a clear vision, 2) share that vision, 3) provide information and methods to realize that vision, while they 4) balance diversity of thought and conflicting interests, risks and rewards.

My comments here were originally developed for leaders in the Human Services field, but as you will see, there is application across a broad spectrum. Adaptive Leadership is needed right now in every walk of life.

Let me begin by describing the Attributes of Effective Leaders. These leaders have Brains: deep knowledge and excellent understanding in their area of work; Soul: possessing well-established, clear values enabling them to lead with a compass (i.e., a clear sense of direction) and not by radar, (i.e., responding to crisis); Heart: driven by intrinsic passion and compassion; and Nerves: a willingness to be bold, take risks and make tough decisions.

Adaptive Leaders understand the Process of Change, having the requisite knowledge to respond and adapt to uncertainties and leverage Change to their advantage. Effective Adaptive Leaders don’t see change as a foe, but as an opportunity to make things better!

So what do I mean by “Adaptive Leadership?” Adaptive Leadership is the art of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges in order to thrive and flourish. There are four dimensions of Adaptive Leadership:

  • First, the ability to focus on the adaptations required of people in response to changes in challenges;
  • Second, a solid understanding of their role as a leader in relationship to the work of followers and the context of their environment;
  • Third, the ability to encourage change across multiple platforms, including self, organization, community and societal; and
  • Fourth, they follow a carefully developed plan and strategy.

Adaptive Leaders help others by: Mobilizing them; Motivating them; Organizing them; Orienting them; and Focusing their attention on what is important!

It is essential that Adaptive Leaders are able to operate within and apply four distinct viewpoints:

  • First, they must be “Systems Thinkers” — understanding the complexity of problems and knowing that their organization has systems, and that it operates within larger systems;
  • Second, they must be “Biological Thinkers” — understanding that organizations and people develop and evolve by having to adapt to internal cues and the external environment, just like in biological adaption;
  • Third, they must be “Service Oriented” — viewing their role as serving and meeting people’s needs, not lording over folks and barking orders; and
  • Fourth, they must be “Therapeutic” — knowing that change can have significant impact on individuals, thus possessing the skills necessary for mitigating and managing the trauma of change.

One of the best ways to understand Adaptive Leadership is through an analogue drawn from Adaptive Biology. Species that survive through successful adaption consist of three features: 1) They always preserve the DNA which is essential for survival — similarity, effective leaders understand the DNA of their organizations and what must be preserved. 2) Adapting organisms discard, re-regulate or rearrange DNA that no longer serves the species. Adaptive Leaders must do the same, eliminating that which is not essential. 3) Biologically adapted species have created DNA arrangements that give the organism the ability to flourish in new ways, and more challenging environments. The goal of Adaptive Leadership should also be to provide the organization the “DNA” that will enable it to thrive and flourish!

Adaptive Leaders must learn to ADAPT — a model I have used for years. This process is ongoing, circular and never ending!

  • Assess: successes and strengths; opportunities; competition; threats; outcomes; system changes and external influences
  • Develop: vision; strategies; readiness and risk assessments; and desired outcomes
  • Align: Change Management, Complexity Management and Performance Management
  • Plan: adjust or create your business model; staffing; policy and procedures; and funding; and infrastructure
  • Transform: operationally, organizationally, fiscally and performance

There are Seven important steps in Implementing Adaptive Leadership:

  • First, spend more time on the “Balcony” and less time on the “Dance Floor.” What I mean, by this statement is that you must learn to take an aerial view of what’s happening within your organization, (i.e. “getting on the balcony”) versus being planted in the midst of everything that’s going on, (i.e. “the dance floor!”) As you conduct the ADAPT process, this approach will help you obtain a broader and more diverse perspective.
  • Second, learn the difference between “Technical” versus “Adaptive” challenges. One of the single biggest failures of leadership is to treat adaptive challenges like technical problems. A Technical Problem is something easily identified, and easily fixed. An Adaptive Challenge is something more difficult to identify and easy to deny, and requires changes in values, beliefs, roles, et cetera. This approach also requires numerous changes across organizational boundaries along with experimentation. A simple example of a technical challenge is taking medication for blood pressure. An adaptive challenge is changing one’s lifestyle to eat healthy, exercise and lose weight!
  • Third, distinguish between Leadership and Authority. Just because an individual has Authority, does not make them a leader. Leadership is an activity that helps others see what they need to do and supplies them with the tools and feedback they need to be successful. View Leadership as a verb, not a job!
  • Fourth, learn to “orchestrate Chaos and Disequilibrium.” I don’t have time to fully explain this but it is absolutely critical. Adaptive Leaders learn how to utilize Chaos/Disequilibrium to leverage growth within the organization–the “Art” of creating a “Productive Zone of Chaos/Disequilibrium.” Adaptive leaders know when to introduce Chaos/Disequilibrium necessary to produce growth, and when to pull back to allow distillation and re-balancing. The “Productive Zone of Chaos/Disequilibrium” consist of a Threshold of Change and a Limit of Tolerance. Adaptive Leaders know how to maneuver their organization within this window. (There is a ton of very good information available on this process, well worth your time to research.)
  • Fifth, Think and Act Politically. Effective Adaptive leaders must be skilled in managing the interactions and relationships of all the parties involved in the Adaptive-Change process, both within and outside the organization. It’s all about understanding who the stakeholders are--the individuals who stand to gain and those who stands to lose--and creating a win-win situation to the best extent possible.
  • Sixth, Empower People. This step involves creating a sense of ownership, avoiding micro-managing, becoming a cheerleader and creating an environment which gives people voice, choice and preference. Please Remember: Adaptive Leadership is the art of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges in order to thrive and flourish!
  • Seventh, Hold Steady! Adaptive change involves the process of time. Once you have introduced an adaptive change, (i.e., Chaos/Disequilibrium), let it take a life of its own — don’t chase after or attempt to exercise total control. Adaptive Leadership is about empowering others to perform, making your idea their idea. Avoid the temptation to jump back in; instead, encourage people to be creative, innovative and to add depth/dimension. Be patient, listen, and always show deference and respect to others even when it seems that things are going sideways.

I’ve only discussed some of the essential and key components to becoming an effective Adaptive Leader; to create an appetite and interest in gaining a very valuable skill and organizational management tool. Embrace change and leverage it to your organization’s benefit as an effective Adaptive Leader!