Over the past decade, the pace of change has increased ten-fold. The past few months have flipped our lives upside down. This incredibly volatile and uncertain environment has undermined the effectiveness of long-term forecasting and traditional strategic planning. Technological advances and push towards digital transformation have forced companies to rethink their operating models, structures, and how they can best serve their customers while optimally harnessing the creativity, capabilities, and passion of their people. More than ever before, companies must consider the social and environmental impacts of their business along with cost, strategies, and an increasingly diverse competitive landscape.
The challenges and changes companies are facing today are progressively complicated and ambiguous. Leading successfully in these turbulent times and addressing these challenges requires a fundamental shift in beliefs and mental models. It requires something different than a traditional, top-down leadership approach.
The adaptive leadership model provides a set of skills and behaviors that enables leaders to leverage the collective strength of the organization’s culture and its people to identify creative solutions. It requires leaders to develop a higher level of emotional and situational awareness and be able to look at issues from many different perspectives simultaneously. It requires leaders to work on increasing their own resilience, as well as that of the organization, in the face of radical change.
This model was introduced by Harvard professors Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky. They define it simply as the “practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive”. Adaptive Leadership, in this author’s opinion, is one of the most democratic and accessible leadership models available and very relevant in this day and age when people need their leaders to be more than just autocratic figureheads.
Key Adaptive Leadership Behaviors
Adaptive Leadership identifies the following critical leadership behaviors:
1. Broadening Your Perspective: One of the most popular and useful concepts from adaptive leadership is “getting on the balcony”. It is the leader’s ability to get perspective in the midst of the action; to stand back and see the whole picture and across organizational systems, in order to assess broader connections and implications of events. Practicing adaptive leadership requires getting to the balcony, making observations, and returning to the dance floor to make adjustments.
Getting on the balcony requires paying attention to the influential figures in the organization, their behaviors, and words. Influential figures will reflect the size and impact of the disturbance that is being created. Effective leaders move back and forth from the balcony to the dance floor, making adjustments each time. An example of this is a leader who is trying to figure out why there is a lack of diversity in the organization. If he directly jumps into the dance floor and starts solving by increasing diverse hiring, he may miss out on the opportunity to truly address the problem. On the other hand, if he is able to step into the balcony, he might see that diverse hiring is not the only issue. Once these employees are hired, they are not being promoted to positions of leadership and thus are not visible at the higher management levels. The leader now knows that it is not just a hiring issue, but that there are other systematic causes that need to be addressed to bring about true change within the organization.
2. Identifying the “Right” Challenge: One of the most important aspects of adaptive leadership is quickly and clearly identifying the type of challenge the organization is facing. Is it an adaptive challenge or a technical one? Technical challenges are those that are clearly defined and for which the solutions can be found in known structures, rules and procedures.
The problems might be complex, but they can be solved by the right experts. Adaptive challenges are hard to identify and define. They depend on a fundamental shift in values, beliefs and behaviors, and need some level of anxiety to fuel the change in conversation. The events of 2020 related to the pandemic and fight for social justice have presented a variety of adaptive challenges for organizations.
3. Managing Stress: Managing stress means creating a space, whether physical or virtual, where people feel safe to share ideas and build trust, and where leaders can monitor tension and apply authority to start implementing change. The leader is also making sure that change is happening at a rate people can tolerate. In this environment, the leader manages conflict, establishes new norms, and ensures that teams and employees have what they need to be productive.
When going through a highly complex and transformative change process, it is also important for the leader to regulate their own personal distress. This includes being sensitive to and actively managing their own feelings, fears, and frustrations.
4. Maintaining Persistent Focus: Adaptive change process can feel overwhelming at times. Most people, when something is uncomfortable, tend to procrastinate or avoid it. Avoidance behaviors take many different forms. Leaders need to recognize these behaviors and address them quickly and directly. Leaders play a critical role in ensuring that people remain focused on the job at hand and are motivated to do the tough work of transformative change.
5. Empowering People and Uplifting Diverse Voices: The adaptive leadership framework is built on the belief that the real work of the leader is giving the work back to the people. Empowering people and allowing them to feel the anxiety around the challenge at hand enables them to make decisions and allows change to happen. It is important for leaders to remember that the best ideas do not reside only at the top. In fact, many believe that change is only successful when it is ignited at the grassroots level. Therefore, it is important for leaders to not only be open to a variety of perspectives and ideas from the margins and fringe groups within the organization, but also proactively include and involve those voices in the change effort.
Adaptive leadership starts with being able to identify the adaptive challenge. Leaders have the tendency to deal with every challenge as a technical challenge that can be solved by throwing experts at the problem. That often does not bring about transformational change. If the leaders invest the time to take a step back and assess their challenges through the adaptive leadership framework, they would be in a better position to identify opportunities that might lead to revolutionary outcomes and much higher returns. Adaptive leadership at its heart is about democratizing leadership and putting on the leadership hat, regardless of one’s title. In the words of Ron Heifetz, “We own collective responsibility for the global conditions that we impact and that impact us. We will not make these changes based on authority-based leadership, but rather with each of us taking a leadership role.”