Adaptive Leadership Skills
“Management is about coping with complexity. Leadership, by contrast, is about coping with change.” John Kotter
Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. (Gal. 5:25)
“How good is your company at change?” asked a recent cover article in the Harvard Business Review. This question has haunted me over the past two years. During this same time period, I have had the privilege of serving on the executive leadership teams of two different global organizations.
It is no longer good enough for an organization to deliver quality products, services or ministry to the people it serves. The volatility and complexity of cultural forces coupled with a two-year long global pandemic have stepped up both the pace of change and the penalties for not coping with it well.
According to GuideStar there are over 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States alone, and 84,700 of those are listed as faith-based. According to Forbes, over half of all nonprofits will fail within a few years. The primary reasons include a lack of leadership skills, no strategic plan and inefficiency in core operations.
Said another way, your organization must adapt or die.
In my experience, one of the most crucial leadership skills to be learned right now is adaptive leadership.
What is Adaptive Leadership?
“Adaptive leadership is the capacity to enable a people to grow so they can face their biggest challenges,” according to Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Alexander Grashow in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World (Harvard Business Review Press; 1st edition, May 18, 2009). It is about developing an ongoing process that allows an organization to confront reality and make hard decisions while remaining focused on the mission. Adaptive leaders help everyone in the group build new muscle memory so that ongoing adaptation to challenges becomes a normal part of the culture.
One of the best resources I’ve seen explain this set of new leadership mental models and behaviors is Tod Bolsinger’s Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory (IVP Books; Expanded edition, April 24, 2018). Bolsinger tells the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition that set off in search of a waterway connecting the central territories of the United States to the Pacific Ocean. Instead of the expected river, they encountered the forbidding Rocky Mountains. Outfitted with canoes and provisions for river travel, this small band of explorers had to let go of their cumbersome provisions, discover new ways to survive, and press on to complete their mission.
Maybe you’ve been in meetings where the group encounters a significant, disruptive challenge only to reflexively reach for the old paddles and add more effort to paddle the canoe upstream over the mountain. At some point, someone needs to intervene and say “let’s ditch the canoes.” Adaptive leadership is about “letting go, learning as we go, and keeping going” in the face of change.
Four Skills Adaptive Leaders Exhibit
Trust deepens when those we seek to influence experience three critical elements in our relationships. Whether you are responsible to lead five people on a team or 5,000 people across an organization, your ability to influence others depends on their level of trust in your character, competency in your role, and concern for their well-being. We trust other people’s character when they consistently do what is just and do what they say they will do.
If the past two years are any indicator of what the next two years may bring, you will be leading people into uncharted territory. If people can’t trust your leadership on the map, how will they be able to follow you off the map?
Stuck systems can’t become unstuck through more meetings, longer workdays, or spending more money. If you and your team aren’t actively naming and letting go of old approaches, researching, and experimenting, you’re not practicing adaptive leadership.
Heifetz encourages leaders to expand their perspective by getting off the dance floor and climbing up to the balcony. The dance floor is the daily whirl of tasks, meetings, and production that delivers results for your organization. It is easy to get caught up in the music and lose sight of the bigger picture. Adaptive leaders regularly step away from the fray to get perspective. This is hard for active leaders in busy organizations because it looks like you’re not doing real work. This is faulty thinking. I regularly tell people I manage that I want to see them leaning back in their chair, staring at the ceiling or a blank whiteboard, and taking time to evaluate what is happening around them.
This ongoing process is described in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership and has three key activities:
- Observing events and patterns around you;
- Interpreting what you are observing (developing multiple hypotheses about what is really going on); and
- Designing interventions based on the observations and interpretations to address the adaptive challenge you have identified.
Once you begin designing interventions, expect pushback. Any intervention that challenges assumptions, traditions, or non-productive approaches will be resisted. Bolsinger advises that “sabotage is natural. It’s normal. It’s part and parcel of the systemic leadership process. Saboteurs are usually doing nothing but unconsciously supporting the status quo.” So, don’t take it personally, but be ready to keep moving forward, staying in step with the Spirit of God.
Dealing with Loss.
“People don't resist change, per se, people resist loss” say Heifetz, Linsky and Grashow. When change is in the air people want to know how the anticipated changes will affect them personally. God wired us for self-preservation, so we tend to underestimate the benefits and overemphasize the losses involved in seasons of change. This is particularly true for senior staff transitions.
An adaptive leader will help individuals and teams name the losses they fear will come. What’s at stake for individuals may include loss of status, control, autonomy, relationships, or a sense of fairness. When done with candor in a safe environment, bringing fears into the light helps everyone see that they are normal.
There is a strong temptation to soften the blows of necessary change. I actually heard one leader at the launch of a sweeping change initiative step to the mic and say to a room full of leaders, “Don’t worry, these changes won’t really affect you very much.” Don’t be that leader.
Your job as a servant leader is to bring necessary change to your organization. Growing your adaptive leadership skills will help you and your team survive and thrive as you move into uncharted territory.
Dr. Ken Cochrum serves with East-West as the Executive Vice President of Field Ministries and a member of the CLA board. He is a co-founder of Indigitous and author of Close: Leading Well Across Distance and Cultures. He and his wife, Ann, reside in Plano, Texas.