Adaptive leadership practice

Adaptive leadership practice

Meysam Poorkavoos 8th January 2021

The global pandemic has tested leadership skills across the world like never before.  It’s impacted every aspect of our lives.  It’s scary, uncertain and exhausting.  Organisations are grappling with how to adapt, transform and innovate and leaders are faced with tough decisions. The temptation for leaders is to adopt an authoritative leadership style to suck up the decisions and tell people what to do and how to do it.   It’s not what’s needed right now.

What makes some organisations more resilient than others?

What is it that enables some organisations to survive and even thrive and make others disappear?

There have been many attempts to find the key ingredient for a resilient organisation. One example is the concept of an adaptive organisation and adaptive leadership from Heifetz et al (2009)[1].

In their study, Heiftez identified five qualities of an adaptive organisation:

  • Elephant in the room are named
  • Responsibility for the organisation’s future is shared
  • Independent judgment is expected
  • Leadership capacity is developed
  • Reflection and continuous learning are institutionalised

So what does this mean for adaptive leadership?

Elephants in the room are named

Heifetz et al(2009)  argue that any meeting in an organisation consists of 4 meetings. First is the one that is being talked about during the meeting and is the reason for people getting together. Second is the informal conversation that happened prior to this meeting and did not include everyone who is in the main meeting. Third is the conversation that is happening in participants head about their observation and reflection of what is being talked about in the meeting and those difficult issues or ‘elephants in the room’ that is not being openly discussed. Forth is those conversations that happens after the meeting about things that people noticed but no one dared to bring them up.

In adaptive organisations no issue is too sensitive to be discussed in a meeting. Everyone feels safe to bring any difficult situation to others’ attention including early signs of a change in the external environment. Psychological safety within the organisation and across teams is high that people not only feel safe to do that, but they are expected to actively do that even if it is to challenge a senior authority in the organisation. This enables organisations and their leaders to identify any crisis well before it becomes unmanageable.

  • Do you provide opportunities for people to make suggestions (formally or informally) and actions to be taken without undue delay?
  • Are there structures, incentives, and support embedded to raise challenging topics?
  • Are crises identified and the need for change/new direction discussed at pace?

Responsibility for the organisation’s future is shared

In adaptive organisations everyone feels responsible for the overall success of the organisation. As Ed Schein puts in this article “Being responsible does not mean for them [leaders] that they have to do it alone, and they realize that they cannot implement the new and better things without the involvement of others.”.

There are no turf wars in adaptive organisations (if there are they are discussed in meetings and resolved quickly) and departments often lend their people to other department to resolve a complex problem. Collaborating across boundaries is the norm.

  • Do people in your organisation act for the benefit of the whole organization, as opposed to worrying about and protecting their individual groups or silos?

Independent judgment is expected

In adaptive organisations decision making and idea generation is pushed down into the organisation and people are valued for their independent judgment. In these organisations when it comes to decision making people don’t ask themselves ‘what would make the people above me happy?’ but they ask themselves ‘what do I think is the best decisions here that would in service of the organisation’s mission?’. It means that leaders need to be comfortable with not knowing all the answers and sharing that with others in the organisation. Some of the challenges that organisations are facing now are so complex that no one person would ever be able to come up with a solution. In adaptive organisation people who are grappling with a challenge, no matter where they are in the hierarchy, are invited to join the conversation and come with a joint decision.

  • Do your people know they are valued for their own independent thinking? What can you do to encourage them to speak out rather than just comply?
  • Are people valued for their propensity to embrace change and new ideas?
  • When someone takes a reasonable risk in service of the purpose of the organisation and it doesn’t work out, is it seen as a learning opportunity or a personal failure?

Leadership capacity is developed

In adaptive organisations leadership is not just practiced by a few who are in power. They build leadership capacity within the organisation by giving opportunities to others through involving them in various decision making and targeted development and training. Succession planning is another aspect of this quality. Senior leaders need to identify those who can do their job better than they do and nurture and mentor these individuals.

  • Do people in your organisation understand their potential for growth and advancement?
  • Do you know who your successors are? What can you do to mentor and develop them?

Reflection and continuous learning is the norm

Reflection and continuous learning are the key ingredient of adaptive organisations and everyone including the senior team is open to learning and priority is given to learning opportunities. Another key aspect of the culture in these organisations is that learning and development is not just limited to attending a course, hiring a consultant or copying another organisation. They are open to experiments and encourage that throughout the organisation. They also create a safe environment where people feel safe to experiment and learn from failures.

  • Do you ensure that your organisation carves out time for individual and collective reflection and learning from experience?
  • Do you allocate time, space, and other resources to get diverse perspectives on how work could be done more effectively/be more innovative?

What we do in this global pandemic will have impact for years to come.  Adaptive leadership is not just a practice for crisis leadership and tapping into the collective potential of our organisations can only lead to positive outcomes. 

[1] Heifetz, R. A., Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Harvard Business Press.