Adaptive Leadership Starts with a Commitment to Others
Arguably the most important principle of the adaptive leadership theory is that leadership is action. It is something some people do, some of the time. Leadership is not authority. Leadership is not position. In other words, leadership is a verb, not a title. In a position of authority, whether as a parent, a CEO or a doctor, your core responsibilities are largely the same. It’s your job to provide: (1) direction, (2) protection and (3) order. You can do all those things without ever leading anyone through difficult but necessary adaptive change. And conversely, you can practice adaptive leadership without a formal position of authority. It requires you to take some risks by telling people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear, but it also means you can help your family, your organization or your community make progress on its most difficult challenges without a waiting for a formal title or for some authority figure from on high to come down and lead the work. This type of leadership—the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive—is always a commitment to other people.
Diagnose Your Challenge and Make a Commitment to Change
Before you can practice adaptive leadership, you’ve got to be able to diagnose what the challenge facing you is – and they’re segmented into technical problems and adaptive challenges.
Technical problems are understood and come with known solutions that an expert in the field can implement. The problems might be complex and critical – like replacing a heart valve during cardiac surgery, for example – but the problem is clear, the solution is clear and the current way of doing things can get us to that solution.
With adaptive challenges, understanding the problem and figuring out what a potential solution could be requires learning. The challenges are complex and can’t be solved by simply handing them over to an expert in a particular area. Adaptive challenges can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits and loyalties. One of the most common causes of failed leadership is attempting to treat an adaptive challenge as if it were a technical problem. Given, this, leadership is always a commitment to necessary change.
Make an Ongoing Commitment to Growth
So, when faced with an adaptive challenge, a critical skill is switching between the dance floor and the balcony. No, you don’t need to book your dance lessons just yet, but think about it as a metaphor of perspective: When you’re on a dance floor you’re in the fray. Getting on the balcony above the dance floor offers some distance to see everything that’s happening, not just what’s right in front of you. Achieving that distance is the only way to effectively diagnose the system or to diagnose yourself. And, it’s vital that we do both – especially in times of crisis or uncertainty.
“The single most important skill and most undervalued capacity for exercising adaptive leadership is diagnosis,” the authors of The Practice of Adaptive Leadership note. That’s because in most organizations and societies, those who’ve reached high levels of authority are trained to be good at taking action and making quick decisions. It’s almost always going to feel easier to just put your head down and answer those emails, meet those deadlines and check off those tasks than it will be to zoom out and do the potentially difficult diagnostic work of seeing the larger patterns at play in the organization or in your own reactions and behaviors. And, once you see those patterns, you need the fortitude to close the gap between what those patterns are and what they should be. Especially when you recognize your own ingrained habits, beliefs and reactions are failing to line up with the person you want to be.
Leadership is always a commitment to growth – not just for our organizations, families and communities, but perhaps most importantly, for ourselves.
For me that means modeling those healthy eating and exercise habits I want my kids to adopt, after nearly a year of stress eating and excessive news consumption.
What’s your personal leadership goal this year?
Michelli Castañeda is the manager of leadership development for Valley Leadership.