A few weeks ago, I started a series on Leadership. Initially focusing on poor leadership (the traits that lead to staff turnover and dissatisfaction); I then began to highlight positive Leadership Styles. Servant Leadership (instrumental in staff loyalty, cohesiveness and productivity) became the first highlighted style. This week, continuing the theme on Positive Leadership Types, I want to highlight Adaptive Leadership.

If you think about the word adaptive, you conjure up images of humans or even animals that are faced with adversity on an ongoing basis. The survivors of those adverse events tend to be those of the species that learned to adapt. So it makes sense that Adaptive Leadership is basically a set of skills set to lead an organization through crisis, tough times or simply a needed change. Think of the words “restructuring”, “reform” or the dreaded “re-organization” and you might shudder. We, as a species, do not embrace fundamental change in the way we operate. The very words are intimidating and evoke defensiveness. But in an institutional setting, change is inevitable.

A poor leader tends to make change decisions in a vacuum, with very little input from anyone other than their closest cronies, creating a mandate rather than a blueprint for change. Despite our typical misgivings, change doesn’t have to be a curse word. Sometimes change can be needed desperately. But real change requires real buy-in at every level. The organizational leader must be able to guide their staff through the temporary crisis (for that is how the staff sees major change) by including them in the blueprints. It is through that transition that an Adaptive Leader is most effective.

Adaptive leadership recognizes that there are two kinds of problems: technical and adaptive. Technical problems are typically handled by calling in or contracting with subject matter experts who can analyze and address the problems. The organization possesses rules and procedures for eliminating or ameliorating technical problems.

Adaptive problems are trickier. There are no trained experts to deal with the problems at hand. Also, the agency has not established a set of procedures or protocols to deal with these issues. Often both the genesis and the actual scope of the issue is vague therefore, the resolution will require a special leader. An Adaptive Leader will help to define the problem and then mobilizes his staff to come up with possible answers. There are 4 primary characteristics of an Adaptive Leader.

EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE: In simple terms, having a strong EI means that you understand not only your own emotions and feelings but also of those around you. Empathy is a strong tool in your box, if you possess EI. Being able to respond to the crisis/situation around you and remain calm, fair and understanding of the impact of the event, will allow the Adaptive Leader to gage the emotional temperature of the agency and adapt the solutions to allow for the greatest buy in.   

ORGANIZATIONAL JUSTICE: Adaptive Leaders cultivate honesty and transparency. They understand how to analyze a situation and how to address it in a way that takes into account the ideas, thoughts and feelings of the team, so that they will feel valued and respected.

DEVELOPMENT: An Adaptive Leader is always open to development. They are not afraid to try new ideas and solutions. When an idea does not work, the AL goes back to the team to come up with other ways to address the situation. By learning and implementing new ideas, the team will grow and develop along with the leader.

CHARACTER: An Adaptive Leader possesses a strong character. Their honesty, creativity and transparency allows for the team to believe in the leader and be willing to challenge themselves as well.

THE SECRET PLAYBOOK OF THE ADAPTIVE LEADER: There are some basic rules followed by the AL.

  • Get a Higher Vantage Point: Some call it “getting on the balcony”, but it makes sense that if you want to get the true sense of an issue, you must be a better vantage point than down in the weeds. By maintaining a true view of the organization, an AL can see: what has worked before, what has not worked, how staff historically reacted to change, the power struggles that exists and many more variables that are important information bits to have when looking at instituting a healthy and lasting change.
  • Identify the Adaptive Change Needed: As discovered from the higher vantage point, the AL can use that information to understand what is needed for change? How to best present change so that staff will embrace it. What barriers will exists to this needed change? What visionaries in the organization can become part of the team.
  • Regulate the Stress: No matter how needed change may be, it is a fact of life that change causes stress. The AL will pace the change so that staff can adjust without overwhelming anxiety. The AL also remains consistent and steadfast throughout the change process so that the staff can look to them for strength.
  • Give responsibilities to the People: By delegating parts of the change process to the team, the AL is promoting ideas, values and a sense of responsibility to the staff for the successful change to occur. Becoming part of not only the ideas but also the operation of the change, will allow the staff to embrace the change as a mutual agreement for improvement instead of a mandatory for employment.
  • Reward Active Participation: In many organizations, lower tier staff or subordinates are not likely to speak up and add their perspective for fear of retaliation if their ideas are not accepted. The Adaptive Leader not only provides a forum for all ideas and thoughts, but rewards such leadership with acknowledgement and appreciation. The AL understands that not all ideas have merit, but demonstrates that all staff will be heard.

In an organization that is on the precipice of change, the Adaptive Leader is the most appropriate captain for the ship. However, the tenets of Adaptive Leadership can be used in any corporate or organization for the characteristics of the AL are the characteristics of good leadership for any situation.

6 thoughts on “Adapting to Change

  1. I wish that there were more adaptive leader in child welfare! The times certainly call for it. I have been impressed by the way grade schools have quickly adapted to the present realities in my town, including getting equipment to homes and helping families navigate technology..

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s