Adaptive leadership is a step up from other leadership skills. Typically the term is applied to leadership situations that involve neither technical nor operational issues. Issues that require a form of adaptive leadership are normally problems that do not have the clarity of an operational issue, as well as a lack of clear solutions. How you, as a leader, react to adaptive issues will set the tone for problem solving going forward. Let’s first look at specific qualities of adaptive issues, and then discuss some ways you can lead adaptively.
With adaptive issues, you may notice a difference between what the organization would like to see happen and the reality of the situation. This could come about when the organization tries to create its vision, knowing that quite a bit of work is needed to make the vision a reality. Adaptive issues are those that require responses that are outside the norm or outside of the box. If you cannot respond to an issue with the normal “tool box”, then the issue may require an adaptive stance. An adaptive issue may also require leadership to make tough decisions or decisions that are not so popular.
From the organizational perspective, adaptive issues will lead to new learning and new competencies. When the issue is corrected or implemented, members of the organization will have to learn new ways of doing things and most likely will have to raise the bar on their own competencies and performance. Along with this, an adaptive change must accompany a complete change in mindset for the organization. This is where “the rubber meets the road” and those associates who are not up to the task will begin to self-select. The organization may find, though, that their innovation and experimentation will help them learn – and solve the adaptive issues they face. But how can you practice adaptive leadership?
First, when it’s time to identify issues, undertake the task with the stakeholders. Typically the stakeholders in adaptive issues are the ones who have contributed to the problem – and they are also the ones who can help fix it. One way to facilitate issue identification is to put all of the stakeholders in one room. Lead them through a session that identifies and clarifies the issues. Your leadership here is vital because many times stakeholders will choose not to get together on the problem. And they will continue to operate on the status quo.
Once the issues have been identified, be sure to clarify the organization’s values, both for your own benefit and that of the stakeholders. When leadership turns adaptive, you must make tough decisions. Some of those decisions must go along with the values of the organization and not with the loyalty that some organizations foster over long periods of time. Along with this, you must remember simply to make decisions. Don’t offload decisions, unless it’s appropriate, and make them no matter how unpopular they may be.
Set the goals that surround issues and decisions at a high level. The first purpose for this is to stretch the organization and require its members to think outside of the box. But an added benefit of raising the bar on goals is that the organization will be spurred into innovation and experimentation. Remember that these two states of mind are required to solve adaptive issues – and put all members of the organization in the adaptive leadership mindset. While you’re leading this transformation to innovation, allow for the “skunkworks”, which is “off the radar” problem solving and project creation among stakeholders. The “skunkworks” could lead to new innovations.
Finally, remember to be a champion as an adaptive leader. First, champion change from the positive perspective. Don’t give in to the feeling that change is too difficult or that it exists “just because”. Instead, position the change that occurs with adaptive issues as a new way forward, a way for the organization to adapt and lead its field. In the same vein, champion the learning that must occur at all levels. Whether the learning is official training, on-the-job, or “as you go”, talk about learning as the key to change and a new way forward. As members of the organization learn new ways of doing things, they will gain further competency, which will make them more marketable within the organization.
Adaptive leadership does not have to be a foreign concept. Learn to identify adaptive issues and react accordingly.