Are you an adaptive leader?

Flexible Tree in the HooDoosI would answer, “Well of course, I’m a flexible and adaptable person,” and be done with the question. But what if being an adaptive leader is a continuous struggle to help oneself and the group meet complex life challenges that are often beyond the group’s capabilities? Upon second thought, maybe it’s a question I’m never ever done with.

Here are a few questions I’m asking myself these days to remind me of the traps of conventional leadership. Perhaps they can help you too.

1. Are you stuck in a “style” of leadership?

The latest craze has been about leading by focusing on people’s strengths. It reminds me of the martial arts world where one style is touted as better than another style when in reality, combat rarely fits any style all the time in all circumstances. Similarly, does it make sense to claim that you lead in a particular style? Steve Job’s micro-managing of the design process led to beautiful products. The Navy SEALS training program doesn’t care much about what you’re good at; rather it cares whether you learn what’s necessary. The point of adaptive leadership is the flexibility to lead in whatever way that will help the group meet the challenge.

Yet I am keenly aware that my decision to be directive, supportive, or collaborative is a battle between what is needed and what I am comfortable doing. It’s easy to collapse the two and think that whatever feels right must also be the most helpful. So I ask myself, am I meeting my needs or the needs of the challenge?

2. Are you understanding the challenge superficially?

The pressure on any leader in a crisis situation is to set a clear direction and get everyone on board. In many cases, like when there is a fire in the building, acting on the plan immediately makes more sense than convening a conversation. But what if the crisis is more complex than can be handled by a pre-designed plan? What if it challenges our fundamental way of being (think global financial crisis)? In this case, thinking and acting quickly may get you into more trouble, more quickly.

There are a few practical difficulties in taking time to understand the problem though. First, the group wants to be assured. People want to be told that the recession is over and business can go on as usual and that they needn’t change their habits. Second, the group is likely to silence any dissenting voices that may be speaking the hard truths. The warnings about climate change, financial meltdown, or peak oil have always been there, but those perspectives are actively attacked or dismissed. And finally, most crises that creep up on us require some immediate short-term action to avert critical loss which may distract from just as critical long-term action. A person who has a heart attack needs attention now even if the long-term plan requires a better diet and exercise regime.

All of these difficulties deflect our attention from the roots of the problem. The adaptive leader must be an advocate for turning the group’s attention back to the root while still mitigating immediate concerns. As important is protecting those dissenting voices which may provide legitimate insights.

I ask myself, am I open to asking the hard questions? Am I willing listen to messages that are hard to hear? Can I take slow thoughtful action even as everyone demands a quick response?

2a. Corollary: Are you caring and thinking at a level beyond your group’s immediate concerns?

Every problem has varying time scales and breadth of impact with its own dynamic processes. We naturally put boundaries on how deeply or widely we think about it. For instance, when a car breaks down, we may limit our thinking of the problem to: “The car is broken. I need to find a mechanic.” But if we expand our thinking of the problem, we may become curious about what driving habits may have led to the broken car or whether a car’s impact on the environment is the real problem.

An adaptive leader invests resources in thinking beyond these boundaries. Businesses that only think of making and selling their product will ignore the impact of their products (think car manufactuers and its dependence on oil). Businesses that think of their employees as financial assets rather than human beings become blind to their value (think of the demise of Circuit City).

Every problem is an opportunity for wider and deeper thinking. Problems that create crises require even more of that kind of searching.

3. Are you building the group’s adaptive muscle?

In taking any kind of unprecedented action where much of the old routines of behaviour are irrelevant or worse, unhelpful, the group will undergo a process of shock leading to a wide range of coping responses. Some will “stick to their job” and avoid looking any further from it. Others will deny that anything has changed while still others may seek a simplistic solutions that are comforting but ineffective. The temptation would be to reassure the group and let them cope while you do the “real” work. Instead, the role of the adaptive leader should be to find and develop enough key people in the community that will pioneer new approaches and take the group beyond coping.

I can’t help but come back to Shackleton and his team’s unerring ability to operate under high levels of stress and uncertainty. This ability to handle the uncertainty and figure things out independently cannot be developed instantaneously. It takes the right mix of characters and a diet of right challenges to build the “adaptive muscle” of the group. Compare the people in a startup company with an established company and one can see the difficulty in having enough employees with that adventurous and self-authorizing spirit. In times of crises though, those people become even more critical.

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So are you an adaptive leader? For me, it depends on the day, the circumstances, the challenge ahead of me, and the people and resources around me. Nevertheless, I won’t stop trying to be one and hope that you won’t either.

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
U Venture

Chris Hsiung is the president of U Venture, a consulting practice that helps entrepreneurs and professionals develop their adaptive learning capacities to navigate uncertain times and build meaningful life ventures. He graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering and is an internationally certified coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI). He is also a student and teacher of curriculum at Leadership Calgary and at Momentum.

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