I was recently working with a large international organisation, looking at ‘Leadership Issues for Executives’. One of the key concepts we focused on was ‘Adaptive Leadership’. I believe this is a critical issue for many organisations today and just wanted to share with you some of the key messages and concepts discussed.

There is a landmark article by Ronald Heifetz and Donald Laurie, which has really turned upside down, some of the conventional thinking on change.

"The Work of Leadership"

"Followers want comfort, stability, and solutions from their leaders. But that’s babysitting. Real leaders ask hard questions and knock people out of their comfort zones. Then they manage the resulting distress."

I think because of the economic uncertainty in both business and society in general, many people and organisations have been knocked out of their comfort zones, even without the intervention of their leader – so are their leaders up for managing the resulting distress?

Changes in societies, markets, customers, competition, and technology around the globe are forcing organisations to clarify their values, develop new strategies, and learn new ways of operating. Often the toughest task for leaders in effecting change is mobilising people throughout the organisation to do adaptive work.

Adaptive work is required when our deeply held beliefs are challenged, when the values that made us successful become less relevant, and when legitimate but competing perspectives emerge. We see adaptive challenges every day at every level of the workplace – when companies re-structure or reengineer, develop or implement strategy, or merge businesses. We see adaptive challenges when marketing has difficulty working with operations, when cross-functional teams don’t work well, or when senior executives complain, "We don’t seem to be able to execute effectively". Adaptive problems are often systemic problems with no ready answers.

Mobilising an organisation to adapt its behaviours in order to thrive in new business environments is critical. Without such change, any company today would falter. Indeed, getting people to do adaptive work is the mark of leadership in the competitive world. Yet for most senior executives, providing leadership and not just authoritative expertise is extremely difficult. Why? There are two reasons put forward…

  1. Firstly – in order to make change happen, executives have to break a long standing behaviour pattern of their own: providing leadership in the form of solutions. This tendency is quite natural because many executives reach their positions of authority by virtue of their competence in taking responsibility and solving problems. But the focus of responsibility for problem solving when a company faces an adaptive challenge must shift to its people. Solutions to adaptive challenges reside not in the executive suite but in the collective intelligence at all levels, who need to use one another as resources, often across boundaries, and learn their way to those solutions.
  2. Secondly – adaptive change is distressing for the people going through it. They need to take on new roles, new relationships, new values, new behaviours, and new approaches to work. Many employees are ambivalent about the efforts and sacrifices required of them. They often look to the senior executive to take the problem off their shoulders. But those expectations have to be unlearned. Rather than fulfilling the expectation that they will provide answers, leaders have to ask tough questions. Rather than protecting people from outside threats, leaders should allow them to feel the pinch of reality in order to stimulate them to adapt. Instead of orienting people to their current roles, leaders must disorient them so that new relationships can develop. Instead of quelling conflict, leaders have to draw the issues out. Instead of maintaining norms, leaders have to challenge "the way we do business" and help others distinguish immutable values from historical practices that must go.

The authors have drawn on their experience of working with managers from around the

world and have put forward six principles for leading adaptive work. There are: 

1. Getting on the balcony

2. Identifying the adaptive challenge

3. Regulating distress

4. Maintaining disciplined attention

5. Giving the work back to the people

6. Protecting voices of leadership from below

Leadership has to take place every day. It cannot be the responsibility of the few, a rare event, or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In our world in our businesses, we face adaptive challenges all the time.