Adaptive leadership is what we need right now

Ideas & Debate

Adaptive leadership is what we need right now

businessman riding a dragon
Business concept illustration of a businessman riding a dragon. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH 

I was asked recently to speak on the topic of “Practical leadership approaches during uncertain times” at a webinar hosted by KCA University’s Institute for Capacity Development (ICAD), and in preparing I thought immediately of the approach I have written about before in these columns: that of adaptive leadership.

It was Ron Heifetz, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, who co-developed the concepts of adaptive leadership, and I was introduced to them a few years ago when I was running leadership workshops through the World Bank for our deputy governors and for those managing a $500 million environmental improvement project the World Bank was funding in Nigeria.

I have been referring to aspects of adaptive leadership ever since, each time I engage with leaders in helping them deal with our VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world. Now that Covid-19 has rendered our world more VUCA than ever, what Heifetz proposed resonates yet further.

Key to adaptive leadership is the ability to rise up onto the “balcony”, above the immediate operational urgencies. This enables one to look down on the whole picture; to look backward and learn from history; to look forward and outward; and, perhaps most neglected, to look inward – to be introspective.

The second characteristic of adaptive leadership I mentioned in my talk deals with knowing how to keep people in the “productive zone”. They must be warmed out of a coldness that had them remain complacent, denying the need to change and to hunt for “new cheese”.


But they must be prevented from overheating to the point of being overwhelmed by fear and panic. The zone in between is where they are productive on the immediate tasks, while also not losing sight of what lies ahead.

One aspect of performing well in the productive zone is distinguishing between the technical and the non-technical aspects of one’s work. Many (not me!) reach positions of leadership from technical backgrounds, and not a few find it hard to deal with non-technical issues that require interpersonal skills such as emotional intelligence. The adaptive leader is a hybrid, knowing how to separate the two types of challenges and to deal with both. During these troubled times the need for such multi-faceted skills is magnified.

The final element of adaptive leadership I covered in my webinar was about “giving the work back to the people” – assuming they are capable and responsible, and so empowering them and delegating to them. This is all to do with their trustworthiness and hence the willingness to develop and to trust them.

Now with many working remotely there’s less choice: to whatever extent trust prevails, the opportunity for on-site supervision is removed, so other means must be devised for managing their performance. As I pointed out earlier, the organisations that benefitted from trust coming into the crisis are the ones now benefitting disproportionately from that comparative advantage, and they are the ones that will be even better placed as we emerge from these hard times.

So here we are, at a moment when necessity is the mother of invention. In a recent issue of Time, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, surely a great example of adaptive leadership, revealed that his company has “gone through two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months”.

If Microsoft was to keep its head above water there was no choice. And it showed – like many others have been doing in these last few weeks, not least here in Kenya, that it is doable. But it requires the right kind of both leadership and followership, where the communal competence, confidence and boldness brings forth unexpected innovation – including from some surprising sources, dramatically faster decision-making and reassuring resilience.

I ended my talk by offering these alternative words for each of the letters in VUCA, ones that I had read in an uplifting article dealing with our demanding contemporary life: Visualise, Understand, Communicate, Adapt. See? This views life as a collection of opportunities for learning and stretching, not just for hand-wringing and anxiety.

I wish you all well in this ultra-VUCA world, and urge you to practice adaptive leadership more than even before.

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