Adaptive Leadership is ‘the practice of mobilising people to tackle tough challenges and thrive’ (source: The Practice of Adaptive Leadership; Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky). The ‘tough’ challenges referred to are adaptive challenges… challenges which have unclear definitions and unclear solutions. New ground is being covered and there are no obvious solutions to the challenge at hand. Examples of such a challenges include the debt crisis facing many countries currently, poverty, drug abuse etc and on an organisational level they might include finding ways to deliver a service or product when funding has been cut or transforming an out-dated product line to compete in a dynamic industry where innovation is key.
Ronald Heifetz states that the most common mistake in leadership is to mis-diagnose an issue as technical rather than adaptive. In doing so, some time might be bought and there might be a short term reprieve but the more fundamental issue is not resolved. In fact it might be counter-productive as stakeholders might feel that the pressure is off and postpone tackling the tough issues. As constituents we often put pressure on authority figure’s to offer a clear diagnosis and solution thereby putting pressure on them to mis-diagnose problems as technical. Withstanding this pressure and acknowledging the complexity and ambiguity is one of the challenges of adaptive leadership.
I recently watched the movie ‘Moneyball’ which is a fascinating example where the pressure was on to diagnose the problem as technical. Billy Beane (acted by Brad Pitt) took on the system fearlessly. Having lost to the New York Yankees in 2001, Oakland Athletic faced the loss of key players and significant budget challenges to replace them. When all around them looked to find the best they could afford, Billy Beane looked to adapt. In his words he said we will ‘adapt or die’. It is said that adaptive leadership requires will and skill. Billy Beane had the will and hired in the skill. He accepted that there would be losses and he distributed those losses at a rate that could be absorbed.
So the key challenges we face in adaptive leadership are to recognise adaptive challenges when we see them, to with-stand the pressures to diagnose them as technical and to be courageous in our attempts to solve them. ‘Adaptive leadership is specifically about change that enables the capacity to thrive’ (The Art and Practice of Adaptive Leadership; Grashow, Linsky and Heiftez). The terminology used here is no accident. Thriving in a biological sense requires some DNA to be discarded, some DNA to be conserved and some to be adapted. Our challenge is to identify the parts of our organisational or personal DNA to be discarded and adapted in order to thrive in new, challenging and complex situations.