Facing up to an adaptive challenge requires us to put the problem at the centre, depersonalise it and then look at the various the various stakeholders and where they sit in relation to the problem. That all sounds very logical and depersonalised, however it gets interesting when we look at the part that we ourselves have in creating the problem or as Linksy and Heifetz put acknowledging ‘our part of the mess’.
The benefits of doing this are (a) setting a good example for accountability and (b) we can then step up and fix part of the problem. Fixing our part of the problem though will often require us to challenge our values and loyalties and might require behavioural change on our part which is easier said than done.
I recently watched a movie called ’12 o’ clock high’ which illustrated this challenge really well. The movie is about an American bomber pilot unit in World War II which at the start of the movie are taking heavy losses. The pilots are incredibly loyal to their commander and him to them, but this gets in the way of the mission (the adaptive challenge). He is replaced by Brigadier Savage who takes a firm hand on the pilot unit and starts clocking up successes. Ultimately however he gets so close to the men that he begins to develop the same loyalties as his predecessor and loses perspective.
The movie illustrates the challenges of ‘being in the action’ and ‘on the balcony’ at the same time and particularly the challenge of looking at the part that we play in proceedings from ‘the balcony’. Commander General Pritchard brought the risk of ‘over-identifying with his men’ to Savages’s attention, but despite this he did not change his ways. Knowing we need to change is necessary but insufficient if we are to effect change.
So how can we more successfully do this? Heifetz, Linksy and Grashow bring this to life in their book ‘The Practice of Adaptive Leadership’. They link their work on adaptive leadership with that of their colleagues Robert Keegan and Lisa Lahey on ‘immunity to change’. It requires a diagnostic mind-set and an ability to step back from the action to reflect on deep-seated loyalties and values that we probably don’t advertise.
I will walk through this process with this movie in mind. The first step is to identify the behaviours that we would like to see more or less of in order to make progress on the adaptive challenge (e.g. provide leadership opportunities to the pilots in the pilot unit so that they might ultimately lead their own successful missions and enable Savage to return to his role and increase chances of overall success against the enemy). Secondly we should identify the loyalties and values that underlie the need for this change (e.g. loyalty to country, commanding officer and own career path). Then we should identify things that we are doing or not doing that keeps us from honouring this commitment i.e. what behaviours are we demonstrating that fly in the face of the behaviours we identified in step 1? (e.g. continuing to personally lead bombing missions). What then are the conflicting values or loyalties that drive this behaviour? (e.g. loyalty to and over-identification with pilot unit that Savage is commanding). The question then is that by continuing these behaviours, what am I protecting myself against? (e.g. losses in the air which I would feel responsible for if I do not take a part in the action?).
By peeling back the layers of the onion we might start to challenge some of our assumptions and values that work against what we are ultimately trying to achieve. By taking some initial low-risk experiments we can hopefully bit by bit put aside some of the inhibiting loyalties and values we hold, in service of achieving our ultimate goal. Consider doing this with the support of a partner. They can provide insights we might ourselves miss and can challenge us to stay the course.