The Art And Alchemy Of Adaptive Leadership
The transformation was breathtaking. At a press conference held days before the first shots of the conflict were fired, Volodymyr Zelensky wore a chic, black suit highlighting his youthfulness and fondness for the latest European styles. Before him stood a cadre of reporters eager to hear his thoughts about a potential war with Russia. Zelensky opined about the threat facing his country from the east, while still maintaining hope that a crisis could be avoided. A couple weeks later, Zelensky, now a wartime president, donned a flight jacket and fatigues, signaling to his adversaries a willingness to thwart any power threatening Ukraine. Within his Kyiv compound, Zelensky had already taken control of the forces under his command. I call this “adaptability.”
Technical Vs. Adaptive Challenges
Great leaders are adaptable leaders. Adaptability is always more than a change of outfit or office; it’s about one’s ability to pivot to meet emerging or potential threats and opportunities. Adaptable leaders understand that there is a difference between technical and adaptive challenges. What are technical and adaptive challenges? Technical challenges presuppose “a satisfactory pre-determined response is already available, and one or more experts who possess solid reputations are sought to address the issue.” Technical challenges are often familiar to leaders, so their timely resolution is usually just a matter of deploying the fixes already in the leader’s toolbox.
On the other hand, adaptive challenges reach beyond the leader’s experience and skillset, requiring the leader to quickly analyze the challenge, formulate an approach to its mitigation, mobilize talent and, ultimately, take some risks to execute the plan. For most of us, the adaptive challenges include anything from a drastic market change to a global pandemic. When the adaptive challenges arrive, you can’t just pull a file entitled “do this” from the file cabinet.
Organizational change guru Karen Harris reminds her readers that adaptive leaders are empathetic leaders, equipped with the ability to see the issues—and adaptive challenges —through the eyes of those impacted by the challenges. From my own experience in leadership, I have discovered that empathy can be an innate or learned behavior. Some are born with it, while many must work to develop it. Either way, empathy is essential when the adaptive challenges arrive.
For starters, the members of the team need to see that the person leading them cares about the trials they are facing. “Care” cannot be established through an office memo, a 30-second watercooler exchange or fruit basket delivery. Leaders must practice active listening to demonstrate care, asking the kinds of questions that allow teammates to be truly open about their concerns and setbacks amid the adaptive challenges. Active listening takes time and an embodied presence. You cannot text your way toward active listening.
When the leader practices empathy, mutual trust is nourished. For example, think about how a leader might interact with a historically successful team member who suddenly becomes mistake-prone or terse with the other members of the team. A traditional leadership action might be to say, “Raise the quality of your work or there will be consequences.” An empathetic approach, on the other hand, has the leader asking, “I know you’re struggling right now. How can I support you?” The latter approach builds trust. Trust is essential if the leader aspires to lead their team through and beyond the adaptive challenges. Trust does not imply the team fully agrees with the leader’s approach to the adaptive challenge. It does mean that the team believes that the leader—regardless of their approach to the challenge—leads with the team’s best interest in mind. That’s how you build trust.
Empowerment complements empathy in the quest to overcome the adaptive challenges. Leaders at CHI Health in Omaha, Nebraska, offer a great case study in empowerment. HOLA, CHI’s Hispanic Outreach and Leadership Affinity group, works with a cross section of employees to recruit Spanish speakers into healthcare. As the number of Spanish speakers grow in the Omaha area, CHI is constantly seeking tools that keep up with the growth. Indeed, there is a need to recruit workers who speak the language and understand the culture. HOLA president Selene Espinoza notes, “(I have) more than 20 years in health care; I have not seen the growth that I would like to see within the communities of color.” One of HOLA’s current interests is also mentorship of Spanish-speaking high school students who show significant interest in the healing arts.
Leaders who take the time to empathize with their team members learn a lot about the talent embodied by the members of the team. This warehouse of exceptional skills and experiences may be invaluable when an adaptive challenge looms. Aware of the talent before them, the leader’s task is to empower the team to deploy their skills and experiential learning when the threats to the organization require all hands and brains on deck. The pathway of empowerment is straightforward. Be honest about the adaptive challenges. Give workers space to talk about the adaptive challenges and the license to troubleshoot them. And, most importantly, get out of the way of the great grassroots initiatives that are making a difference.
Of course, empowerment must be the norm long before the adaptive challenge arrives. A capable leader seeds empowerment every day.
Hope Amid Unpredictability
By nature, adaptive challenges do not follow a playbook. Indeed, even the most thoroughly researched contingency plans can prove completely ineffective when a challenge is especially novel. When everything falls apart, the leader’s essential task is to communicate hope. Teams encouraged to imagine life beyond the adaptive challenge will always be better equipped to ride the unpredictability of the challenge. Even now, I’ve noticed Volodymyr Zelensky frequently tells the nation, “When we rebuild…” That’s hope. That’s leadership.