Navigating the Currents of Change – Adaptive Leadership

river picWe’ve been talking to a lot of groups lately about adaptive leadership. What we are finding is that the work of nonprofit leaders, both staff and board, is increasingly complex. We’re asking them to:

  • Create strong staff teams,
  • Leverage board and organizational resources,
  • Inspire stakeholders, and
  • Provide thoughtful and compassionate responses to strengthen and sustain the organization.

Yet still, that isn’t enough. Why?

Because even a stellar leadership team may be focused on the wrong work.

Instead of focusing on solely strengthening our organizations we need to lead our organizations to adapt. Leaders can no longer look at their organization as an island surrounded by demands in the rushing river. Our organizations are part of the river. They can swim with the currents, push at the riverbanks and work to change the flow of the water. They work to both adapt to the river and adapt the river itself.

Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky have promulgated an approach called Adaptive Leadership. They, along with numerous colleagues, argue that adaptive leadership is necessary at both the visionary level and the tactical level. Heifitz, et. al. (in “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World”) define it as:

  “The practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive”.

They further describe adaptive leadership as:

  • Specifically about change that enables the capacity to thrive
  • Successful when it build on the past rather than jettisoning it
  • Occuring through experimentation
  • Relying on diversity
  • Significantly displacing, re-regulating and rearranging some old “DNA”
  • Taking time

What we like about this approach to leadership is that it embraces the complexity of the situation and understands that the purpose of leadership is often to create change.

As we look to lead in a challenging and complex environment, adaptive leadership helps us to:

  1. Develop and use skills that help us work on both a very tactical and visionary level.
  2. Understand that having an open view of what might be possible requires that we shy from group think embracing alternatives and options that were once denied or overlooked.
  3. Be willing to speak the hard truths, listen to the hard truths and embrace the unknown and unknowable so that we can adapt, change and lead.
  4. Lead our organizations with the full understanding that they are a part of the river, both adapting to the course of water and altering its flow.

When have you seen adaptive leadership at work and what did it look like? Have you ever been in a situation where adaptive leadership was needed? We’d love to hear your stories, comments and questions!

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