Adaptive Leadership


“There is a desperate hope that people in authority know what they’re doing” (Marty Linsky)

In my September blog, Bloated with Information, I commented that executives can feel ineffective when their organisation values having a ‘big brain’ (being the expert holder of information, facts and knowledge) more highly than it values other skills such as relationship management, influencing, visioning, innovation and teamwork.

Executives can also feel ineffective when they believe that being in a leadership role means they need to know how to do everything. This sense of ineffectiveness is heightened when the work is complex, when there is no clear, discernible path. This is when executives are faced with ‘adaptive challenges’.

In adaptive challenges there is “no known solution – the skills and answers are outside your repertoire. Adaptive challenges are those you have to grow into solving and require mobilizing people’s hearts and minds to operate differently.” (Cambridge Leadership Associates).

This contrasts with the comfort of being skilled in solving technical problems i.e. problems which have a known solution and can be solved by an authority or expert.

“The most common leadership mistake is treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems.” (Cambridge Leadership Associates)

Adaptive Challenges

Marty Linsky is a leading expert in Adaptive Leadership. He is an adjunct lecturer in public policy for the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School.

Earlier this month the team at the Australian Public Service Commission’s Strategic Centre for Leadership, Learning and Development brought Marty Linsky to Canberra to speak at a number of meetings and seminar sessions.

The session I attended on 15th November came at a perfect time. Two years ago I attended a 6-day “Leading Learning” program run by Social Leadership Australia. The program was based on Adaptive Leadership. Some of what I learnt has faded, so Marty Linsky’s session was an energising refresher.

The timing of the session was also perfect because the Australian Public Sector is facing a range of adaptive challenges around uncertainty, fiscal restraint, change, new government, loss, staffing reductions and so on. It’s an uncomfortable place for executives, many of whom are trying to navigate these adaptive challenges as if they are technical problems. Marty’s session reminded me to be more conscious of the issues clients raise when we work together. Which are the technical problems; which are the adaptive challenges? Are we too quick to fix the surface issues? Is there much more to this? Do we need to approach this differently?

Marty’s Thoughts

Here are just some of Marty’s thoughts from the session. They caused me to reflect, and I hope you too enjoy reflecting on them. Some are direct quotes, some are a distillation of Marty’s comments.

On risk

  • “Leadership is about taking risks on behalf of something you care about”
  • “What risks will you take on behalf of increasing the quality of leadership in Australia?”
  • “It’s about taking smart risks in the pursuit of a committed cause”
  • “To do our work well we have to be prepared to blow things up every now and then…it’s excruciatingly painful when this happens”

On leadership

  • “There is a desperate hope that people in authority know what they’re doing”
  • Leadership is not about having the big job, it is about behaviour.
  • “The work you do is an act of leadership.”
  • Is there a dependence on people who are in authority positions? Do we pass responsibility over to them; is the issue subordinated to them? When do we need to show personal leadership and take responsibility instead of transferring the problem to the authority figure?
  • When there is a diagnosis it’s the community and system that needs to work together to do the hard work.
  • How can we help people to face up to their most difficult problems?
  • You should not pretend to know what you’re doing.

On loss

  • People are looking for comfort, they want to conserve the status quo.
  • “Adaptation is a process of loss”, it will not be easy.
  • There will be pain and conflict: leadership is not about taking this away but helping people to work through it.

On shared values

  • Don’t expect people to share your values. Your job is to get everyone to work on the job despite differences in values. “Don’t be precious [about shared values] when mobilising people to get there”.

On optimism

  • “Leadership requires us to be relentlessly optimistic and at the same time brutally realistic about what it will take to achieve purpose. Optimism helps the realism from becoming cynical; realism helps the optimism from becoming naïve”
  • Don’t lose your heart and optimism because you’re beaten down.
  • Will you survive by keeping your head down? This means you’ve lost your heart.

Leaders Set the Tone

Finally, I’d like to end this last blog for 2013 with a repeat of part of my May 2011 blog. This is from the work of researcher Malcolm Higgs, and meshes nicely with the thoughts above.

“In successful change programs Higgs and his colleagues found that change leaders set the tone and overall direction, yet they allowed people to become responsible for the change and to adjust the plan as the implementation unfolded. That is, leaders were doing change with people, not to people. Analysis revealed that these leaders had four change leadership behaviours:

  1. Attractor behaviours: connecting, tuning in, building the story, seeing patterns, serving the higher purpose, self awareness, sense-making.
  2. Edge and tension behaviours: establishing reality, constancy, and persistence, challenging assumptions, creating discomfort, setting a high bar.
  3. Container behaviours: setting boundaries, expectations, and values, expressing confidence, affirming, encouraging, showing empathy, creating trust and ownership, making it safe to have hard conversations and to take risks, creating alignment at the top.
  4. Movement behaviours: creating systems of possibility, learning, and difference, supporting creativity, freedom to be open and vulnerable, freedom to break established patterns, and powerful inquiry.
    Higgs points out that these four change leadership behaviours are supported by the use of Positive Psychology and Appreciative Inquiry, for example, by collaborative, appreciative inquiry into what is working well, by an understanding of the Broaden and Build Theory of positive emotions, by a focus on strengths together with a balancing use of rules, by creating challenging goals, and by having hard conversations.”

All the best for the rest of 2013. Enjoy your Christmas, Holiday and New Year break.


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