Adaptive Leadership
April 2, 2021

How to learn the real practice of Adaptive Leadership

By Paul Laughlin

Plenty of new terms for leadership have become fashionable while considering leading through recent crises, one with the most academic grounding is Adaptive Leadership.

Inside & outside the data leader community, I began hearing more leaders & experts reference this term. It was even raised during a coaching supervision session, so I decided to learn what it really means & its relevance to data leaders.

Its origins are as a practical leadership model developed at Harvard University by Professors Ronald Heifetz & Martin Linsky. As well as their academic work they have authored a number of books to help leaders master this approach, the latest of which is “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership“. It is designed as a field guide focussed on practical application rather than theory & is so relevant for all types of leaders today.

In this post, I will outline what you’ll find in this book & heartily recommend it for the leadership development of all types of leaders today. That certainly includes data, analytics & insight leaders who can too easily mistake adaptive challenges for technical ones & so take an approach that fails.

Defining Adaptive Leadership

Before going any further, it would help for me to define this buzzword. Part One of this book provides a grounding in the theory of Adaptive Leadership & includes this handy definition:

Adaptive leadership is the practice of mobilising people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.”

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Heifetz, Grashow & Linksky (2009)

The authors go on to suggest identify 6 aspects of this (using nature biological analogies):

  • Adaptive leadership is specifically about change that enables the capacity to thrive.
  • Successful adaptive changes build on the past rather than jettison it.
  • Organisational adaptation occurs through experimentation.
  • Adaptation relies on diversity.
  • New adaptations significantly displace, deregulate & rearrange some old DNA (culture).
  • Adaptation takes time.

I’m sure you can see the relevance to our current times. Both in the themes highlighted above & the range of threats facing today’s businesses (from global to local, societal to technological). In these first few chapters, the authors also help us distinguish the more familiar technical challenges from adaptive ones.

Kind of challengeProblem definitionSolutionLocus of work
Technical & AdaptiveClearRequires learningAuthority & Stakeholders
AdaptiveRequires learningRequires learningStakeholders
The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Heifetz, Grashow & Linksky (2009)

The rest of this great book goes on to help leaders recognise the skills they need to develop to successfully learn in such circumstances & navigate the politics of those needed stakeholders. We have all heard about the need for organisations to change, even to transform if they are to survive (let alone thrive) in the future of commerce, work & society. Too often the focus has been on the need for technical changes (data, digital, AI – choose your prefix to the word transformation). However, those actually leading such projects always attest to the greatest challenges being the people side of change. Cultural/People change requires a wider set of skills than is normally acknowledged. This book brings to life both the mindset & skills needed within a framework model.

The four phases that structure this book

1) Diagnose the System

Part two of this book is a plea to pause and take time to diagnose. Rather than rushing into action, like a good medical doctor, the diagnosis should come before treatment. All too often leaders, perhaps especially experienced data or analytics leaders, can be quick to assume they understand the problem & rush into working on a solution. This section of the book reminds us how nuanced reality can be & what we need to learn to notice.

Highlights include help with escaping the allure of status quo thinking & spotting cultural norms in things like folklore, rituals, group norms & meeting protocols. Then the authors help you distinguish between technical & adaptive challenges in practice. The includes the helpful description of 4 adaptive challenge archetypes:

  1. Gap between espoused values & behaviour
  2. Competing communications
  3. Speaking the unspeakable
  4. Work avoidance

Chapter 6 helps readers diagnose the political landscape in their organisation. This is so helpful & well worth reading for all those with responsibility for stakeholder management. Throughout this book, the wisdom with which it engages with navigating the messy reality of office politics is one of its greatest benefits. A useful analogy of a vegetable stew (complete with diagram) is used to help you think about each stakeholders factions, constituencies & loyalties. To diagnose the politics at work, adaptive leaders need to:

  • Uncover the values driving stakeholder behaviour
  • Acknowledge stakeholders multiple loyalties
  • Name the losses at risk for each person
  • Realise hidden alliances to improve your influence

2) Mobilise the System

In part three, we move to action. Making interpretations based on your above diagnosis & designing effective interventions to achieve adaptive change. A seven-step process will really help leaders think through how to approach this stage. But, once again, the greatest strength of this part of the book is its thinking on the messy human reality of needing to act politically, orchestrate conflict & build an adaptive culture.

Advice on acting politically mobilises the understanding of different/overlapping constituencies and loyalties identified during your diagnosis. Planning for this approach includes advice on strengthening your relationships, scoring some early wins, addressing some interests that are unconnected with the adaptive challenge & selling small pieces of your idea. A helpful worksheet is provided to help leaders identify & plan their tactics for 5 groups of stakeholders (allies, opponents, senior authorities, casualties & dissenters).

The charter on orchestrating conflict will be challenging for some leaders. Few of us enjoy conflict, but the writers explain why a willingness to create it & raise the heat up to a productive level is vital. Coaches will be familiar with the language of ‘holding the disequilibrium‘ rather than being tempted to calm others or offer solutions yourself. Practical advice is offered for using off-site events & other communication tools. They identify 7 steps to help you orchestrate productive conflict:

  1. Prepare
  2. Establish ground rules
  3. Get each view on the table (your list of allies, opponents et al, as listed above)
  4. Orchestrate conflict (starkly, but evenhandedly, articulate competing claims)
  5. Encouraging accepting & managing losses
  6. Generate and commit to experiments
  7. Institute peer leadership coaching

3) See yourself as a System

Part four requires more introspection and reflection by leaders. It is a time, as advocated by a Psychosynthesis approach, to recognise your own multiple subpersonalities and how these can help you. To help you engage with the political landscape, the authors help you identify your multiple loyalties (including ancestors, aspects of identity & your communities beyond work). Then be able to intentionally choose how you show up & prioritise your loyalties & losses you can bear.

A further chapter helps you consider your ‘tuning‘. Not just whether you are highly strung, but being aware of your own triggers, hungers & through greater awareness reducing your reactivity. There is also a helpful chapter on broadening your ‘bandwidth‘ (not just avoiding overwork but understanding your own tolerance for change & conflict). Following chapters guide leaders on how to understand their multiple roles & articulate their motivating purpose (from many potential purposes).

4) Deploy yourself

The final part of this book focuses on taking personal action to achieve change. In many ways, this is a mirror of the ‘Mobilising the System’ section above. Just as that responded appropriately to a careful diagnosis, this final section responds to everything that has been learnt above (especially greater self-knowledge). It helps leaders recognise that they are not impartial observers but rather key agents of change through the way that they lead & interact with others. Leadership advice in this section includes how to:

  • Stay connected to your purposes
  • Engage courageously (including focussing on what is being conserved, not just what is new)
  • Inspire people (including listening from the heart & use of silence)
  • Run experiments (data & analytics leaders will love this section, though it has wider application)

As a mentor to a number of successful data leaders, I was pleased to read their final chapter entitled “Thrive”. It rightly identifies the need for support & self-care for leaders, if they are to achieve thriving adaptation in the organisation. The authors highlight a number of elements that will sustain leaders & help them to both personally thrive & role model for others what is healthy:

  • Grow your personal support network
  • Find Confidants
  • Satisfy your hungers outside of work
  • Anchor yourself in multiple communities
  • Create a personal holding environment (a sanctuary)
  • Renew yourself (a balanced portfolio, find daily satisfaction)
  • Be coolly realistic & unwaveringly optimistic (both at the same time)

All this is good leadership advice that I have seen help my mentoring clients.

How it helps you practice adaptive leadership

This book is co-authored by Alexander Grashow (who shares an academic background in leadership with Heifetz & Linsky but also has experience of training & consulting globally). It is the hands-on experience with helping all types of organisations (from all 3 authors) that shines through & makes this book so helpful.

In each chapter the authors share plenty of examples both from their personal lives & their consulting experience. There are anecdotes from public bodies, private businesses of all sizes & not for profit organisations around the world. The layout of each chapter also helps (you can tell these authors are experienced educators). As well as the helpful 5 part structure that I have laid out above, each part has a short overview introduction. Then within each part the structure of chapters & sections is explained with overviews & frameworks. So, the reader always understands where there are in the structure of their argument. Other useful elements of each chapter are:

  • Regular examples from their hands-on experience in a wide range of organisations.
  • On the balcony” exercises – to prompt leaders to step back & see the bigger picture..
  • On the practice field” exercises – to try using with your team.
  • Case studies in grey boxes (short stories that bring principles or issues to life).

How well are you addressing adaptive challenges?

I hope that book review was helpful and has inspired you to learn about Adaptive Leadership & strengthen your adaptation skills. What sounded most relevant to your day-to-day or strategic challenges?

What else helps you address what are adaptive rather than technical challenges? What helps you lead change that requires more than data science or analytics? What challenges do you face that require cultural & people change in your organisation? I encourage you to think about this as no data transformations will be achieved as purely technical exercises.