Adaptive Leadership – EA Style

Struggling to find a leadership style that suits you during such uncertain times? Bryan Whitefield shares his tips and tricks

When mud hits the fan, we move from our current leadership style into crisis leadership. This time, it’s different. The fan continues to spin while mud continues being slung into it. Traditional leadership styles will not serve us well.

During this health crisis, I’m sure you are observing those who are handling the situation better than others. Take a moment to list down the positive leadership traits you are seeing consistently across the leadership group, and also the negative ones. What you are observing your leaders doing across your organisation will be their version of adaptive leadership. That is, working smart while being agile. Some will be doing it better than others.

Now take a moment to reflect on your own leadership in this crisis. How have you been showing the positive traits? Have you portrayed any of the negative ones? Let me explain my version of adaptive leadership with some tips on how you can influence your leadership group if some are falling short of the mark.

Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive leadership comes from a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article published in the midst of the GFC in 2009 titled Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis and authored by Ronald Heifetz , Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky.

As Heifet (et al 2009) say in their HBR paper, when faced with adversity leaders can hunker down or can “reset” their team and the organisation. To hunker down is to do what leaders might normally do when faced with deteriorating conditions: cut costs, lay off staff, bring control closer to the key decision makers. The paper argues that this is the wrong thing to do. The cause of this calamity is not usual, and your response should not be usual.

Leaders must think long term and must adapt and adapt and adapt some more. Until the new normal of business as unusual is reached. Then adapt some more as society finally returns to a longer term new normal—one with some massive shifts in the way we work and play.

I have distilled Heifetz’s (et al 2009) views on adaptive leadership to three concepts and three questions (see Figure). The three concepts are:

Let me take you through each of them in turn.

Figure: Core Concepts of Adaptive Leadership

Being Courageous

Being courageous with decision making is turning away from the easy things to do and doing the hard-smart work. Here are three tips on courageous decision making:

Conversations: The difficult conversations need to be had now. Don’t let your leadership group put them off.

Voices: Leaders must listen to the voices from outside their trusted inner circle. They have never been through something like this. Encourage leaders to listen to the dissenters and work out how to experiment and test their views against the views of the inner circle.

Risks: Leaders are familiar with taking risks. Now may be the time for bigger risk taking. However, the same rule applies as always: never bite off more than you can chew, unless you have no other choice.

Active Experimentation

Now that much of the mad scramble to adjust to new ways of working has happened, leaders need to start thinking about experimenting to stretch their teams.

There are three key components to experimentation:

•          Drivers – The goal(s) sought.

•          Design – The well-established principles of sound experimentation.

•          Decision – The interpretation of the results and the action taken.

First are the drivers. The purpose of experimentation will naturally be driven by current challenges. Whatever they are, be very clear on the purpose of experimentation. For example, “Determining which online platform is the most reliable for meetings of less than 10 people”.

Second is design. The purest and most successful form of experimentation is the scientific method. It maximises the benefits from the experiment and minimises the chance the results are misleading. It requires some effort; however, these are not times to shy away.

Finally, there is decision. For this, I can’t go past my MCI Decision Model. M is for motivation; C is for clarification, and I is for implementation. Keep an eye out for when leaders go straight to implementation. If they are, recommend they clarify the approach they are planning. What are the obstacles to overcome and what are the potential consequences? And finally, just check that the motivation is right. Are they answering the right question?

Devolved Decision Making

At its core, devolved decision making is about recognising that leaders and their trusted inner circle of advisers don’t have all the answers and they must trust their people to come up with the answers.

To coin another phrase from Heifetz (et al 2009), it’s about “micro adaptation”. It’s lots of people adapting lots of ways and often. This needs to occur at the level of the individual, team and business unit level. People need to be given their independence and to be trusted.

While giving teams their independence, it is vitally important that leaders also consider the interdependence that exists across the organisation. While an individual or a team or business unit may be given the authority to experiment and make decisions, who do they need to communicate that decision to? Who might be affected? Who could benefit if only they knew?

This leads on nicely to the three questions of Adaptive Leadership:

  1. What?
  2. Who?
  3. When?

The first question an EA can help their leadership team with is ‘what are the things we need to be courageous about and experiment on?’ As much for you as an EA as for your leaders, think ‘Whatever the line was I couldn’t cross before…it’s time to reconsider it in the context of the challenges currently being faced’. Re-think the need for it or re-think how the line can be crossed without too much collateral damage.

The next question to help leaders with is ‘who are you going to devolve responsibility to in terms of experimentation?

And lastly when? When are you going to allow your teams to be courageous in their own right and do the experiments you know can make a difference in these tough times?

I’ll finish with some words from my EA who I discussed this article with.

“We know for a fact that we set very high expectations every now and then with what and how a person should deliver (especially those in the admin role), but I hope that they will also be acknowledged and regarded as hard-working and resilient individuals who are trying their best to provide support in the best way they can while setting aside their own personal fears and worries. Think of them as a duck—staying clam on the surface but paddling like hell underneath. That I think is the perfect manifestation of adaptive leadership.”

Paula Rival, EA to Bryan Whitefield

Stay safe. Stay agile.

Bryan Whitefield runs leadership programs to improve decision making in organisations. He delivers his FaB (faster and better) Decision Making Program and his Persuasive Adviser Program across all sectors of the economy. He is the author of DECIDE: How to manage the risk in your decision making and Winning Conversations: How to turn red tape into blue ribbon