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The Practice of Adaptive Leadership by Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky, was written in 2009. The authors refer to the consequences of 9/11 and the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) as “adaptive challenges” and define them as “gaps generated by bold aspirations amid challenging realities.”  

Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky state that “for these (adaptive challenges) the world needs to build new ways of being and responding beyond the current repertoires of available know-how. What is needed from a leadership perspective are new forms of improvisational expertise, a kind of process expertise that knows prudently how to experiment with never-been-tried-before relationships, means of communication, and ways of interacting that will help people develop solutions that build upon and surpass the wisdom of today’s experts.” 

However, as the authors state in their article Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis, also from 2009 comparing it to an ER, “crisis leadership has two distinct phases. First is the emergency phase, when your task is to stabilize the situation and buy time. Second is the adaptive phase, when you tackle the underlying causes of the crisis and build the capacity to thrive in a new reality.” 

It seems that many of us have made it through the emergency phase now (mid-April 2020 during COVID19) and find ourselves trying to “build the capacity to thrive in a new reality”. 

Diagnosis, then Action 

According to Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky, there are two processes in leadership, diagnosis and action, that need to happen in two dimensions – in our self and organisation. 

What is often problematic is when we skip or rush through the diagnosis process, both for ourselves and for our organisation. Identifying what the priorities are, interpreting what that means for all involved, and finding several alternative potential steps will determine how successful your actions will be. 

Short-term fixes might be necessary for the emergency phase, yet need to be avoided in the adaptive phase. Trying to solve problems with what we’ve always done might not work anymore. We have not been here before, and none of us actually know how to proceed ideally.  

Let’s come back to the ER analogy. Although there are many cases where patients have to go into surgery straight from the ER because of an emergency, doctors mostly take their time to diagnose what exactly needs to be done before they decide to cut someone open. While we live in an advanced age of medicine, imagine the first brain or heart surgeons. They surely lived in unprecedented times. 

Crisis = Opportunity 

What adaptive leaders and organisations do right now is to redefine themselves. Did you know that the Chinese symbol for crisis is the same as for opportunity

It is not about changing everything, but it is about analysing what can be changed long-term. Some parts of the organisation might have to be cut, yet there might be opportunity for new ventures and strategies.

The message doesn’t necessarily have to change, your values, services, products, but the methods, strategies, most likely have to be adapted. “We must grasp the difference between timeless principles and daily practices.” (Heifetz et al.) Knowing what needs to remain the same – and maybe pushed through this tough season – is as important as identifying what needs to change. 

The biggest challenge is to meet today’s challenges while “building the capacity to thrive” in tomorrow’s world. See my recent blog post about the 3 main challenges we face at the moment – technical, strategic, and interpersonal. 

We’re in this Together 

The good thing is, we don’t have to do this alone. COVID19 is a global pandemic, and we are therefore all in similar boats. Even though each of our boats looks differently, we all have the goal to make it through the storm. Even the ones that are cruising on top of the waves right now need to think about the developments in the next few months and years.  

Therefore, we need to aim to stay on course constantly.  

Adaptive leadership requires rather small adjustments instead of grand and detailed strategic plans. Since none of us knows what the future holds, we need to test our grounds. Consistent diagnosis is essential. Diagnose, act, diagnose, act, etc.  

Change & Courage

Implementing change requires discomfort. However, in times like the current, we need to consider that our people most likely already experience discomfort, and even if it is just due to the uncertainty.  

The Change Curve or Grief Cycle, according to Kubler and Ross, provides a great guide for us to navigate where we find ourselves and where our people are at. The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. For each change, we can expect people to go through this cycle. 

Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky point out that we need to “create a culture of courageous conversations”. We need to be both honest yet provide hope. Courageous conversations require our vulnerability. According to Brene Brown, “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” 

Our People & Our Self 

We need to consider that we are usually ahead of our people on the change cycle. That requires us to involve our people as much as possible and communicate rather more than less. The best solutions might actually come from our people. We do best to “draw on collective intelligence” by “distributing leadership responsibility”, “mobilising everyone to generate solutions”, and “leverage diversity” (Heifetz et al.). 

As mentioned before, both diagnosis and action also need to happen for ourselves. Emotional self-awareness and self-management are essential for adaptive leadership.  

As leaders, we need to give ourselves permission to be honest with ourselves and the people around us as we go through the cycle of grief. We need to take time to take care of ourselves in order to be most effective for the people around us. We are allowed to retreat and breathe. And finally, having a few people outside of your organisation to debrief, consult or dream with, is crucial for our leadership success. 

Adaptive leadership may as well be our new normal. The amount and pace of change that we have experienced in the last few decades alone show how essential it is to look out for the daily opportunities in ever-changing and challenging realities. 

As always, looking forward to hearing from you. I’d be honoured to walk alongside you through this season. 

Happy Friday! 


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