Adaptive Leadership

Echoing the words of one of my favorite leadership books, Leadership on the Line, authors Heifetz and Linsky teamed up with Grashow to challenge its HBR readers on the need for adaptive leadership (“Leadership in (permanent) Crisis,” July-Aug 2009).  Their premise is that though the current economic crisis may feel like a season, the flow of urgency and uncertainty will become the new norm.

In light of these current times, we need a new form of leadership with unique skills, humility, and wisdom.  The authors break these skills into three crucial layers:

Foster Adaptation: In many ways, leadership is improvisational…an art.  Leaders today will have to be less specific with their direction, running with simultaneous experiments, evaluating the course on the go.

A great example of this form of leadership comes from Ernest Shackleton’s voyage to the South Pole.  When their ship, The Endurance, stopped frozen into the ice with no hope of reaching their goal, Shackleton led with magnificent adaptation in order to survive in the midst of crisis.

Listen to Polar historian, Roland Huntford, describe Shackleton’s ability to adapt when needed:

Embrace Disequilibrium: The art of leadership is ensuring there is just the right amount of dissonance to feel the need for change, while not making it too extreme to cause panic.

Another strong example of Shackleton’s leadership in embracing disequilibrium was when a small party of his crew sought to get help, landing on the wrong side of South Georgia island.  Notice again, Huntford’s description of Shackleton’s response:

It’s within this situation that Shackleton was able to embrace the situation with courage, seeing above the crisis, and knowing just the right response to keep his men moving forward.

Generate Leadership: Adaptation won’t be led from the top, but side by side with a sense of interdependence among your organization.  For this to occur, leaders must distribute leadership responsibly, seeking collective intelligence and support.  The key here, as it always is, is collaboration!

Some good reminders that leadership is a selfless, situational partnership facilitating various teams of people & initiatives to make an eternal impact on one’s culture.


~ by Dave Smith on September 26, 2009.

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