Adaptive Leadership (What Are We Getting Wrong?)

By: Susan Beaumont

Do you remember this simple Sesame Street song? “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn’t belong. Can you tell which thing is not like the others, by the time I finish my song?”

These days, I am tempted to resurrect the Sesame Street song when I work with congregations and adaptive leadership. Many church authority figures are choosing behaviors in the name of adaptive leadership that simply don’t belong. They are confusing and conflating leadership theories.

The Heifetz distinction between technical and adaptive challenges is widely shared and understood. We frequently speak about moving between the balcony and the dance floor to gain perspective. Leaders remind themselves to give the adaptive work back to the people, instead of trying to bear the burden of change for the people.

However, many of the practices that I see in the name of adaptive leadership are fundamentally at odds with the core principles of adaptive leadership. We need to revisit some of our current practices in order to distinguish between that which is related to adaptive leadership and that which doesn’t belong.

Adaptive leadership is not the same thing as change management. Change management attends to the process, tools and techniques that manage the people-side of change, in order to achieve a desired organizational outcome.

Adaptive leadership, on the other hand, is not primarily about managing change. It is primarily about regulating the pace of loss that a system must endure, in order to sustain meaningful change.

Leadership is not the same thing as authority. An organization empowers and expects its authority figures to define problems and apply solutions, to protect the organization from external threats, and to restore order and maintain norms.

Adaptive leaders fail to deliver on these organizational expectations. Instead, adaptive leaders frame key questions and issues, disclose external threats, disorient people from their current roles, expose conflict, and challenge norms.

Organizations rarely reward, and frequently punish, authority figures for doing adaptive work. Consequently, adaptive leadership often emerges on the margins of organizational life, and not within the established authority hierarchy.

Adaptive work requires that we lead from just beyond our assigned authority zone. This is dangerous organizational space to occupy, and it requires adept political awareness and savvy. It is not for the faint of heart, nor for those who value the safe confines of authority structures.

Holding steady is not disinterest or disengagement. Organizational disequilibrium is necessary if a system is going to change. However, if the system gets too hot, the leader stands a very real chance of being ejected or becoming a scapegoat. The appropriate leader response to an agitated or disoriented system is to hold steady, so that the disequilibrium can resolve itself.

Holding steady is about resisting the impulse to control. It is about staying fully present, observing, interpreting and intervening as needed to regulate the level of disequilibrium that people are experiencing.

Holding steady is NOT about ignoring, disengaging, or abandoning the system to its own devices. Holding steady is not an excuse to wash your hands of responsibility for adaptive outcomes.

Adaptive leadership is as much about naming what won’t change, as it is about naming what must change. Adaptive leadership requires knowing what is core to our mission, and what is not. It requires surfacing and dealing with tensions in competing core values. It is not about throwing out everything and starting from scratch. It is not about unfocused and random experimentation.

The principles of adaptive leadership are intriguing and confusing, simple and also highly complex. It serves us well to revisit the core principles from time to time, to ensure that we are still on the adaptive leadership path.

(This article was originally posted on the Pastoral Excellence Network blog on 10/08/14).