Leading in a Changing World – Keith Coats

The Leader’s Challenge: Knowing What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do

Author Max de Pree has said that the first task of leadership is to define reality.  For many in leadership today, the reality is they don’t know what to do in a turbulent, complex and dynamic world. Leadership is not what it once was and nor will it ever be that again. It has changed because the context for leadership has changed. There is a ‘new normal’. Understanding this new reality is both simple and complex – it is the Leader’s paradox and if you find yourself in leadership, it is one that requires your full attention.

In a world where the problems are known and the solutions clear, what we need is a leader who can “get the job done”. We need a leader with authoritative expertise who can deliver the desired results, using an agreed set of methods to deal with a clearly defined issue. But what about those situations where the solutions are unclear, or even unknown? Even more difficult: what about those situations where the problem (or set of problems) is not clear (or constantly shifting)?  In these environments, authoritative experts may actually do more harm than good.  In these environments, we need adaptive leaders.

Leaders are increasingly facing what Ron Heifitz of Harvard terms, ‘adaptive challenges’. In other words you are increasingly encountering situations that are unfamiliar, situations that you have never previously encountered. This is hardly surprising given that you are leading in the context of a world where exponential change is the norm.

The default response in such situations is to revert to a known solution from the past – or what Heifitz labels, a ‘technical solution’. But what happens when ‘our experience’ doesn’t cover such a situation? When we look into our experience only to draw a blank? With a world that is racing ahead on all fronts when it comes to technological innovation; a world in which vast demographic shifts are changing entire people landscapes; a world in which societal values are shifting and with that, behavioural norms; a world in which the environmental context raises unchartered concerns – in such a world, is it any wonder that ‘experience’ represents a devalued currency! This is especially so for those who find themselves in leadership – the place it seems where all these turbulent change currents conspire to converge.

In the face of adaptive challenges, the place where you don’t know what to do, leaders need to know what to do. Knowing what to do requires adaptive intelligence – something that will increasingly become the currency of effective leadership in the face of an uncertain, unpredictable and constantly changing world. We have known for a long time that it is those who are most adaptive that will survive when things change. I was recently asked by a CEO, “what in your opinion” he said, “will be the most important leadership trait or skill in order to navigate the future?” It was a great question and one that without hesitation, I answered, “adaptive intelligence”.

Darwin highlighted this reality in his well-worn quote from his classic work The Origin of Species, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change”.  (By the way, Darwin never said that it was “survival of the fittest”.  It’s obvious when you think about it: it definitely is the survival of the most adaptable).

Distinguishing between technical problems and adaptive challenges is a vital skill for leaders.  Technical leadership is about using the skills and procedures that we are aware of to solve current problems and is typically accomplished by those in authority. Adaptive leadership is having the guts and heart to learn new ways to bring needed deep transformation of culture in an organization or people and is generally done by the people with the problem and by adaptive leaders.  It is important to know the difference between these kinds of leadership because “the single most common source of leadership failure we’ve been able to identify – in politics, community life, business or the non-profit sector – is that people, especially those in positions of authority, treat adaptive challenges like technical problems” (Heifetz and Linsky, Leadership on the Line).

But what exactly is ‘adaptive intelligence’ and how does one develop it?

There are obviously many ways to answer this question.  Maybe an ‘adaptive’ answer is best though: research done by Gunderson and Holling in 2002 (on coral reefs in the Pacific) provides four helpful pointers – albeit from an unusual source, for those leaders wishing to develop adaptive intelligence. They found that the following four things contributed towards the DNA of what it means to develop adaptive intelligence:

The research findings of Gunderson and Holling provide a rich framework from which to engage and develop adaptive intelligence. The framework can be applied at both a personal and organization level and helps to link the theory
to the practice in this vital area. In TomorrowToday we have done a lot of thinking and work in this area. I believe that to ignore intentionally developing adaptive intelligence is to run the risk of becoming captive to the past and risk increasing irrelevance. It seems to me that undertaking the work of adaptive intelligence is a daily challenge and I suspect, a work that is never complete.

So how do you develop ‘adaptive intelligence’?

Adaptive intelligence is grounded in the terrain and work of self-awareness. It starts with identifying the lenses through which you interpret and make sense of the world around you. We all have numerous lenses that shape what we see. Gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality and generation all represent lenses over which we have no control; there are then other lenses we develop through navigating life’s journey – experience, socialization, religion and circumstance. Understanding how the accumulative impact of these lenses determines how we interpret ‘the world’ is the building block of self-awareness. For one thing it allows us to understand how we go about accommodating and assimilating the available information – the old and the new be that through experience, content or via relational channels. Put simply, these lenses determine how we shape and experience our reality. This then allows us to accept that ‘our reality’ is not necessarily ‘the way things are’ and engagement at this intersection usually yields helpful conversation and results. There is Eastern wisdom that states: ‘Beyond the place of right and wrong there is a field; I’ll meet you there’.

Of course there are numerous ways to undertake such a journey and multiple pathways to follow. There can be no single ‘right way’ as each leader explores and finds their own way to develop character and enhance the skills necessary for influential leadership. We lead out of who we are and so doing this work is really not optional.

Some helpful starting questions in such a process would include:

  • What are the various lenses through which I interpret the world?
  • How do these lenses impact my understanding of how things work?
  • When are my lenses helpful / a hindrance?
  • Who am I? (Here the Enneagram provides a helpful framework from which to explore such a fundamental question)
  • How am I experiencing change in my context?
  • How have I engaged with such change?

Knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do. This is the stuff of adaptive leadership and this is where there is no place to hide. It can’t be faked, bluffed, spun or winged. Knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do is the result of intentional personal mastery and an ability to engage with change in all its forms and complexities. It represents the tough work of leadership and demands an authenticity that many corporate leaders are reluctant to explore or develop often due to their understanding of role, title and image within the context of leadership.  Much of this is a construct that has been founded on past wisdom and the way things were. Change is needed.

And, as I suspect you already know… such change starts with You – the Leader. So next time you find yourself in a situation where you don’t know what to do, be aware of the learning opportunity it represents. Such awareness is a good start to then be able to confidently move forward through questions, inviting participation, pausing or simply acknowledging that you don’t know what to do! To do any of these things might not sound much like ‘leadership’- but I want to suggest that it is leadership. Try it and you may just be pleasantly surprised with the results.

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