Adaptive Leadership vs Adapting

This week, I’m writing to you from Harvard University in Boston.

I’m attending an intensive eight-day executive education program called “The Art and Practice of Leadership Development” between 8-15 May 2015. I’m part of a learning community of 70 peers (from almost as many countries and walks of life) focused on The Leadership Pipeline – how to prepare people for whatever contexts they may face in the future.

What is Adaptive Leadership?

According to Cambridge Leadership Associates, “Adaptive Leadership is a practical leadership framework that helps individuals and organizations adapt and thrive in challenging environments. It is being able, both individually and collectively, to take on the gradual but meaningful process of change. It is about diagnosing the essential from the expendable and bringing about a real challenge to the status quo.

When you realize that your organizations aspirations – the innovations and progress you want to see – cannot be attained through your current approaches, Adaptive Leadership is the framework you need to diagnose, interrupt, and innovate to create the capabilities that match your organizations aspirations. Adaptive Leadership is purposeful evolution in real time.

Adaptive Leadership emerged from thirty plus years of research at Harvard University by Dr. Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, defining the frontier of leadership training and development.”

Adaptive Leadership vs Adapting

There is a solid overlap between the core concepts of adaptive leadership and those of adapting, that I wrote about in my article “Adapting to Change”.

However, whereas Heifetz and Linsky use adapt both as an adverb / adjective (adaptive leadership) and as a noun (adaptation), my interest lies in its use a verb (adapting). In particular, the -ing ending is used to show the progressive aspect (progressive / continuous verb tense).

If our intention is to facilitate adapting in a “living system”; be that an individual, team, organisation or country, three primary sources of adapting need to be considered:

  1. Physical
  2. Physiological
  3. Behavioural

Whilst the field of adaptive leadership is a rich resource for those interested or engaged in leadership development, it focuses primarily on the third source of adapting, behavioural.

I believe a more integrative approach to the subject of adapting is required that equips executives and boards with the capacity to understand and consider the governance of their organisations’ across the spectrum of these three distinct sources of adapting to change.

The complexity of the task at hand is further complicated by the dynamics of adapting, which I explain in my article.

Essentially, the above three sources of adapting can be used / combined to achieve one of two primary purposes, stability or development. A dynamic balance between stability and development exists within any system, which creates its current equilibrium (or status quo). For example, although there may be obvious dysfunction within an organisation, or a relationship, the current state is functional (at some level) for those within it.

The Dynamics of Adapting

In general day-to-day usage, when people talk about adapting they generally use it in the sense of accommodating change or acclimatising to something. There is a suggestion of getting used to or accepting something, reconciling oneself to a new reality. However, this is one of two forces that adapting creates in our lives and enterprises.

The Two Kinds of Adapting

There are two distinctly different kinds of adapting that shape our world.

1. A Force for Stability

When we walk outside in the middle of winter, our body senses a change in its environment. Our brain perceives the change as important enough that our body should clearly respond. We automatically produce a focused response: our nervous system engages an orchestrated performance. We start to shiver. Our blood vessels dilate, increasing the supply of heat and energy to our tissues. Our body naturally adapts to the change, resisting dangerous change by maintaining our internal body temperature via homeostasis. We restore things to normal.

2. A Force for Development

However, someone is watching us – the entrepreneur. He sees us shivering. He sees the cloud of steam emerging from our mouth. He sees the change in colour of our facial complexion. Rather than restoring to normal, his imagination goes to work on creating a new normal – a better normal. What if cars had heaters? What if people wore hats? What if people wore clothes rather than animal skins? This is evolution and innovation at work, a second force of adapting. Through our ingenuity, we create a better or new normal.

In this way, we have two different forces creating a dynamic balance – between preserving and conceiving.

This creative tension between maintaining stability and developing newness has shaped everything we see around us living on our planet today. From species to societies, the way life either adapts or mal-adapts to change, reflects this integral balance between these two important dimensions of adapting.

An Introduction to Adaptive Leadership

In the following video (61 min duration) recorded in Australia in 2011, Ron Heifetz provides an informative and entertaining introduction to his work in adaptive leadership.

For more information on “The Art and Practice of Leadership Development: A Master Class for Professional Trainers, Educators, and Consultants” course, please click here.

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