The challenges confronting business owners and leaders are often mistreated as technical problems and this can inhibit business growth, according to two leading US leadership practitioners.
Instead, Ed O’Malley and Julia Fabris McBride from the Kansas Leadership Center (KLC) say addressing complex business challenges requires a form of leadership that recognises the “adaptive” nature of the challenges.
O’Malley, who is president and chief executive of the KLC, and McBride, who is vice-president of the KLC, were in Melbourne at the end of February and together with Leadership Victoria, delivered a two-day workshop about their model of adaptive leadership to business owners, senior managers and leadership practitioners.
What is adaptive leadership?
O’Malley and McBride define leadership as “mobilising people to make progress on adaptive challenges” and in turn, an “adaptive” challenge is defined as a problem, issue or opportunity that “demands a response outside of your current repertoire”.
In other words, these adaptive challenges are ones that you don’t readily have the information needed to find the answer and there is no set formula for how to solve it.
The nature of adaptive challenges means a leader must mobilise others to change their behaviour and effectively deal with loss, according to the model developed by the KLC. New tools may need to be designed and the system itself may need to be reinvented.
According to O’Malley and McBride, most leaders mistreat adaptive challenges as technical problem, for which they already know the answer or know which expert to go to for the answer.
For technical challenges, both the problem and the solution are clear and there is often a defined timeline.
But for adaptive challenges, uncovering both the problem and solution requires learning from those involved. Instead of “fixing” the problem, tackling adaptive challenges is about making progress and acting experimentally.
As a consequence, O’Mally and McBride describe leadership as “an activity, not a position” and as something that starts with the leader but can be undertaken by everyone.
The four competencies
In the adaptive leadership model, there are four key competencies.
1. Diagnose situation
According to O’Malley and McBride, the biggest mistake leaders make is misdiagnose a situation. Is the challenge facing your business a technical one where the solution is clear or is it adaptive?
Determining the nature of the challenge is a key step, as is exploring multiple, tough interpretations about the current state of play. Diagnosing a situation also involves identifying who needs to do the work.
2. Energise others
The KLC model of adaptive leadership is also about inspiring a collective purpose within an organisation or team and creating a trustworthy process to carry out that purpose. This can mean leaders need to engage “unusual voices” in the team and work across factions or groups of people who come from different positions and viewpoints. In this situation, leaders need to understand and speak to the loss that members of these groups may be fearful of.
3. Manage self
Being a leader is personally challenging and O’Malley and McBride spoke to attendees at the Leadership Victoria workshop about the importance of taking care of oneself and knowing one’s strengths, vulnerabilities and triggers.
In the case of business owners, managing self can often mean choosing between competing values, which may change throughout the course of a business’ lifecycle. In the early days, the focus may be on achieving rapid growth and scaling the company but once the business has matured, the owner may start to think about taking a step back from the day-to-day demands of the job.
But that being said, the model of adaptive leadership also requires individual leaders to experiment beyond their comfort zone and get used to certainty.
4. Intervene skillfully
According to O’Malley and McBride, intervening skillfully is the riskiest of the four competencies but without deliberate interventions, either big or small, change within organisations rarely happens. Leaders must make conscious choices and speak from their heart when intervening, they say.
This is an edited extract from an article that first appeared on SmartCompany. Click here for more on how Adaptive Leadership can help small business,