Charles Darwin was an incredible thinker. He reimagined the systems of nature and natural history and gave us the theory of evolution and adaptation.
Old thinking, whilst it had served us well, was weighing us down. This new thinking helped us connect with the depth of our human history, to discover our roots and appreciate how truly ancient our story is.
Adaptation is an inbuilt survival response of all living things to changing environmental conditions. The truth is – nothing ever stays the same – as the social, economic, political and natural environment around us is always changing.
Covid was our most recent catalyst for change. We are all of us, now, undergoing mass adaptation. Adapting to hybrid ways of working. Adapting to the uncertainty of ongoing boarder closures both on our own shores and around the world. Adapting to ongoing supply chain risk. Adapting to new technologies that automate and change the way we work.
The KPMG Global CEO outlook pulse survey in 2021 reveals that about a third of CEO’s expect a return to ‘normal’ this year. Forty-five percent anticipate a return to normal sometime in 2022. While 24% of CEO’s say their business has changed forever.
So how do leaders respond? How can we best lead ourselves and our teams through mass adaptation? How do we break existing ways of thinking and make room for new thinking, new behaviours to emerge?
Adaptive Leadership is a concept introduced to us by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky in 2009*. It describes a leadership approach that mobilises our response to an ever-changing environment.
Sometimes, when people are dealing with fears, challenges, uncertainties, and frustrations; showing leadership is not solving it, but simply holding it. Adaptive leaders create safe spaces where difficult emotions can be surfaced, reasoned with and made sense of. Where the “stuff” that needs to happen, can happen. Where what needs to be said, can be said. Where what needs to be felt, can be felt. Adaptive leaders hold themselves and their teams at the edge of comfort so that change can happen.
For a leader, and their team, I think of this operating at their ‘performance edge.’
Our performance edge is the place right at the edge of our comfort zone. Where we engage our full in the performance of challenging work.
When we’re working to our edge, we’re adapting. We are dynamically changing via the interaction with task and the environment. We are actively learning by doing, increasing our capacity and expanding our potential. We are acquiring new knowledge and skills, which allows us to take on more responsibility or tasks of greater complexity.
Adaptive Leaders take themselves and others to their performance edge – as they understand their need to continually evolve in changing environmental conditions. But this is an uncomfortable space and to lead through discomfort means creating space for people to think, share ideas and connect dots.
Adaptation, resilience and responsiveness to change is one of the top 15 skills of the next 5 years**. Adaptive leadership is what’s going to get us there.
The question is – how prepared are you to take your people to their edge and safely hold them there?
* Heifetz, R, & Linsky, M. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Harvard Business Review Press, 2009.
**World Health Forum, Future of Jobs report, 2020.