Are you a conformer or a reformer?

Are you a conformer or a reformer?

As a leader, are you a conformer or a reformer?  Do you push the boundaries?  Are you prepared to take your people into uncomfortable territory for the sake of necessary business transformation?  If so you are demonstrating the qualities of adaptive leadership.

Adaptive leadership is characterised by the “practice of mobilising people to tackle tough challenges and thrive” (Heifetz, 2009).    In today’s workplaces where ever increasing uncertainty, competition and complexity are forcing organisations to change the way they do business, adaptive leaders are those that are able to catalyse the organisation and its people to thrive within this new challenging environment. 

Adaptive leaders keep a constant eye on the broader context within which their organisation operates and understand when there is a gap between where the organisation needs to be and existing organisational capacity; a gap that cannot be simply closed by the expertise or procedures that are currently in place.  They are skilled at identifying the trends and events that are game changers and they are willing to shift the organisation, in a sizeable way if necessary, to respond to these changes.   

The work of adaptive leadership is uncomfortable for many because it requires leaders and their people to change their priorities, their habits, their relationships, the way they work and even their beliefs.  This may cause them, and the people they lead, significant pain.  They may lose things that are dear to them.  The changes may expose them to things that test their competence.  Fear of failure and the loss of security can mean people baulk at even the most logical of decisions. 

However, the test of a true leader is surely someone who, when faced with a critical fork in the road for their organisation, chooses to take the road that puts the organisation in the best possible shape to deal with the emerging challenges.  They do put up with discomfort and pain.  They work through the fear and the loss.  They expose themselves to potential failure.  Most importantly, they create the conditions that require their people to do the same.  

Adaptive leaders understand that the solutions to their adaptive challenges reside in the collective intelligence of employees at all levels.  While they do influence people to question what they do, more critically they also directly engage the knowledge, capabilities and opinions of their people in the core process of adaption and change.  

Adaptive leaders ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater’.  They identify what is best about the organisation and preserve this whilst moving their people beyond what is currently known to new ways of thinking, feeling and behaving.  In doing so adaptive leaders influence their people to develop new capabilities and strategies that enables the individuals and the organisation to thrive.  

One well-documented example and one current case study illustrate the impact of the presence and absence of adaptive leadership - Kodak and Australia Post.  Kodak failed to successfully adapt to changes in digital technology.  Its leaders did not expose themselves and their people to the unknown.  They didn’t bravely venture down the untried roads that although potentially bumpy were necessary for sustainability.  Instead they remained in their comfort zone.  They filed for bankruptcy in 2012.     

Australia Post on the other hand appears to have demonstrated some of the hallmarks of adaptive leadership.  They are challenging the status quo.  CEO Ahmed Fahour is asking consumers to re-think the need for daily mail delivery and they are also looking to trial a digital mailbox that delivers letters electronically to a secure web interface.  Such change is likely to have challenged the habits and beliefs of many at Australia Post but to their credit it appears that their employees have worked through this and acted as adaptive leaders in their own right to steer the organisation down the path that hopefully will lead to their sustainability. 

Any of us can be leaders within our organisations.  That leadership can be demonstrated in a number of ways.  However, one of the bravest and arguably truest forms of leadership is leading others through a period of fundamental business transformation.  Such leadership tests all of us intellectually but it also tests our character because it often requires us to exhibit great courage – to give up strongly held views and ways of doing things, to question ourselves and to face the potential for failure.  For the sake of both organisational sustainability and success, the practice of adaptive leadership must surely be a leader’s obligation.


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Guest Sunday, 26 May 2019