In the name of adaptive leadership: What we are getting wrong

Posted Oct 09, 2014 | Pastoral Excellence Network


By Susan Beaumont

Susan BeaumontDo you remember this simple Sesame Street song? “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn't belong. Can you tell which thing is not like the others, by the time I finish my song?”

This childhood game invites players to make distinctions between objects that are related, but don’t share a unifying characteristic.

These days, I am tempted to resurrect the Sesame Street song when I work with adaptive leadership in congregations. Many church authority figures are choosing behaviors in the name of adaptive leadership that simply don’t belong.

Ron Heifetz’s distinction between technical and adaptive challenges has become common parlance. We frequently speak about moving between the “balcony” and “the dance floor” to gain perspective. Leaders remind themselves to give the adaptive work back to the people instead of trying to bear the burden of change for the people.

Yet, we need to revisit some of our current practices in order to distinguish between that which is related to adaptive leadership and that which doesn’t belong.

Adaptive leadership is not the same thing as change management. Change management attends to the process, tools, and techniques that manage the people-side of change in order to achieve a desired organizational outcome.

Adaptive leadership, on the other hand, is not primarily about managing change. It is primarily about regulating the pace of loss that a system must endure in order to sustain meaningful change.

Leadership is not the same thing as authority. An organization empowers and expects its authority figures to define problems and apply solutions, to protect the organization from external threats, and to restore order and maintain norms.

Adaptive leaders fail to deliver on these organizational expectations. Instead, adaptive leaders frame key questions and issues, disclose external threats, disorient people from their current roles, expose conflict, and challenge norms.

Organizations rarely reward, and frequently punish, authority figures for doing adaptive work. Consequently, adaptive leadership often emerges on the margins of organizational life and not within the established authority hierarchy.

Holding steady is not disinterest or disengagement. Once a leader introduces an adaptive intervention, the organization gets agitated. This agitation is necessary if the system is going to change. The appropriate leader response to an agitated or disoriented system is to hold steady, so that the disequilibrium can resolve itself.

Holding steady is about resisting the impulse to control. It is about staying fully present, observing, interpreting, and intervening as needed to regulate the level of disequilibrium that people are experiencing.

Holding steady is NOT about ignoring, disengaging, or abandoning the system to its own devices. Holding steady is not an excuse to wash your hands of responsibility for adaptive outcomes.

Adaptive leadership is as much about naming what won’t change as it is about naming what must change. Adaptive leadership requires knowing what is core to our mission and what is not. It requires surfacing and addressing tensions in competing core values. It is not about throwing out everything and starting from scratch. It is not about unfocused and random experimentation.

The principles of adaptive leadership are intriguing and confusing, simple and also highly complex. It is in our best interest to revisit the core principles from time to time to ensure that we are still on the adaptive leadership path.

Susan Beaumont is a consultant, author, coach, and spiritual director known for her ground-breaking work in the leadership dynamics of large congregations. Before establishing Susan Beaumont & Associates, Susan worked for nine years as a Senior Consultant with the Alban Institute. Susan will be leading a PEN Talk webinar on Wednesday, October 15, 2014, at 2 pm Eastern Time.

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