Opinion & Analysis

Leaders must adapt to achieve their purpose

Excelent leaders help those they manage to deal with uncertainty, change and loss. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH
Excelent leaders help those they manage to deal with uncertainty, change and loss. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH 

Too many people treat leadership challenges as merely technical. But most are a mix of the technical and the non-technical. Or as Ronald Heifetz, a Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership and co-founder of the Centre for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University describes them, they are a mix of the technical and the “adaptive.”

Heifetz adopted the term “adaptive” because as leaders we must adapt our behaviour if we expect to achieve our purpose despite the inconvenient realities on the ground: adaptive leadership is about mobilising, supporting and developing people to tackle tough challenges. Technical challenges can be critical and complex, but they can be solved by bringing in the relevant expertise, systems and processes. The root causes of such problems can be more readily and unambiguously diagnosed, and solutions are more readily definable.

Adaptive challenges, on the other hand ,require new learning, discovery and self-knowledge.

To handle them we must change our assumptions, beliefs and habits, knowing that without being prepared to do so we will not be able to bring about culture change or succeed with the often-uncomfortable change management that must underlies it.

Now let us contrast “Technical” and “Adaptive” leaders. “Technical” leaders are figures of authority and power. They direct and control, seeing themselves as “The Big Man”, who expects others to do as s/he says. Unfortunately, it is the style of leadership that many followers not only expect but prefer. It is how they have been socialised, imagining that lying low and complying with the wishes of figures of authority is the means to survival.

“Adaptive” leaders, on the other hand, seek to spread influence. They boldly disrupt the status quo, then reassure those they lead, helping them to deal with uncertainty, change and loss.

They “give the work back to the people”, respecting them as being their own problem-solvers. It is this kind of leadership that is needed.

Detached and objective

Adaptive leaders, as Heifetz put it, “go up onto the balcony” before rushing into action, carefully observing the scene in a detached and objective way. They also look inward, observing their own behaviour.

They then reflect and interpret, read between the lines, intervene, experiment and risk, expecting and accepting that sometimes not everything works.

They help people to become more practical, flexible and purposeful, and encourage them to learn by doing. This requires building confidence and boldness, and linking in to a higher purpose. From their balcony, they ask questions like: which are the technical aspects of the problem, and which are the adaptive ones? Are people stuck in their silos?

Is the blame game alive? They build win-win relationships, taking people from apathy to engagement, from timidity to confidence and courageousness. Last week I participated in an event at the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications to promote an upcoming programme on adaptive leadership that will be run jointly with the Harvard Kennedy School. Addressing us by video-conference from Harvard, Adjunct Lecturer Hugh O’Doherty contrasted the mere position of leadership with the influence exerted by leaders through what they do and how they behave.

Just because you have a certain title and are given authority as a leader, he said, doesn’t automatically mean you exert leadership. The World Bank too has embraced adaptive leadership, through the CL4D (Collaborative Leadership for Development) unit with which I am associated and about which I have written before.

As part of CL4D, in Nigeria and Pakistan and here in Kenya too, I have enjoyed helping government officials leading large complex projects — including ones funded by the World Bank — to apply the principles of adaptive leadership and hence accelerate the achievement of their project goals.

I only wish we could reach a much broader spectrum of leaders, in both the public and private sectors, as those who have been exposed have felt greatly empowered.

So in conclusion, do get up on the balcony and reflect on how you behave as a leader.

Are you paying enough attention to the non-technical leadership challenges? Are you the adaptive leader who brings people together to achieve a higher purpose?

mike.eldon@depotkenya.org