I know with the title I’m right on the edge of taking the Horse Whisperer metaphor one more step beyond its original intent…maybe. But there is no stopping me now. The show Dog Whisperer really reiterated the idea of understanding an animal’s behavior at a deeper level. Cesar Millan has a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of dog behavior. How dogs relate to other dogs and to human interactions. The behavior we see always has some deeper cause and affect and Cesar can make sense of it because he understands normative behaviors. In fact, I love how Cesar does his work as much with the dog owners as the dogs themselves. It’s a little bit of both and not just the dog or just the owner.
I see adaptive leaders as Change Whisperers. They understand change fundamentally and know how it impacts people. To coach and lead people effectively in today’s global environment you need to fundamentally understand change and you need to have a fundamental understanding of human behavior.
There are three core types of change and adaptive leaders must understand these.
- Continuous change – This is predictive change that creates a “trend line” path for a leader to make proactive moves in a market place or make continuous improvement processes more standard. It is much like knowing that when your tires hit 45,000 miles you should be planning for new tires. It is something you can put in the calendar and follow the reminders.
- Planned Change – Organized change efforts are varied in their nature based on the organization and situational issues. Proactive change management is a skill area for adaptive leaders. Knowing how systems or businesses never stay isolated from external factors or closed for vary long; Informs the need for constant attention to what proactive changes do I need to make now to keep individuals and systems in top shape. This is a vital awareness for any leader of any system.
- Discontinuous change – This is “Tsunami Change”. You wake up in the morning and things are soon drastically different. This change is unpredictable. Fundamentally we can practice our response to disasters, but there is no definitive way to predict when drastic life and business circumstances will come your way. The ability to practice scenarios is at the heart of the success of adaptive leaders. Compressing the time that it takes to adjust or be in action is key but not necessarily the main creation of leadership value. Leaders who know when to act and when to be patient are invaluable to organizations involved in environments of frequent changes.
I could add one more to make it four in total. The last type of change is uninformed change. Change just for change sake…I’ve seen it happen when leaders are bored and the status quo is not exciting. They have to meddle with success. Sounds stupid and it is. But hey, go watch a few Dog Whisperer shows and you’ll wonder who’s the smart one…the master or the dog? The leader or the follower? It’s not just about being good at changing. You need to understand when to change and how to navigate and guide those most impacted through the change landscape. Adaptive leaders know this and practice it and practice it over and over. It’s called mastery.
Next time we will talk about how we as humans interpret change.
Staying in the flow of change and not avoiding or fighting it creates a dynamic opportunity for an adaptive leader. It is dynamic because… if you don’t stay in the flow of change–change will take you somewhere and likely to a place you don’t want to go. By staying engaged in the flow you learn what it truly means to be adaptive and begin to predict and speculate about change. All business systems have processes and ideally each process should have clear goals or outcomes defined. Its always comes back to “core purpose” to inform why we would adjust and change.
In order for us to measure progress towards results and adjust purposefully…we need feedback. So the key point for Adaptive Leaders is to make sure you are in the flow of as much feedback as you can get. When feedback is not a part of the system loop it leaves the entire system at a competitive disadvantage and at risk for failure. Marriages and families suffer from the same painful lack of good clear feedback that will give a person clarity about “what is” really going on and nothing less than complete candor.
It is hard as a leader to get feedback on our blind spots. Well, let’s say its hard to get really great feedback…period. And it gets even harder as you get higher in an organization or if you are the owner. Why? Because whether we like it or not people are fearful of reprisal and not many of us are raised up to give candid feedback…even when it matters a great deal. How many blog posts and articles have painted the picture of how key leaders failed their constituents and customers? Too many to count and it is explained in hindsight many times as…they just didn’t see “it” coming.
Absent of feedback, the scene becomes more of a mad scientist approach that then leads to a mess of poor results and catastrophic impact to employees. An Adaptive Leader has to always make sure that they are seeking the feedback or information that could change a decision or the trajectory of a business. Many businesses that fail don’t have to and could avoid much of the trauma inflicted because of harsh corrections. I call it “whipsawing” an organization. Whatever you call it, it ain’t gentle. These types of corrections to a business system can’t be avoided in crisis, but that’s actually the point. Not every situation needs to be a crisis if you have a finger on the pulse of what is going on.
Can you set yourself up for more success? Heck yes! Especially if you are in charge of leading the system. You better have a say in what’s important and insert yourself in conversations that matter most. Here are a few questions you might want to ask yourself to see if you are “staying in the flow”.
- As a leader do I participate in the designing and development of processes for feedback?
- Do your feedback mechanisms with your direct reports create or maintain a high level of awareness needed to make decisions?
- Do you engage a coach and confidant that challenges you with straight talk and investigates your perspectives?
- What can you do to encourage candor and a culture of feedback?
- How do you close the loop after you receive feedback? What does acting upon it look like?
Adaptive leaders understand (and respond to) change and are always moving with change. So much has been written about change and change management. However, much of what is written has been around managing change and not leading it. Even more pertinent to the concept of flow is the understanding of transition. Transition is essentially what it takes to move between change(s). Leading transition is different than managing change. Leading transitions requires keeping goals and values as the vanguard for why we transform ourselves to new ways of taking action and stay in the flow.
I want to challenge Adaptive Leaders to start with OUTCOMES and NOT RISK. Risk doesn’t have much to do with breakthrough decision making. When a decision needs to be made, making an assessment of risk is often the most prudent approach. It also greatly limits learning and can eliminate the many possibilities of success that otherwise are never considered. You do nothing differently and you get the same result…and yes…that is the definition of leadership insanity.
Risk stops leaders from making or keeping a commitment. We may stop short of something extraordinary for us that would seem…just to risky. Adaptive leadership is not just seeking relevance with risk or reward. It is about a relationship that treats each decision, individual, or team in a different way. Risk may never be a relevant part of your decision making as a leader after you read this post.
Adaptive leaders know about commitment and understand what exactly they are committed to—right now in this moment—and over time. It is the balance of risk, the relevance to your values, and the relationship with a leader’s sense of commitment that creates breakthroughs. It is important to know, as a leader, that each person, situation, and team is unique to the breakthrough they seek. It is difficult to breakthrough without a relationship and relevance to values.
What would it look like to be a goal maker instead of a risk taker? Adaptive Leadership certainly includes prudent decision making to minimize risk and maximize reward. This conversation is intentionally focused on getting crystal clear on how leaders can think differently about risk adversity and re-frame their entire view of risk.
The bottom line on being an Adaptive Leader is not about going about “willy nilly” as a leader. It is the ability to ask yourself (and others) clarifying questions at strategic moments. The following types of questions are examples of clarifying questions.
- What is the outcome I’m seeking? (This may seem to simple, but really powerful!)
- What is most important and/or most essential at this very time in my life or this business chapter?
- How can I get the clarity needed to make powerful decisions relevant to my values and goals ?
Adaptive leaders seek relevance rather than risk. Whatever you do to build a strong sense of clarity is critical. Being clear about the decisions you must make, want to make, or could make. Clarity becomes “job one” and a highly valued activity. This takes a strong relationship with great coaches, mentors, and the embodiment of your personal values. Effective leaders stay in relationship with and connected to their values…all the time.
The most trying and difficult decisions can become amazingly clear to a value driven leader. This relevance to our values sets us back squarely on center for making sound grounded decisions. These important decisions are value based and goal driven. NOT driven by fear or unexamined goals. Clarity becomes the basis you can anchor to when making seemingly small or even life changing decisions. Especially when making decisions that you have no experiential basis from which to ground your assessments. Thinking strategically with others becomes important if you are going to be able to understand the whole system.
Risk is not relevant in areas where we become extraordinary and work for creation of our future in new ways. The concept of risk is frequently made from an assessment based on what we stand to lose. It seems reasonable to say risky decisions have potential to cost you or create loss.
- Should I or shouldn’t I?
- What’s a person to do?
- How could I ever give up that paycheck?
- If I “fire” that customer where will the business come from?
Value based decisions have the potential to create more abundance. You see beyond the paycheck and how spending more time with customers aligned with your values and goals will grow business results, not reduce them.
Adaptive leaders simultaneously see the current trajectory of results (and/or output) matched against the desired results (output). Then they declare a destination and make adjustments with courage and conviction. They have faith and believe in the outcome. If they don’t, who will follow and why would you follow them? Pretty simple really when we look at it that way.
Life is strategic. Almost all decisions we make are connected to the flow of our existence and purpose. You can make your goal to minimize risk…OR…live from a framework of commitment and values. The “knowing” of the values and purpose that define those decisions needing to be made becomes essential. There are few risky “life threatening” decisions but all decisions can threaten the life you want to live and work you want to accomplish. Living towards your desired outcomes is exactly related to the old metaphor of “Playing To Win” and NOT “Playing to Lose”.
Next time…Go with the FLOW of Change.
To be a successful parent you have to be an adaptive leader. Teaching and training up leaders requires a level of patience, wisdom, and humility that many successful leaders find challenging. Its one thing to lead, make decisions, and take responsibility. It is an entirely different thing to coach and develop leaders on the ideals and principles that you use to make your decisions. This isn’t a “right” or “wrong” paradigm. It is just another way of being. Adaptive Leadership requires a whole different level of vulnerability and openness to mentor and guide a young child as a parent or develop an employee as manager. It involves a choice..a choice to be a coach and teacher and actively participate in the development of those around you.
This level of vulnerability is not so much limited by ego, but really limited by a perspective. These perspectives usually show up when you are working with parents and leaders to get more involved. Specifically, to be involved emotionally and spiritually with another human being in an intimate relationship regarding their development. It could be a number of reasons, but I’ve found a couple of deep seeded perspectives that seem most prevalent.
- Failure is not equated with leading. Leading is associated with succeeding! The idea is seeded that leading has no room for failure…in anything. And especially not a big old fat stinker of a failure that involves a financial loss, misjudgment of character, and failure to live up to expectations (of themselves and others).
- Parents and leaders find difficulty in being vulnerable and reliving their own mistakes. Its not something you share with a child let alone a direct report…right? Wrong! It takes intuition to know how vulnerable you need to be and know when it is appropriate to engage with others in learning from your experiences. In some strange transference we become intolerant of failure in others because we really can’t stand it in our own self.
Truth is…all leaders and parents fail at some point in their careers and parenting efforts. Click here for the popular chronicle of failure and success in a famous leader. My most powerful moments as a parent have dramatic similarities with my defining moments as a successful leader and people manager. It involves my ability and/or willingness to admit my own shortcomings and mistakes during those teachable moments. Equally important are the times I allowed my children and direct reports to make their own mistakes…I bit my tongue and kept my trap shut.
Fundamentally, leadership skills are not different from those skills required to parent. Your children are in constant transition and growth, both physically and mentally. This environment of transition demands that you are constantly adapting as a leader/parent. You don’t interact with your eight year old like you did when they were a two year old. When you have several employees and/or offspring at different stages you have to be able to adapt to each personality and situation and do it seamlessly.
You are being watched and observed. How you deal with failure is as important as how you deal with success. No doubt parents, through experience, can save their children from many stupid mistakes. However, in saving the child from experiencing the struggle of failing you may cripple their ability to learn and grow. In the same way, as a leader you see that a key lesson learned for one individual may be the foundation used to build a career or life upon.
- Why not create opportunities for your new leaders to make decisions and learn critical skills and lessons?
- Do you let them make that decision could cost them their career?
- Are you focused on perfection or excellence?
As I have written in earlier posts, the one constant is your core values. That is why being consistent and adaptive as a leadership go hand in hand. Look at these next development points for leaders and see the direct parallels to successful parenting of children.
- Set a good foundation early in the process of “on boarding” new employees or new people leaders,
- reinforce the foundation and standards by rewards and encouragement,
- and prepare new leaders by allowing them to benefit by learning from the results of their own decisions.
Adaptive work involves intuition and tapping into that as a you make decisions. Intuition is very spiritual and unexplainable.
Here are some parting thoughts…
- Being vulnerable and open sets the best example.
- Faith in your ability to lead and adapt is a huge contribution to develop leaders with the proper perspective.
- Value your intuition as a strong guide to build intuitive leaders.
- Intuition is the most unexplained leadership tool.
- Intuition scares many corporate systems because it has no roots in controlled systematic approaches.
I think there is a lot of value in establishing our signature presence as a leader. Presence is defined in this post as how people experience you over time and in the moments of challenge when it really counts. Just like your handwritten signature is recognized as belonging to you, so is your presence amongst others because it is consistently the same. Much like how you write out your signature without thinking. It becomes natural and a signature, a real good one, can’t be faked easily.
People want to follow leaders that seem to naturally know what they want. The person they follow creates the assessment and experience that is signature to them specifically. This dependability and consistent approach is needed especially in those times that contain uncertainty. We live in very uncertain times. Indeed we may be just on the cusp of a whole new chapter that offers less and less certainty and more reason to be adaptable and adaptive in your work and life. The following quote resonates deeply with the concept of presence because I have been around leaders that “get it” and more then a few that just “don’t”.
Nothing serves an organization better—especially during times of agonizing doubts and uncertainties—than leadership that knows what it wants, communicates those intentions, positions itself correctly, and empowers its workforce. – Warren Bennis & Burt Nanus, Leaders: Strategies for taking charge
In order to have a presence and be an adaptive leader you need to take charge and accept responsibility when it matters most. It is essential to be consistent and reliable in that you know what you want and who you intend to be. This is adaptive work because you nave to understand what is required of you as a leader or know clearly that you are not positioned correctly to affect outcomes or make “it” happen. Whatever “it” is you adjust accordingly. It may not seem, at first blush that consistency is an adaptive characteristic, but let me explain it in the context of how people assess us as a leader and as a human being.
How you show up consistently is important. Showing up simply means your signature presence is aligned with your values and character. You consistently engage from your intentions and commitment. And you are attentive to what is going on in and around your people. This is highly sensory work that engages not just your head, but your body and your human spirit. King Solomon in the book of Proverbs said that it is the spirit of person that gives God a window to their soul. Show up in your spirit and be a leader to those that need you by making yourself available.
Let me try and articulate something that is quite a nuance in this whole conversation. Leaders often show up DURING times of doubt and uncertainty. More often than not people will find themselves in a “tight spot” without expecting it. You never know just how you or someone is going to respond until a unique situation evolves. You look around and soon get that “still small voice” that says….You Are It! Yep, for whatever reason this moment and this time was made for you. Not the converse…that you were made for the moment. You try to process it, but no logic tells you why you are to stand in the gap. right now at this time. You have had no time to prepare.
This is a concept that we are not necessarily a leader all the time or a leader for all times. Sure I could be all philosophical and say we all are leaders, which in many ways is true as North. However, we all realize that we just aren’t the one to be “carrying the water” sometimes. It’s not our fire to put out and we need to man the pumps and do the grunt work. I think this really comes down to knowing your niche and always be ready for opportunities as they arrive or arise that meet your skills and experience. Great teams are filled with these leaders and individuals that know their role and when to step in and when to step out…of the way.
This concept of adaptive leadership is really a two sided coin. When you know your signature presence clearly you will recognize those moments that are beckoning you to engage. Sometimes we downplay our efforts and play small. We just don’t step up and then kick ourselves later for not acting on our intuition or notion. The truth is we measure success in immediate volume way to often. We get quantity mixed up with impact. Do you know that if you only help one person you have made the investment of (and in) a lifetime. That one person can go on to impact so many others in their life because you spoke into them something they needed..right then.
Your task as an adaptive leader is to continuously work diligently at knowing what you want, communicating what you are committed to doing, and being that person for yourself and others consistently. Be relevant for the situation at hand, and then empower others. Empowering others means getting the heck out of their way and get behind them to guide, support, and coach them forward. After all, it may be their time to lead and your time to follow.
The number of transitions we go through in our personal and professional lives is accelerating exponentially. The skill/attribute of managing and leading individuals or systems through transition is adaptive work. It is intuitively about perspective and knowledge. The problem on the knowledge side is that information (what there is to know) is growing exponentially. We have great tools and search engines that allow us to acquire information, but it may be lacking validation or incomplete at best. This ability to “know” is growing increasingly more difficult. Which seems counter intuitive with all the technology we have available.
Adaptive leaders are learners at their core. As a leader they focus on what they “need” to know. They fundamentally understand they can’t know it all. Staying anchored in your core values as a leader is essential. Core values are something we can know and discern with the help of others. It is vital to spend contemplative time thinking about what is important now “at this time in my life or this stage of the business”. The word “adaptive” in this context would imply changing in some way that allows you to survive and thrive based on what you value most at this time in your life.
There is a common story amongst many leaders that change is difficult. This is not the case in reality. In fact, we humans are pretty good at adapting and changing as needed. When we value something and we want it badly we are pretty good at doing what it takes to obtain it. However, if we perceive that change is uncomfortable we will try to make our environment (and people around us) adapt to OUR reality. It is a our perspective about security that interferes with our natural skills of adaptation. If we see life and work as fluid and full of possibilities we tend to make necessary adjustments with energy and willingness.
Let’s look at the basics of acquiring perspective. You need to involve others in your discovery. We can narrow our search down by first understanding situational aspects. This core skill involves strategic thinking. Strategic thinking is not the same thing as planning. Thinking strategically involves gaining perspective through a disciplined approach to situational moments in time. Then once you gain perspective you can make a better decisions about a plan.
Core questions are:
- What is really going on here?
- What does it mean?
- What could or should we do about it?
Pretty simple questions that will generate a ton of conversation. Is this just a blip or trend? How significant is it? What are the possible actions or solutions?
The most important thing is who you involve in these questions. Adaptive leadership always involves interaction and engagement with others in meaningful conversation. Surround yourself with good thinkers and invest in relationships. Look for situational mentors and coaches to help guide you through paradigm shifts. Also, look for those things and people that you should pay close attention to as leading indicators. You need to be on the offensive and yet still ask where are the “land mines” in the path to success that could derail or destroy your success.
Fundamental principles, values, and those common structural concepts of leadership hold true in all situations. For example, skill of listening, practicing straight talk and constructive feedback add effectiveness to adaptive leaders getting the information they need. Remember too, it is the situation that builds the experience which adults draw upon so heavily to make decisions. Over time confidence and comfort in not having all the answers grows and opens up a whole new level of possibilities for discovery of critical insights.
You need to learn faster than you ever have and you need to unlearn faster. A core skill of an adaptive leader is to be proactive. Not being stagnant or static…developing an understanding of transitions in a way that you can begin the new acquisition of skills and knowledge prior to when you will need them. Leading in today’s environment of ever increasing transition in work and personal life…you need to adopt new perspectives and knowledge faster. Letting go of old ways of thinking and doing things intentionally when necessary is a learned behavior. Doing both faster than the competition is the competitive edge in this next chapter of leadership.
Effective leadership (like coaching) is about creating awareness for others. Helping them see something that will create value for them. Feedback has become a term that most leaders and their subordinates have confused with “coaching”. Giving Feedback is not coaching. Feedback is an invaluable tool and skill that when used correctly can literally change the trajectory of a person or business. And it should always come with implicit or explicit permission and trust from the person receiving it.
Feedback is the means to an end and not the end itself. Just because you deliver some feedback or information to another doesn’t mean that action will follow. Great feedback can help the other person know how your perspective is grounded in observation and data. Data is not necessarily truth and that becomes a real part of where the breakdown in feedback begins. If you treat it as truth to be bestowed rather than information to inform the other person’s awareness then you have taken their power away right from the start.
It is important you have the relationship and the awareness of the goals and values of the other person in mind. This becomes very important because it establishes relevance and power for what you have to say. You are grounded in their aspirations and abilities. You know their dreams and can see how giving them a “snapshot” or reflection could advance their agenda first. The goal is to help them see what their choices are and not telling them what to make of it. They own the interpretation and decisions.
You must trust that people, when supported in a conversation, can make a decision. Trusting another person to take responsibility for their own decisions is not easily done by a majority of corporate managers and leaders. I know this to be true because I have years of experience working in this environment and working with adults in these systems. Managers and leaders must be adaptive in nature to the situation. Effective feedback in its truest value is relevant to situational and aspirational points in a person’s life and career moments.
When we don’t trust someone to find their own answers…what does that mean? It could mean a host of things on the surface. It may be that we don’t understand how powerful it is to let someone “stew in their own juices”. We don’t like to be present during internal conflict or struggle. Let’s get on with it and fix it is often our tactic. Make it better with a bandaid of something less than complete candor. What if the feedback is so difficult that the person might get mad, become emotional, or worse yet lose their sense of identity? What if it questions the very essence of how they see themselves in their work and life?
There might actually some very subtle issues going on with person giving the feedback that you may have not thought about. The following could be a partial list of questions for leaders to contemplate on before holding a conversation.
- Are you so programmed and gripped by the idea that as a manager and leader that you should have “THE ANSWER”?
- Is it possible that the outcome is something you may not have any control over?
- Do you really have grounded information and perspective or is it really just hearsay and opinion based on feelings?
- What is your real commitment to the “other” that you are about to give feedback to?
- When you don’t hold the conversation and delay it, what are you waiting for and why are you conflicted?
- Lastly, do you trust yourself and can you take of ownership the information and your problems?
Again, like in my last post this is all connected to reinforcing a culture of being responsible. You have the opportunity to be a role mode and ambassador for responsibility. When you step up and give feedback in a timely and grounded fashion you are being an Adaptive Leader. Adaptive Leadership doesn’t know what is on the other side of a feedback session and is open to the feedback you might receive in turn. You trust yourself to be who you need to be for that person and to stay anchored in your commitment to them. Regardless if you know the answers.
If you trust someone to be responsible they will act accordingly. It is well worth the risk to allow someone to take your expectations of them and own their pathway to the end result. A key take away on this post on Adaptive Leadership could stated simply by the following sentence. When we don’t trust ourselves we find it very difficult to trust others. Letting go of the result and living in the moment with the process requires a lot of adaptation and courage. It is a choice that is at the core of being an Adaptive Leader.
Vision and trusting the future to unfold for those you lead is not always easy. It is a different way of being for many who have people leadership responsibilities. Your intentions must be born from a clear sense of expectations not only of others, but of you most of all. When you don’t hold difficult or challenging conversations you must question your real commitment to the other person. Feedback really is not about them it is about you. Step in, let go, and let it flow.