Archive for category Organization Development

Adaptive Leaders: Change Whisperers

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.


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Adaptive Leadership: Risk, Relevance, and Relationship

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.

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Adaptive Leadership: Leading and parenting allows failure

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.

  1. 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).
  2. 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.

  1. Why not create opportunities for your new leaders to make decisions and learn critical skills and lessons?
  2. Do you let them make that decision could cost them their career?
  3. 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.

  1. Set a good foundation early in the process of “on boarding” new employees or new people leaders,
  2. reinforce the foundation and standards by rewards and encouragement,
  3. 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.

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Adaptive Leadership: Acquiring perspective and knowledge

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.

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Adaptive Leadership:Responsibility for the future

Culture in an organization is a direct product of the conversations leaders are having or holding within their organizations. Or said another way the culture of an organization is nurtured or destroyed by the conversations of its leaders. If you want more accountability with in your organization than you must be in a relationship of responsibility. You can create a powerful conversation and then let your actions follow in complete reflection of your words.

So many leaders just struggle with owning the results their people produce. The all to common thinking of some managers and owners is..”It is their (the employee) fault that they didn’t make the numbers or fulfill on a commitment”. Then the usual conversation is that you can’t find good help these days. Somehow to these leaders its just doesn’t seem like being a leader if you aren’t blaming or fixing others instead of leading them.

Adaptive leaders are engaged with teams and individuals in ways that produce actions and conversations about success and goals. The real work to be done is working on yourself. I recently have asked the following questions of some of my clients:

“How can you lead your organization (or family) to be prepared for the future you want for them?

“Given some of the circumstances and difficulty you know will likely play out; will you take it personally if those you lead are not prepared to perform?”

In other words, when “that future” shows up and the skills, knowledge, or abilities are insufficient…will you feel like you let others down? Quite often I see leaders blame others or tough circumstances as the reason for a lack of results. In one sense this may be true, leaders can’t control everything. However, they can take responsibility for the system they directly impact as a leader or owner.

Extraordinary leaders never place blame on anyone for the lack of results. Sounds harsh, but I did say “extraordinary”. If you take responsibility for everything then you never have to worry about being accountable. You just are accountable and you expect it of others as well. If your constituents don’t have the skills and perspective they need to “show up” prepared for a future…will you take personal responsibility when they don’t succeed?

  • Essential to Adaptive Leadership is creating awareness for the future and a vision.
  • Helping your team and organization know clearly what is expected of them is what responsible leaders do.
  • Helping others make good choices and trusting them to do so with your support is also essential.
  • When we don’t trust others to act on our behalf or even their own…what does that mean?
  • Usually we don’t trust ourselves and we have a lack of ownership of our own problems.
  • Reinforcing a culture of being responsible comes from your adaptive nature as a leader.
  • 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.

In absence of responsibility the poison of “entitlement” seeps into our lives and holds us captive to inaction and blaming others for all our problems. Its not powerful and it is the biggest challenge facing our society today. We can be extraordinary and powerful beyond what we imagine when we engage ourselves and others in a shared vision and clear pathway. Take responsibility for everything. Its the simplest and most adaptive way to lead.

©2011 The Heartwood Group, LLC

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Checking In? Yes, where the heck am I?

How often do you go right to your hotel room without first stopping to check in at the main desk? You don’t, you need to stop and give some information about yourself and confirm you have a reservation. Your hotel attendant may even ask you what business you are in town for so that they can match your needs during your stay. Checking in is good because it lets us know we are in the right place and have the right rates and correct length of stay.

Okay, how does a check in relate to your business or you as a leader? If you run your own business or lead a team of sales professionals you should practice regular “check ins” throughout your business cycle. These should take place collectively as a group and individually. You have to step off the trail for a while and check your map and get a pulse on the climate and surroundings. It’s a pause, a time out.

Baseball is a favorite sport for me and I’m a season ticket holder for St. Louis Cardinals. Tony LaRussa has managed in over 5000 games. Only 2 other managers have managed more games. He still takes strategic timeouts to check in with players, especially pitchers, during the heat of a game. Why? Is it for the team or for him or the individual?

The answer could be yes for all three. The “CHECK IN” isn’t for others in your team as much as it is for you. Often times a manager needs to make sure that what they are seeing play out is being correctly interpreted or assessed by them. They may check in with others on the team for more perspective. The one thing that can render a check in useless is lack of straight talk and authentic answers.

Let’s go back to Tony and the Cardinals. He gets the word…”my arm is fine”, the pitcher stays in and throws a ball up and over the plate and the batter jacks one out over the fence. Was that trip to the mound a wasted leader moment? Maybe or maybe not—it really depends on how authentic the conversation was that took place, for all parties. I think it is part of the dynamics of the game that makes it so strategic and interesting.

In fact, every time I meet with clients or a business team we do a form of a check in to make sure we are connected and ready to do authentic work together. It isn’t just about a list of activities to date. It is more about where is the energy in the moment. Are we both ready to be in a coaching/development relationship? Where’s the momentum or not for the client?

The process of checking in helps the client and I get a grasp on what they are experiencing. They may be in a maelstrom of activity personally or professionally leading up to a quieter space of reflection and planning. Or it may be the beginning of a rut that is growing deeper and longer. Much like a baseball manager gets a handle on how his pitcher is doing “in the moment”.

Shifting from “doing” mode to a mode of “being” in the moment takes a lot of personal awareness every day. Intentional pauses or check ins can be a great technology for a leader. It is a process that forces you to attend to time spent thinking and assessing. Too simple…right?  Just pausing and reflecting is almost too easy. If it was easy why don’t more of us do it more often?

So there are longer time horizons to take stock of as well and not just in the moment of a hectic day. As a leader/owner you need to create a forum for checking in. Leaders and owners of our own businesses can get into protracted periods of very focused and mindful work—that—if not followed by some real, felt, and meaningful downtime can lead us to burn out, being unprepared for the future when it arrives, and a smothered human spirit.

Here are 3 key areas to consider as a simple, but deep powerful check in for leaders and entrepreneurs with your team or organization.


  • What likely industry and market scenarios have you built your business “go to market” plan from to achieve success? And are they still valid?
  • What are the current needs in the industry and customer base that you are seeking to engage and provide profitable solutions?
  • How does [Company Name] define success for the owners and stakeholders?  For its constituents and associates? And most importantly its customers?
  • How would you as an owner(s) rate your current success based on your original objectives?
    • 1 = We fell far short and are unsure of the future
    • 2 = We are short of target, but working to adjust
    • 3 = We met or are just meeting our expectations
    • 4 = Our offer is off to a great start and we are ahead of plan
    • 5 = We are wildly surprised at the demand for our offer
    • 6=Huh?


  • Relationships: How we are working together as a team of business owners?
  • Structure: How is the organization of decisions and implementations working?  How well is the work getting done?
  • Accountability and Performance: Do the team members (owners, partners, and leaders) deliver the necessary growth and contribution to results?


  • What industry and global trends will impact us and our customers that we can control or influence with our actions?
  • What would tell us we need to invest in new offers?
  • How will you keep [Company Name] a healthy and growing business?
  • Do we need new milestones for the next journey to our vision?

I hope these three key areas will be useful at your next “check in”. Take an intentional pause, hard work is rarely the problem with leaders and entrepreneurs. Taking a productive pause will let you know where the heck you really are.

©2011 The Heartwood Group, LLC

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Are you a Sustainable Leader?

Are you going through people in your business like a parent goes through napkins wiping up a two year old with an ice cream cone on a hot day at the St. Louis Zoo? It’s usually the best that leave first, especially in today’s economic climate. Wondering where all the employee candidates for your business or department are going to come from in the foreseeable future? That is another problem that plagues unsustainable leadership. Their business doesn’t attract candidates to them. Sustainable leaders have a line up and list of people just waiting in the wings.

Sustainability is so diversely defined that we tend to think about just the environment and natural resources.  We should be thinking about sustainable human resources and capital as leaders and owners of a business. You can’t begin to have a “sustainable” business without creating a leadership environment that encourages and nourishes people in their development. Leaders that sustain their people attract others to work for them. It often is the “mystery” thing that people are seduced by, but just can’t describe. Its really simple and essentially costs your business nothing.

There is an epidemic in organizations of treating adults like children. Leaders have become increasingly afraid of letting people take risks and make mistakes. In addition to lack of risk taking there is an unwillingness to have meaningful conversations with others that really demonstrate your sincerity and caring as a leader. This unsustainable leadership shows up in putting off tough conversations or talking behind peoples back to others. It allows the unsustainable  disease of entitlement to poison a workforce. People begin to think they are owed something and make it okay not to deliver on numbers or take off from work early.

AND equally as bad unsustainable leaders justify everything as…I could have but…I wanted to but…IF ONLY…  When a SUSTAINABLE LEADER steps up you feel it, you sense it, and you live for it. We are longing for the support and challenge of a mature adult who has taken charge of their own future. Not a fiercely  independent leader, but a leader fiercely dependent on tapping into the collective human spirit and energy of those individuals around them. They build a narrative that is compelling and is embodied in the character of each and every person.

You see—sustainable leaders BUILD SUSTAINABLE leaders. I think God knew that the human spirit was the one thing that truly is sustainable and limitless. It is the energy that can recreate itself exponentially when it is unleashed by your leadership. Do it….I dare you today to be more than you ever dreamed possible as a leader. To be more human and authentic then ever before.

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