• Anand Mahadevan

Why I like adaptive leadership

Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky [TedxTalk] at Harvard developed a very practical and flexible framework of Adaptive Leadership that I really like and connect with in my own practice. Much of my own learning comes from the work I did in 2018 in the Leading Change course as well as through current readings in my EdD program.


Adaptive leadership allows me to make sense of the tension in our work as school leaders where we have to both focus our attention on the day-to-day issues that arise in our school (what some people term management) while also having an awareness, vision and strategy for where the school should be moving over years and decades (what is referred to as leadership). Too much focus on the day-to-day, and we risk surrendering to the tyranny of the immediate and becoming reactive. On the other hand, too much time spent visioning and blue-sky thinking can leave us disconnected from our people.


Adaptive leadership distinguishes between technical challenges (e.g. how do I get this can of soup open) and adaptive challenges (e.g. how do I get my family to eat healthy), because the more difficult and enduring challenges are adaptive and involve multiple stakeholders with their own agendas and needs. But adaptive leadership also hinges on the belief that people have the ability to solve such problems through focused and supported teamwork.


In adaptive leadership, the metaphor for the day-to-day work is being on the dance floor with our staff, students, and families, being part of the work, but the real value of adaptive thinking is to get on the balcony to take perspective. See how the dance floor is thrumming with activity, watch for those who are sidelined and not participating, but also to look out to see what dangers and opportunities lie for the organization as a whole. Adaptive leadership in this sense is very compatible with the notion of the VUCA world that first emerged from war college studies in the US in the 1990s where our current world is described as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (read more). COVID-19 is an example of a disruptor that brings to life the VUCA nature of the world schools find themselves in.


The real benefit for adaptive leadership, in my view, is that it gives leaders a framework to empower their teams and provide them with a psychologically safe, but encouraging holding space so that they come up with the solutions. This collaborative nature of adaptive work emphasizes that human ingenuity and teamwork are necessary for organizations to succeed and thrive. By making our stakeholders part of the process, leaders can help teachers, staff, and families own and influence the change in our organizations. We should not go it alone. Adaptive leadership also pays attention to diversity by encouraging leaders to seek out voices that are marginalized and ignored. This prevents group-think and brings in multiple perspectives for innovative and inclusive solutions.


Note that adaptive leadership's notions of empowerment also align with Brene Brown's work on psychological safety, vulnerability, and trust. The emphasis on communication, participation, empowerment and agility are reasons why I think adaptive leadership will be a key framework for leaders in schools as we empower our communities to success in the 21st century.


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