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LEADERSHIP: Best Practices and “Next Practices” – Leading in a Confusing, Demanding World

dmackinwebLast week I was reading an interesting article on leadership in the Harvard Business Review entitled, “Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis*” which asked the question:  How will we adapt to the new reality of constant uncertainty, urgency, and high demand? In other words, if the human condition begs for consistency and stability, how will we endure what has become a constant succession of change?

The article suggests we must look at the situation in two steps. First, the handling of the crisis stage when it’s important to stabilize the situation and buy time to determine how to respond. For example, many small businesses are finding it difficult to get credit from banks. Faced with the crisis of a negative response, the business owner must be careful not to over-react, but rather to think through options. The ability to do that will improve if the leader has mastered the second step as well.

The second step is to build capacity to manage the new reality. Who do you have on your management team who is actively building their capacity to deal with constant uncertainty?  Who not only knows current “best practices,” but is actively exploring “next practices” — those strategies that are just in the embryo stage of thought or development? When the current demand to do-more-with-less is so great, where do leaders find the time and energy to handle today and prepare for tomorrow? How do we make sure we don’t pretend to know what we don’t know or to default to what we do know; only to find out it was a wrong choice?

One of the answers the article suggests is to build an adaptive style of leadership and to make that leadership exist everywhere in the organization. I’ve synthesized the ideas in the article to some core nuggets that I found particularly inspiring:

  1. Change the rules and make sure leadership no longer rests solely at the top. Depart from the habit of authoritative certainty.
  2. Reshape the organization into a structure that promotes leadership everywhere.
  3. Redefine the roles and what people do; leverage diversity, foster inter-dependence, and mobilize everyone to generate solutions.
  4. Confront loyalty to legacy practices. “Just because we’ve always done it that way” won’t work anymore.
  5. Distinguish the essential from the expendable to prevent overload. Get very good at prioritizing.
  6. Depersonalize conflict by focusing disagreement on issues, not people. However, understand the importance of interests, fears, aspirations and loyalties.
  7. Create a culture of courageous conversations, sprinkled with candor and risk-taking.
  8. Keep your hand on the thermostat — measure the amount of heat you are creating as a leader to drive change and keep the momentum going.

This notion of adaptive leadership will be critical to organizations as our world becomes increasingly complex. Adaptive leadership recognizes that flexibility, agility, and diversity of thought, experience and competency must be fostered at every level. Adaptive leaders don’t need to know the answers, just where to find the answers — in many cases, right inside the organization.

It’s a leadership style that’s hard to argue with, yet how do we foster it in people who are already over-worked and anxious about the future? Let’s get some discussion going on this notion of adaptive leadership — the ability to adapt to whatever comes your way. 

 *Harvard Business Review, “Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis” by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky. July-August, 2009.

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