“Adaptive leadership consists of the learning required to address conflicts in the values people hold, or to diminish the gap between the values people stand for and the reality they face.” — Ronald Heifetz
Anybody who has ever been to London has seen the ubiquitous “Mind the Gap” signs in the underground. They warn train travelers to watch their step because of the small chasm created between the train and the platform.
For leaders of organizational change, we face our own chasms, or our own gaps. Indeed, leadership is exercised in helping our charges “mind the gap” between our aspired values and our actions, between our values and the reality we face.
So here is a quick list of how leaders mind the gap and enter into adaptive work.
1. Get up on the balcony (while listening from the floor). This is exhausting work, but it is the primary work. Leaders must be listeners and people who have the vision to see the deeper systemic realities at work in the organization. What is the ‘music’ that keeps our organization, our church, our family ‘dancing’?
2. Give the work back to the people most affected by the challenge. Are you the only one who is losing sleep over the challenges that you face? What can we do as leaders to ‘escape the expert expectation’? First thing: Transition from being the “great answer giver” to a “great question asker.” Raise the issues for others to deal with and get them wrestling with you.
3. Growth focused. Leading people to grow so THEY can face their biggest challenge. Leadership is mostly about learning. Group learning, corporate and collegial learning. To lead is to learn and lead the learning. If learning isn’t necessary, then leadership isn’t really necessary. The task at hand can be really important, even vital, but it’s likely stewardship — protecting and preserving what is most important — not leadership.
4. Go with the energy. Work with the mature and motivated. Let’s face it, most of our work (especially as pastors) is putting out fires, dealing with the resistant, attending to the cranky and trying to appease the complainers. These are part of our work and, indeed, the people to whom we are called. But when it is time to lead on, more and more of your energy must be invested in those who are motivated to grow and take responsibility for themselves. Go with the energetic, and you’ll have more energy for the others.
5. Grief work: Leading means dealing with loss. “Growing up means giving up.” Adaptive work is about helping people raise and make hard decisions about competing values in their lives. Competing values can only be solved through win-lose. (“Win-win is lose-lose.”) This means something must give, something must go, something will be lost.
6. Get on with it! Get to work; go into the new uncharted territory. After you make some observations and interpretations, try some PLAYFUL interventions. Get right into the middle of the muddled mess. Experiment. (Remember what Thomas Friedman wrote about solving the world’s biggest problems? “We need 100,000 people in 100,000 garages doing 100,000 experiments so that five will work.” ) Don’t wait until you figure out the future; step into it and learn along the way. You’ll make mistakes and take missteps, but lead on!
Dr. Tod Bolsinger was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1993. He earned a Ph.D. in Theology and Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary, and has taught M.Div and D. Min classes at Fuller Theological Seminary and Denver Seminary. He is the author of two books and contributer to two others. He speaks and consults with church, organizational and business leadership groups with TAG Consulting.