Leadership is a practice, not a position. I sat down this week with Forefront and their partner, i-D Leadership Consulting, to learn more of their noble efforts to transform stakeholders in Illinois’ nonprofit and philanthropic ecosystem into adaptive leaders. But what does adaptive leadership even mean?
“Leadership… requires a learning strategy.” Emerging out of a long line of leadership theory, Ronald Heifetz and his colleagues at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government have literally written the book on adaptive leadership; defining it as the “the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.” They have identified a series personal and organizational practices that can empower entities in tackling adaptive (or complex) challenges, including the following (Heifetz, et al., 2009):
- Observing events and patterns, taking in this information as data without forming judgements or making assumptions about the data's meaning;
- Tentatively interpreting observations by developing multiple hypotheses about what is really going on, and at the same time, recognizing that hypotheses are simply that - hypotheses; and
- Designing and testing interventions based on your interpretations in the service of making progress on the adaptive challenge.
Adaptive leadership is a ‘distributed leadership’ model, which is really about empowering everyone in an organization to be potential leaders rather than just those with higher level job titles. It is also about understanding the psychological and often subconscious factors on the personal level that may influence progress. Lastly, it is about recognizing that you don’t need to be in the right position or have all the right the answers to lead change and drive impact, you just need to know the right questions to ask.
While there is no silver bullet in addressing the pressing challenges of our time, developing more adaptive leaders may be the closest thing we have.