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The New Wave of Adaptive Leadership

Richard Charrington

Adaptive leadership is founded on a mindset of diversity – not a narrow definition or actual tokenism – but real diversity that constantly challenges existing ways of thinking and operating. And it must run deep. Contributor Richard Charrington – Coode Associates.

As organisations and their leadership teams grapple with the unpredictable nature of technological and workplace change, there is no lack of advice and ‘how to’ publications to manage these disruptive forces. 

In this new reality, aligning how work gets done is more than adopting the collaborative ‘cultural currency’ of Netflix or tech firm leaders.  It goes further than that.

A much more fundamental change is required – namely the need for the leaders themselves to adapt. To be successful, leaders need to look at competencies to master and apply – and this is often about their mindset. 

A Diversity Mindset
Adaptive leadership is founded on a mindset that welcomes diversity.  This is not the narrow definition of diversity which often ends up with either perceived or genuine tokenism. Real diversity challenges existing ways of thinking and operating, and runs deep through several areas of an organisation, including three key areas:

Firstly, diverse people progression – hiring and promoting those not only from different races or genders, but also those who think differently and challenge the existing norms.  Secondly, diverse career paths – through more personalised career progression than the fixed, traditional and linear career ladder. Even that most hierarchical of organisations, the Army, has started seconding its people into, for example, Google and RBS, because it recognises that it can learn from alternative experiences – and vice versa. Thirdly, a diverse organisational mindset – one that emphasises collective endeavour, organisational purpose and societal impact, and that engenders an approach that is more open and less deferential.  

Together these increase agility, creative thinking and allow organisations to adapt to the rapidly changing and disruptive external environment.  

The Era of the Multifaceted Leader
Against this backdrop, the competencies of effective leadership have also changed.  Beyond conventional technical expertise and decision-making, progressive CEOs now need to become more fluid and adaptive in their behaviour and how they lead.  Counter-intuitively, the closer a leader gets to the ‘top of the pyramid’ the more open their mindset must be.   

This new era, shaped by the diversity imperative, will herald significant shifts in what leaders are and what leadership represents. Out goes the leader promoted on merit of technical capability and charisma, in comes the adaptive leader who combines strategic focus with ‘softer’ skills in empathy, listening and, particularly, humility, underpinned by a level of self-awareness.

Another significant shift is the emphasis on great teams replacing great leaders, as ‘flatter’ organisational structures and a culture of meritocracy sweeps across the workplace.  The adaptive leader will harvest not only data and opportunities this presents, but the diversity of all those around them.  Rather than trying, with super-human skills, to master all detail they will not pretend to have every answer themselves.  Adaptive leaders don’t worry about status or rank – they just want the best result.

John Ruskin’s term ‘the honest merchant’ typifies this approach and addresses the idea of business having a clear purpose beyond the making of money. Social impact touches everything from the impact on the environment, payment of taxes, employee burn-out and fair wages, to name but a few.

Rising to the Challenge
Adaptive leaders are not those who are trying to establish a ‘fluffy’ heaven on earth with no idea of cost – an unrealistic pipedream that leads to business failure.  Rather, they possess a combination of the ‘conventional’ skills of being able to understand context, set clear direction and lead effective execution, but with an open mindset that welcomes diversity and the ability to create a culture that reflects it.  

For HR leaders, it is also about creating the conditions where self-reflection is built into all leadership development, alongside a promotion and recognition system that looks beyond technical efficiency to witnessed behaviours – both individual and team. 

Organisational ‘readiness’ for disruption starts and ends with CEO and the leadership team. This emphasis on an openness to different thinking not only demonstrates diversity, it sets out a strong signal to the business. As Stephen R Covey said: ‘“Strength lies in differences, not in similarities”.

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