Adaptive leadership for a changing world

Adaptive leadership for a changing world
Feb 8, 2021

Another opening paragraph explaining how fast the world is changing? We could find a new combination of words to tell you that disruption has become constant, that periods of stability are a thing of the past, or that 2020 brought changes that might once have taken years in a matter of weeks. But you know all that. What’s important now is not the change surrounding us (we know that’s here to stay) but how we keep up with it. Because those who harness, run with, and anticipate the evolution are the ones best positioned for success.

Even before the unparalleled challenges of 2020, traditional models of leadership were starting to crumble. As organizations accelerated and proliferated against a backdrop of constant social, technological, and cultural advancement, we saw a clear need for a move away from management styles with a deterministic focus on a single leader. In times of less rapid change, we could rely on the steady notion that present and future would to some degree mirror the past. Now that type of linear thinking has neither the breadth nor depth to navigate what’s ahead—let alone to lead people through it.

Change has become three dimensional. It’s pervasive, perpetual, and growing exponentially. Leaders can no longer lead in a vacuum, determining certainties and actions from the singular “helm” of a business. For organizations to thrive in today’s climate, leaders must adapt with it. The “leader-as-hero” model is broken, and the alternative marks a shift towards more intelligent, collaborative leadership. This is what’s known as adaptive leadership. It exudes greater authenticity, humility, and vulnerability than current paradigms. It inspires trust and ensures psychological safety among those it leads—empowering them to learn continually, reach higher, and be part of a collective future. Adaptive leadership accepts that—in true Aristotelian sense—the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That when every individual feels safe, confident, and trusted by their leadership, the organization as a whole will perform better. Executed intelligently, adaptive leadership instills cohesion, ambition, and resilience within a workforce.  There are four pillars involved in making that happen:

Build trust and psychological safety

No person is an island, and the same applies to organizations and the people within them. Embracing authenticity increases leaders’ relatability, humility, and ability to grow in line with their organization’s needs. Instead of combatting times of uncertainty by self-consciously maximizing their perceived power, adaptive leaders show vulnerability and compassion—giving team members the psychological safety to do the same. And when teams feel safe to be authentic with each other and take risks, their performance improves. Their performance is likely to improve further if colleagues’ need to feel competent, to feel related, and to feel autonomous is being heard, understood, and catered to, as all three are innate psychological needs. 

Advance inside and out

It’s never been more important to empower individuals and teams to excel—to fulfill their potential and maximize their capabilities. By recognizing leadership less as a role for one person to carry out and more as a quality present in each of us, organizations can multiply their pathways to success. 

One person can’t possibly hope to possess the depth and breadth of skill, knowledge, or insight needed to navigate our accelerating future—and with adaptive leadership, there’s no expectation that they would. Adaptive leadership extends its collective spirit to build networks, partnerships, and relationships both inside and outside the organization. And with that wider focus comes the freedom and scope to give external issues (such as climate change and environmental policies) the attention they deserve. A Henley Business School research project found that a large majority of CEOs and HRDs didn’t cite climate change as one of the top five challenges faced by organizations in the next 20 years. We believe that has to change. 

The climate crisis demands urgent attention from leaders—not just for our planet, but for new generations entering the workforce. Younger workers are increasingly challenging their workplaces to step up and evolve linear business models into circular economies. If leaders don’t respond holistically and productively, they risk losing a whole generation of engaged minds who will happily consider taking their skills elsewhere.

Encourage continuous learning

The sheer velocity of change demands organizations learn more rapidly, more deeply, and more broadly than ever. It’s no longer enough to focus bilaterally on leading the now and directing the future. Instead, every action, plan, task, and communication should form part of a constant cycle of iteration and advancement.

Reg Revans, the pioneer of Action Learning, reinforced the importance of perpetual development in the workplace. His formula states that in order to avoid the risk of extinction, the rate of learning in an organization must be equal to or greater than the pace of change in the environment. Fortunately, learning opportunities are everywhere in today’s world, and that abundance should be both celebrated and exploited. Adaptive leaders inspire learning by instilling a culture that values and shares it openly and actionably. 

Share purpose and values

In uncertain times, finding and pursuing a higher purpose becomes more crucial. For organizations, a shared purpose—supported by a series of shared values—can help increase focus, cohesion, and resilience. Team members are more likely to solve complex problems together when they’re aligned, working towards the same goal, and confident in the unified mindset of their organization. A clear shared purpose and values can reassure individuals of an organization’s overall mission, imbue a sense of ownership among its teams, and ultimately drive stronger performance. 

There’s no “one size fits all” in the future of leadership. With the rate of change showing no signs of slowing down, organizations must prepare to adapt, flex, learn, and listen. Leaders need to understand the needs of their people, customers, markets, and the planet in order to lead in ways that meet, exceed, and harmonize with demands that are changing faster every day.

We work to give organizations and leaders clarity on adaptive leadership; help them embed environmental, social, and governance considerations into their operating models; and give them the tools to fully embrace future change.

ICF’s global marketing services agency focuses on helping your organization find opportunity in disruption.
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