Now is the Time for Adaptive Leadership

August 1, 2020

Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes.  Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward…   Lao Tzu

A colleague who works with all kinds of nonprofits recently confided in me that he was worried about what he was seeing in this time of game-changing global pandemic.  He observed some leaders who stepped in, mobilized their organizations to collectively think differently, and rapidly instituted new approaches.  He also observed more leaders who seemed unable to shift and who weren’t reimagining their organization’s approach much at all.  For this second group of leaders, he worried for their organizations’ long-term futures.

In comparing notes, the ICL team has been observing the same type of dichotomy — we see some leaders who are changing and adapting, and other leaders who seem a little or a lot stuck.

As I listen to the news, the phrase I hear most often in description of the new COVID 19 work is uncharted territory.  This is the classic definition of an adaptive problem — one where there are no easy solutions, the definition of challenge and fixes is murky, there are no specific rules or procedures to guide the approach, and there are few or no experts who can inform a specific solution.

For the sake of our planet and our communities, and out of concern for your people and your vital mission, we invite you to find ways to adapt.   We encourage you to step into leadership that is using many of the principles and approaches of adaptive leadership.

ICL works with many amazing leaders, and they continue to be our teachers in this time.   I’d like to use a couple of the phrases we’ve heard from leaders over the last 6 weeks to illustrate some of the concepts of adaptive leadership, a set of principles and practices advanced by Ronald Heifetz.

Never waste a good crisis — Maitreyi Roy, Executive Director of Bartram’s Garden, shared this phrase with me and then told a great story about how her staff innovated quickly to adapt their annual plant sale from an in-person event to an even more popular online event.  She noted how they uncorked significant creativity, found new talents, and discovered capacities that they can use into the future.  A key frame for adaptive leadership is to ask, “where’s the opportunity here?” What needs are there in your broader community that your mission, talents and resources might match up with?  We also were inspired by another story where buses used for transporting children to environmental education sites became transport vehicles for medical supplies.

We aim toward our long-term mission — What are we doing now that also sets us up for the long-term future of our work?  We have observed several leaders who have been guiding their organization with the following statements in answer to that question — 1) We must do what we can to support our team — we have to keep our people safe and employed, 2) We will define what is essential to keep doing and create new approaches to meet the needs of the current circumstances.  While I know many of us may be worried about our budgets in 2021 and beyond, the answer to our long-term budget is to stay focused on current mission impact and making it relevant in these times.  That focus naturally leads to attracting resources to thrive over the long-term (people, partners and money).

Change moves at the speed of trust — One of the keystones to adaptive leadership is a bottom-up, listening-outside-the-organization approach.  For leaders, this means listening really hard to others rather than just to yourself.  How much are you and your team seeking input from those you serve?  How are you checking in with your staff, your board, your colleagues in the field? What might be ways to know the experiences and needs of your members and donors right now?  Relationships and perspective during a time of crisis matter, and especially for the long-term they will matter even more.

The covid-19 pandemic has created significant upheaval in our world.  As my colleague, Sarah Clark, observed recently, “If there’s ever been a time for adaption, it sure is now.”  We can take inspiration from our natural world and those like Charles Darwin who observed it so closely, “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”

We offer these links to additional resources so you can learn more about adaptive leadership.  In the coming weeks and months, ICL plans to continue to offer you resources and programs that will help you step into adaptive leadership more and more.