Effective Leadership is Adaptive

“Ceaseless change is the only constant thing in nature.”  John Candee Dean, January 1911

“The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.”  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, IV, 3

A Leadership Series post, courtesy of the blog at golevel5services.com

Change, among other things, happens.  Change comes upon us personally in various forms, aging being the most common.  Aging is the change in us that happens to us.  Despite what the advertising tells you, nothing slows the aging process, although its impacts may be offset by gains in health, strength, emotion, and outlook.  Eventually, aging will take us to our inevitable end.  “It is appointed unto humans once to die,” we are warned in the Bible. None of us can or will escape the changes of aging.

Growth on the personal level is less common than aging, but it is far more important than aging.  Personal growth is the change in that leads to so many of the gains that offset the impact of aging, so many of the changes that lead to fulfillment and positive influence and impact in the world while we are here (and after for some).  Growth is the change that we choose to pursue, or we choose it not.  Growth is the result of choosing challenge, risk, discomfort, betterment, healing, and so many of the difficult yet adaptive processes that add meaning and new dimensions to our living.  Growth is, in some ways, managing and influencing the outcomes of change that we cannot avoid.  “Growth is the only evidence of life.” said John Henry Newman.  His words ring true.

Growth on the organizational level is more important than merely surviving as an organization.  Change, including aging, inevitably impacts organizations.  The impacts of change will propel the organization toward some end, positive or (more often, I believe), negatively.  Thus, for an organization to survive and even thrive in the change process, it must grow, adapt, change with the forces of change.  Yet at the same time, it must be very careful to avoid being changed by the forces of change alone.  How the individual and the organization change – grow and adapt for good – in the face of forces for change is an intentional, strategic process.

It is important for us to remember that if we are not initiating change, change may be taking the initiative against us.  This is the premise for the title of this post, “Effective Leadership is Adaptive.”  One of several core qualities of effective leadership is the ability to be adaptive in the face of change.  Leadership must be adaptive due to the inevitable forces of change.  If it is not, those forces of change, and the “leadership” that failed to meet their challenges, will be maladaptive.  Since change is going to come upon us, the effective leader is considering how to be proactive in working with change and shaping change for the good.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced. … Most of us are about as eager to change as we were to be born, and go through our changes in a similar state of shock.”   James Baldwin

Baldwin identifies for us one of the few principal challenges of effective leadership.  It is not time management or negotiating skills or the numerous other issues that consume and distribute ink in leadership journals and books, although much of what is published is significant if not important.  Overcoming the natural tendency to avoid change, and instead to seek where change is coming and embrace it for what it is, both challenge and opportunity, is one of the principal challenges to the one who would be an effective leader.  Effective leadership is adaptive in that it is constantly scanning the horizon and the team for emerging changes so that the team together can meet the change proactively and strategically, and leverage it into growth and good.  

Unfortunately, the leadership landscape is littered with those who have failed at meeting this principal challenge.  Thus, the words of Kent Beck: “The business changes. The technology changes. The team changes. The team members change. The problem isn’t change, per se, because change is going to happen; the problem, rather, is the inability to cope with change when it comes.”  Whether the inability to see, embrace and leverage change stems from the wrong motives and motivators, a lack of vision and understanding, being overwhelmed by unmanaged pressures or some other disruption, ineffective leadership is most often defined by a failure to adapt and to lead the team and the enterprise to adaptive solutions and growth.  In the face of inevitable change, growth is the evidence of life.

Future leadership posts from Level 5 Services will explore adaptive leadership and the characteristics and qualities of effective, adaptive leaders.

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