Adaptive Leadership for Challenging Times

Ellen Remmer
Thursday, May 6, 2010

There are many leadership philosophies and gurus out there, many of whom have something of value to contribute to the philanthropic sector.  I’m a big fan of Jim Collins (who not only wrote Good to Great but also the monograph for the social sector) and John Kotter (Leading Change) among others.  Collins’ description of the leader who “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will” offers an important lesson for those philanthropists who believe their business success has equipped them with all the skills for saving society. 

 And Kotter’s step by step guide for overcoming the inertia of the status quo is a terrific roadmap for galvanizing stakeholders in a single organization to move off the dime.   But during these very challenging times – when uncertainty and rapid change rule -  I find the concepts and tools of Adaptive Leadership ™  championed by Linsky, Heifetz and Grashow in their recent HBR article Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis,  particularly relevant.

 The premise for Linsky et al is that things will not return to normal after the crisis is over and that leadership in all sectors will require new skills, practices and mindsets.  They encourage leaders to “embrace disequilibrium,” a mindset that can feel quite unnatural for our very polite and harmonious sector.  They speak to the importance of running many simultaneous experiments as a way to uncover the “next practices” for success; which I would argue is quite distinct from philanthropy’s tendency to dabble across unconnected spheres with little integration of lessons learned.  And they suggest a democratization of leadership through “mobilizing everyone to generate solutions.”  Would the competitions which enlist consumers in selecting high quality ideas and organizations run by Pepsi and American Express qualify?   A key distinction throughout the conceptual and practical literature of adaptive leadership is that too often leaders throw “technical” solutions – i.e. known solutions that can be implemented by current know-how[1] at problems which require “adaptive” solutions or those that require changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits and loyalties.

 Are these practices that you have adopted in your philanthropy?  If so, what have you learned?  If not, can you imagine how your philanthropy might be different if you were to take their counsel.  Scary?  Probably.  But if you are ambitious about making change and realistic about the world shifts underway, perhaps that’s where you need to be. 

[1] Pg. 19 The Practice of Adaptive Leadership