Adaptive Leadership

Empowering leaders know when to step back to let their team members shine. They inspire the full contribution of the people they work with.

While engagement levels in organisations are on a constant decline, the cry for self-organisation and intrapreneurship has never been louder. While young people enter organisations full of energy, after a short while they become jaded, infected by the prevalent misanthropic attitudes around them.  They adapt and wilt. Or they drop out to found their own start-ups, where they work twice as much half the money and three times the risk.

What is going on in the World of Work?

The command-and-control model of leadership is alive and kicking, exerting it’s damning influence on the workforce. Managers feel superior and entitled. They make the ultimate decisions, even if they are lacking in information or experience about the many issues that come their way. Decision-power simply does not yet reside at the "right" level of the organization.

What would be a better leadership approach for organisations to become more nimble and adaptive?

The answer is not hard to come by and has been given many times. For several decades we have been hearing about the usefulness of empowerment, and about leaders as coaches, servants or hosts. It is time that this message were finally heard.

Leaders still suppress the voices of the very people on whom they must rely to deliver their visions. They show little genuine respect, and the higher up in the organisational echelons we go the worse this attitude can get. Feedback for the manager? Only in theory, or maybe tentatively every couple of years in an anonymous survey.

Instead, managers could be critically asking themselves:

  • How effective am I in enabling my team to deliver in the best possible way?
  • What can I do to make my team lively and engaged?
  • How can I bring out the best in my staff members?

And to go one step further and ask:

  • What can I learn from my team members?
  • Who can I ask to lead us today?
  • How can I listen better to gain valuable information and insight?

What could empowering leaders do differently?

Empowering leaders know when to step back to let their team members shine. They have a sense of self with enough maturity that allows them to do that. They have won the fight against their egos, and become true coaches for their people. They can be humble and accept learning from everyone. Through this they inspire the full contribution of the people they work with.

This is what Georgine, cellist in the New Zealand National Youth Orchestra, writes as a feedback to her conductor Benjamin Zander:

Mr. Zander,
Your shine has inspired me to believe that I have the force of personality to power the section from wherever I sit and I believe that I led that concert from the 11th chair. Thank you for helping me know that. From this day I will be leading every section in which I sit– whichever seat.
Stone Zander, Rosamund and Benjamin Zander (2000): The Art of Possibility. Harvard Business School Press.

If this feedback is possible in a profession normally renowned for it’s tyranny and vanity, it must be possible also in other, less hierarchical organisations.

Learning to act upon the following sentence is what will make a real difference in organizations in terms of adaptive capacity.

Everyone is a leader.
Chris Iveson

What if everyone departed from this assumption? What if all - or at least many more - opinions were heard? What if people had the feeling that they were being truly listened to? What if....

My conclusion is:

  1. Step away from the command-and-control idea of leadership yourself.
  2. Help your followers to do the same.
  3. Give the people the baton!