Great guest post from leadership development expert and author, Sebastian Salicru.

The main challenges for leaders today are not technical, but rather ‘adaptive’. Technical problems are easy to identify, are well defined, and can be solved by applying well-known solutions or the knowledge of experts. In contrast, adaptive challenges are difficult to define, have no known or clear-cut solutions, and call for new ideas to bring about change in numerous places.

Examples of adaptive challenges include climate change and other environmental challenges, social unrest, terrorism, poverty, homelessness, suicide, violence against women, and corruption. In organisations, examples of adaptive challenges include designing a new system or procedure, successfully implementing it, securing agreement for a policy change, and dealing with multiple complex people management issues or stakeholder relationships.

Consider the following scenario. You are the sales director of a global company that wants to launch a new sales management system. Its successful implementation requires everyone across multiple geographic regions to use the system by a certain date. One morning, while driving to work, you suddenly have a flat tyre. What do you do? Easy! You, or someone else, replace the flat tyre with the spare — problem solved!

When you arrive at the office, you find a stack of emails and telephone messages from multiple regional sales managers and other sales representatives questioning the implementation of the new system. Many people want to talk to you about it, saying you are missing key pieces of the puzzle. You already know, via the grapevine and conversations with others, that about 40 per cent of the sales force believes the old system did not need to be replaced, and that everyone is sick and tired of changes — this being the third major one this year. This is despite the communications department having sent multiple messages explaining the business case for this major and important change. You also know that if this change doesn’t happen successfully on time, it will cost your company millions of dollars, and will risk losing many very valuable customers. How can you ensure that the entire sales force of 120 people will help implement the required changes on time?

Can you treat this challenge in the same way you dealt with the flat tyre? I’ll let you answer this question — although we both know the answer.

Adaptive challenges require very uncomfortable work, including, for example, changing attitudes, behaviour and values. It also entails increasing tolerance for conflict, uncertainty and risk. It is no wonder that adaptive change engenders resistance, because it challenges our habits, strongly held beliefs and values. Yet this adaptation is critical to our survival. This relates directly to Darwin’s concept of adaptation, whereby we are better placed to survive or reproduce by becoming better suited to our environment through change.

Above all, we need different perspectives on leadership to make progress on adaptive challenges. In particular, inappropriate expectations of authority need to be eradicated. It no longer works to hold the individuals in formal positions of power or authority responsible for causing or solving organisational or community problems. Like the guru in the story, the C-suite and other senior managers are no longer the experts with prescriptive formulas or solutions. Adaptive challenges must be addressed by the people directly connected to the problems. They are the ones with access to their own collective intelligence and a reservoir of resources that is more likely to bring the needed solution.

Leadership traditionally has been — and sadly for many, still is — mistaken for authority and power in all of its many forms, such as legitimate, coercive, expert, informational, reward, connection and referent. Authority relates to exercising conferred and legitimate power to perform a service, and to the people who follow those exercising such power. This is because their positions demand such authority, irrespective of who holds the position.

Leadership, on the other hand, relates to exercising influence, with or without authority, that creates willing followers. That is, those who are not forced to accept anything thrown their way. Leadership relies on trust and fairness and, to a large degree, meeting mutual expectations. For example, Gandhi, for the most part, did not hold any official position to enable him to lead the freedom struggle in India. He did not gain followers because he held a position of authority; he became a trusted leader because of his strong vision, judgement, respected expertise and integrity.

Let’s go back to the sales example. As a sales director, you are in a position of authority and, for example, could fire anyone who does not comply with the changes, but that’s not enough to ensure the smooth introduction of the new system. What would be your strategy to ensure everyone embraces the changes?

Globally, the challenge is to prepare for a combination of macro socioeconomic trends that may herald a ‘perfect storm’ of new forces. In this scenario, business leaders will have to grapple with new dilemmas and challenges. This will require considerable foresight and collaboration between internal and external stakeholders. As yet, though, current business, political and community leaders are still struggling to find their way and are still failing to respond effectively.

Sebastian Salicru is a leadership development expert and author of Leadership Results: How to Create Adaptive Leaders and High-performing Organisations for an Uncertain World (Wiley, 2017). He is a thought leader and business psychologist based in Sydney that works globally. To take your leadership to the next level visit www.leadershipresults.com.au

 Edited and prepared by Amy Murphy, Journalism student from DCU.


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