The Adaptive Dimension Of Leadership

Leadership is not a solitary activity. It is something leaders do in relation to others. For leaders to lead, others must follow. This simple premise may, at first, seem so self-evident that it can be merely assumed, with no need for serious thought. Leaders lead and followers follow. It is, on the surface, no more complex than that.



It is certainly possible to imagine a set of circumstances in which the simple premise fully explains the process and relationships: the leader leads and the followers follow. In those circumstances, the process is rather like a train where the cars of the train blindly follow the engine down the pre-set track. The relationships are also simple. Each unit of the train has a pre-defined position and is hard-locked into that position. There is minimal tolerance for variation or deviation and no tolerance for individuality, diversity, or creativity.



Within highly controlled, rule-driven agencies, the executive is in much the same position as the engine of the train. The agency moves down the pre-defined track and the primary function of the executive is to keep the agency moving and on-track. This may be thought of as technical leadership. Such leadership is judged by the extent to which the agency follows the pre-set rules and procedures and how efficiently the agency runs in relation to available resources. A perfect executive rating would be 100% compliance with applicable rules combined with achieving this performance level within the approved budget.



With skilled, technical leadership, an agency can improve in two ways. First, it can reach higher levels of compliance. Second, it can become more efficient, using fewer resources to achieve the same or higher levels of compliance. Do agencies need this type of skilled, technical leadership? Absolutely. No agency can function effectively and successfully without it. The leader must lead and the followers must follow.



There is, however, another dimension within which leadership must function if the agency is to pursue excellence in addition to compliance and efficiency. This is the adaptive dimension of leadership. Here, the simple premise of followers following the leader is insufficient.



Within the adaptive dimension of leadership, emphasis shifts from technical knowledge and understanding of the fields of administration and child protection to the adaptive leadership skills of the individual leader. It is simply assumed that the leader has or will quickly develop the required technical expertise.



No two people will pursue the adaptive dimension of leadership in exactly the same way. How you manage it depends on your personal life experiences, your personality, your individual interpersonal style, on what you choose to emphasize and what you personally think is less essential. How you pursue the adaptive dimension also depends on a myriad of other factors including the physical, political, and interpersonal environments, as well as the specific people directly and indirectly associated with the endeavor. In this context, then, leadership success depends on the specific leader, the leadership environment, and the successful adaptation of each to the other in relationship to the agency's mission. In this dimension, rules and resources represent operating parameters, not evaluation criteria.



Evaluation of the leader within the adaptive dimension is, thus, two-fold. First, the leader must operate within the rules/resources parameters. Next, his (her) success is judged in terms of the extent to which the agency achieves its mission. That is, in turn, evaluated using whatever criteria the key authorizers choose to use. As discussed in earlier chapters, if these criteria are not understood and agreed to in advance, the leader may be judged to be unsuccessful using criteria that are vague, changing, and circumstantial. For example, one negative, high profile incident may be used as a single criterion to judge the leader to be unsuccessful and incompetent.



As a leader who must succeed within both the technical and adaptive dimensions, your major jeopardy is within the adaptive dimension. This gives added importance to all elements of the adaptive environment and to the range of activities within that environment such as focus group research, strategic planning, strategic communication, public relations, media relations, and agency self-evaluation. That not withstanding, the adaptive bottom line is and will continue to be child safety. What's more, your leadership will be primarily judged by whether or not children are kept safe. If the agency follows every rule and operates under budget, you are still not considered successful unless the authorizers believe that the children for whom you are responsible are also safe.



In earlier chapters, attention was given to key factors and processes that contribute to defining the agency's role and responsibilities, positioning the agency within the Children's Safety Net, understanding and increasing the agency's public value, identifying and working with key stakeholders and authorizers, and improving the agency's operating capacity. Primarily, focus has been on the external.



Here, focus shifts to the internal. As their leader, you fail unless you are able to successfully lead your staff, your team. No matter how well you manage the externals, your success rests on successfully getting the work of actually protecting children done and done well. Are you able to achieve reciprocal adaptation between you and your team, between your team and the children with whom they work, and between the children and the community that, when all is said and done, must keep them safe?



As their leader, you say to your team, 'Follow me.' Why are you the one to follow, what makes you the most appropriate leader? More to the point, do you have the level of adaptive leadership skills needed to successfully lead a high-performance team that can and does keep children safe? The following paragraphs may help answer these questions. The concepts and techniques included here have been gleaned from the leadership literature and from observing unusually successful, adaptive leaders. Your task is to consider them in relation to your leadership practice and to then adapt those that are potentially useful to you in your continuing quest for adaptive leadership excellence.



Have a clear vision, a clear sense of mission that others want to follow.



The most successful, adaptive leaders have a clear vision of their mission, why they do what they do. They know that they are not experts at everything and do not profess to have all of the answers. Even with this limitation, though, adaptive leaders are unusually clear about why they do what they do. Although they cannot guarantee that others will always reach the goal, they can guarantee that those who choose to follow them are always headed in the right direction. What's more, they know what motivates those who would follow, why they want to go, why they have to get there.



Value those who make the journey with you.



For those who choose to follow, there are added benefits. They are valued and what they do is recognized and appreciated. This is much more than a glad hand and speeches about how everyone is important and everyone's contribution matters. They are not just part of the crowd who gets a thumbs-up now and then. Their leader pro-actively assures them that they, as individuals, matter and that what they specifically do matters. In fact, the odds for the team's success would go crashing downward were they not on the team.



Commit yourself to excellence.



The team is not merely succeeding, it excels. Following the leader guarantees being a valued member of a child protection team that is committed to doing the right things right, the first time, on time, every time, one child at a time. Followers surpass their expectations, set the new standard, are members of the team to which others look and wonder how they do it.



Value your customers, those who benefit from your programs and services.



With the level of leadership being discussed here, team members' commitment to customer service reaches new heights. They are more responsive to the needs and interests of their customers than they had thought possible. Meeting or exceeding their customers' expectations is yesterday's standard. On this team, every transaction with customers is understood as a new opportunity to provide superior service.



Whether the team's customers at this moment are children and families or other members of the Children's Safety Net, key authorizers or an interested community group, the team is there for them. Association with this team is the road to wonderful outcomes for team members and for each customer, each time, no exceptions, no excuses.



Appreciate where and how you fit in.



The adaptive leader knows that his primary role is to help team members succeed. Team members are not responsible for the leader's success, but he assuredly is responsible for facilitating theirs. The adaptive leader's task is to provide for each team member the best possible opportunity to get where they are committed to going. He sees their commitment and supports their being on the team because they are headed where he and the other members of the team want to go. From his perspective, each team member is a valued customer, and he is growing a relationship with them that is based on his consistently providing superior leadership services.



Play by the rules.



The adaptive leader is not a loose cannon. He plays by the rules and demands that everyone on his team does likewise. You have undoubtedly run across the leader who believes that he is above everyone else. Leaders like this think rules are for other people and that what they want and do are exceptions to any rules or established procedures. Leadership excellence is not something they have thought about a lot, not that doing so would help them much. They are very far away from ever functioning at that high level. Arrogance and a superior attitude are the order of the day for these high-and-mighty types.



This insensitive demeanor is certainly inappropriate in anyone and especially unacceptable in a leadership position. It is absolutely incompatible with leadership excellence. Adaptive leaders always play it straight, according to the established and well-understood rules.



Do not pass your frustrations and negative feelings along to others.



Be careful. You could consider this point and easily come to the wrong conclusion. That would be like the farmer who saw the mouse in the corn crib and assumed that she was planning on supper, when she was already quite satisfied by the cookies she just ate in his kitchen. What does the adaptive leader do with his frustrations and negative feelings if he does not pass them along to others? He proactively shares them only with people who have a need to know about his perceptions and who can do something about the underlying problems or issues. He does not share those sorts of things with team members, others who just happen to be around, or with customers.



Be positive and energetic whether things are going well or going badly.



This is another point where the wrong conclusion is at hand. The adaptive leader most assuredly does not see the plumbing's backing up as a great opportunity to bond with the plumber, just as he does not get suddenly energized by bad news. At the same time, he does not take the fact that the plumbing backed up out on everyone else and does not act like someone let the air out of his tires whenever the news is not good.



Neither temper tantrums nor pouting are consistent with the adaptive leader's approach to problems and disappointments. He gave that nonsense up by the first grade. His attitude and commitment are his responsibilities and not reactions to people and events. Team members and other customers consistently get the leader they have come to know and trust, at his best, every day, every time, no exceptions, no excuses.



Accurately understand and appreciate your skills and limitations.



Knowing what he does well and then doing it well are among the adaptive leader's strongest assets. Further, he makes a point of learning what team members do well so that they too spend most of their time in the strength of their game. He understands that his team cannot excel unless all team members spend most of their time doing what they do best.



There is another side of this strategy that is equally important, though. The adaptive leader knows his limitations and will come to know those of each team member. The team is then developed in part by filling in the identified limitations with people who are strong in those areas. Beyond this, he is making a personal point. His limitations keep him from achieving his mission. He does not have the skills, know-how, and resources to get there by himself. For him, team members are not just followers, they are critical to his success.



Be well-organized.



'Organization' is among the few absolutely critical characteristics found in all of the most successful, adaptive leaders. Their special brand of organization goes far beyond the day to day need to keep track of things and activities. They have extraordinarily organized minds. They can and do think about things in an unusually organized way, have at their mental fingertips a huge range of relevant information and concepts, and routinely demonstrate their special ability to mentally organize complex problems and issues.



Their level of mental organization sets them apart from merely competent leaders. They fully understand what needs to be understood. This by itself is impressive. The truly amazing thing is that they maintain this level of organization over time, as circumstances change, as what is important shifts, as information serves its purpose and is replaced with new information. Among other benefits for the team, the adaptive leader's exceptional mental organization lets him adapt to problems before they are problems, opportunities before they are opportunities, and solutions before others recognize that there is an issue. By the time something needs done, he has already done it. His master touch is that he makes it look easy. Unless you observe closely, you may never know that anything exceptional is happening, right before your eyes.



Be timely in all you do.



For the adaptive leader, being timely is mostly a matter of respect. Of course, he cannot always be on time and do everything on time every time but it is nonetheless a major priority for him. If you are expecting him to be somewhere at a specific time, he will be there. If he commits to doing something, you can take it to the bank that the job will be done, on time, every time.



This is great for those who deal with him but there is an important other side. If you are on his team, he expects you to be on time, do things when you promise, and to get the job done as agreed, every time. He will cut some slack but not much. In this area, he is as demanding of those who are associated with him as he is with himself.



Pitch in and do what needs to be done.



Leaders are doers. This is a simple principle but the adaptive leader has elevated it to an art form. You can count on him to do what needs to be done and to give his 110%. Lazy is not a term that anyone uses when talking about him.



What each team member also needs to know is that he expects the same from everyone on his team. Put this in context, however. 'Pitching in' does not apply to other people's work. If it needs to be done and they are not doing it, you can be certain that it will get done, even if the leader needs to do it himself. At the same time, he takes whatever action is necessary to assure that such negligence does not recur. Doing what needs to be done starts with team members doing what they are expected to do.



Having said that, there is always this and that needing done with no one specifically responsible for doing it. On this team, the leader does pitch in and the same level of responsibility and initiative is the order of the day for everyone else.



Keep focused on getting the job done.



Of course, the adaptive leader does not get into being negative and depressed about things. He accepts personal responsibility for his attitude and behavior. He knows too that it is easy to lose focus, to lose track of the goal.



Here is where the adaptive leader excels. Every event, every situation, every transaction is viewed through the mission's lens. Others may let their focus drift but he is always there to bring them back. Others may be more focused some days than others but he is there to sharpen their perspectives, to keep them continuously on task.



How do adaptive leaders do this? It always comes down to their bottom line. They are obsessed with why they do what they do and with the cost of not doing it well, the first time, on time, every time. For the adaptive leader, the potential cost of losing focus is just too high.



Have faith in those who make the journey with you.



This starts with living the values and beliefs that are the trademarks of leaders who have achieved adaptive leadership excellence. Specifically, it starts with not reflexively blaming or accusing someone whenever there is a problem. That initial level of faith is followed by believing that people are normally honest and trustworthy. If you start by assuming that a problem's coming up does not necessarily mean that someone screwed up, you have opened your mind to the alternative possibilities. Assuming, then, that team members are honest and trustworthy allows the adaptive leader to comfortably collaborate with them. Together, in the spirit of trust and good faith, they can best understand the problem and how to reduce the likelihood of its recurring.



The adaptive leader knows that problems are usually not caused by anyone's inadequacy or failure. They are caused by the unexpected, by the improbable, or by things that could not be predicted or controlled. To start with the people instead of the problem runs a high chance of never solving the problem. It also runs an even higher risk of breaking trust with people, with the team. If the problem turns out to be with one or more of the people, he has strategies for handling that. Even so, he has faith in the team members and invariably initiates problem solving from that good faith perspective.



Take even the most minor complaint seriously.



Taking even minor complaints seriously is based on the fact that people seldom complain unless there is a real issue. The adaptive leader knows, as well, that people who are complaining usually want to be heard at least as much as they want something specific done, and sometimes more. Put these two truths together and you see the strategy:



There likely is a real issue. + People want to be heard. = Always take time to seriously listen. Having listened, he then takes action or not, depending on what he hears. The point is that the person gets the respect they deserve. What's more, he does not miss the opportunity to respond to something that legitimately needs his attention.



Be open to ideas and suggestions from anyone.



You know that the adaptive leader is mentally well-organized and that he has a vast supply of ideas and information at his mental fingertips. Well, now just where do you think all that wisdom came from? Did the adaptive leader figure it all out by himself? Not on his best day.



He is a mental sponge and he goes around soaking up ideas and suggestions everywhere, from everyone. He says, 'I can't use the idea I didn't hear or follow the suggestion I didn't listen to.'



His special strategy here goes beyond being open and listening, though. His secret is that he learns something from every idea, every suggestion, whomever its source. He listens and then he learns. That winning combination (listen and learn) is the adaptive leader's real success secret.



Understand problems and issues from other people's points of view.



This technique goes nicely with 'listen and learn.' Have you ever told someone about how a problem or issue looks from your point of view only to be told, 'I don't see it that way. Let me tell you what the real issues are here '?



What is the not so subtle message to you? 'You've got this all wrong. It's not that way at all. You are either stupid or out of touch with the real world.'



You will never get that kind of demeaning approach from the skilled, adaptive leader. First, such disrespect is just not his style. More importantly, he knows that by using that approach, he loses. Just as he gets most of his ideas from others, he also gets most of his insights and new perspectives from other people. How does he do that? He listens and learns. He takes time to understand your perspective, to get your read on things. When he walks away, he has more of what he needs to lead: he has what he knows and now has part of what you know too. It is only a matter of time until he becomes brilliant, one conversation at a time.



Make sure a job can be done before holding anyone responsible for it.



Who but an idiot would hold someone responsible for a job that cannot be done? Alas, if idiots could fly, many so-called leaders would have their own airports. Have you ever seen a project fail and someone reflexively gets reprimanded or fired? Never mind that the project's history of success was limited to visions in someone's mind. It happens on a grand scale and in little situations but expecting the impossible and holding someone accountable happens often and repeatedly.



It will not happen with you and the adaptive leader, though. You will be expected to try, to give it your best. You will not be held responsible for its not working out, though, unless he can objectively confirm that it was doable.



Be clear with people about what you expect.



This starts with being clear about whether you actually expect the job to be done. You may only expect the person to give it a try, work on it if there is time, or to do as much as interest and resources allow. Alternatively, you may expect the job to be done and done on time.





  • Do you expect the person to work alone or to get help?

  • Do you expect perfection or will just getting it done suffice today?



The adaptive leader knows that being clear about expectations is a touchstone of great leadership. If you are on his team, you will always be clear about what he expects. You will never have to wonder or have doubts about that.



Take time to be sure that people understand how their jobs fit in with other jobs and activities.



The adaptive leader does not go overboard here but he does obsessively attend to one element of fitting in. As a member of the team, you will always completely understand how what you do fits into the plan for the team to achieve its mission. You will know why you do what you do.



The adaptive leader will also be sure that you see how your job fits with other jobs that affect or are affected by yours. Although you may not see every necessary connection, knowing why your job is important is essential to your success and to the success of the team. People want their efforts to make a positive difference. The adaptive leader will make sure that you do not doubt the value of your contribution.



Give people clear reasons and explanations whenever they ask for them.



'Why?' is a question for which people want an answer that makes sense to them. If they do not get it, they will fill in their own answers. Having filled in the blank, they now have a do-it-yourself explanation for everything. People make sense of their environments, whether it has any relationship to reality or not. What is the result? There are many and usually conflicting explanations for anything that happens and nearly as many for things that do not happen and are not going to happen. Therein lies the source of the old rumor mill.



Even the most skilled leader cannot stop the rumor mill, as much as he would like to put it out of business. Gossip is a pastime to which people are addicted or at least seriously hooked. What he can do is be sure that anyone who is responsible enough to actually ask gets the straight scoop. That does not stop the rumor mill but it does slow it down a little and can redirect it now and then. More importantly, if you bring your questions to him, you will get the honesty and respect you deserve. Not to give you reasons and explanations when you ask for them would be unacceptable, from his perspective.



Delegate often and well.



Delegation is, for the adaptive leader, a critical key to his success. He knows that leadership superstars have elevated effective delegation to an art form. In fact, success with delegation is the single most important factor separating leaders who achieve their mission-specific goals from those who do not.



Try this. Design a one-legged stool. One end of the leg must be attached to the stool and the other end can touch the ground at one single point but cannot be in the ground or supported by anything else. The stool must be functional, serving the usual purpose of being a place for a person to rest those weary bones.



It is actually fairly easy. Get a board and attach the leg to it. Set the stool up and sit on it. So long as you are sitting on it, your stool works fine. The problem is that, if you get up, your stool falls over. You have to do the work of the missing legs yourself, which works fine if you have nothing else to do and are willing to sit on the stool forever. Now if you are not quite up to eternity on the stool, you will need to make other arrangements: you have to delegate.



Since the adaptive leader is not about to spend his life sitting on the stool, he has three rules for getting others on the team to pitch in. First, he appropriately delegates tasks and duties. He does not, however, pass on his responsibilities. He is still responsible for the team's success but others on the team can and should help carry the load. This cannot be a 'whomever happens to be around' process. The adaptive leader is careful to only delegate to people who have the skills and know-how to get the job done; they have to be up to it.



Second, the adaptive leader does not delegate a job to someone and then try to manage it himself or second-guess the person who is assigned the job. His reasons here are important. He is not going to sit on the stool and is not about to hover around just to be sure the job gets done or that it is not screwed up. If he needs to do that, he might as well sit on the stool himself. More importantly, second guessing and a hands-on approach with delegated tasks would mean that he did not have much confidence in the person given the assignment. If that is where it is, the leader screwed up. He delegated inappropriately: he picked the wrong person to hold up the stool.



Third, the adaptive leader always delegates enough authority so the person can get the job done. This does not mean that he gives anyone an unlimited, free rein. What each person does must fit with everyone else's activities. The team needs to work together as a team. At the same time, each team member needs the freedom and authority to do what needs to be done.



The adaptive leader does not get into 'Mother, may I?' It certainly is not a 'Check with me at every step along the way for authorization,' approach for his team. Those on the team are competent, make good choices and decisions, and can be trusted to do the right things right. If this is not true, he needs to reexamine who is on his team and think about who may need to be replaced. Nonetheless, not to give people the authority they need to get the job done would mean that he does not quite trust, does not really believe. It would also mean that he is still holding up the stool instead of getting on with getting on.



Get the resources needed to get the job done.



A leader's job is to facilitate the team's success. Being sure that available resources are sufficient for success is, in turn, the leader's responsibility. There may be others on the team who have tasks and assignments related to resource development; but if the resources are not there when they are needed, the leader has not gotten the job done.



If the train runs on coal, the leader better have continuous access to the coal mine. If success depends on new ideas, the leader will be well-served by cultivating a close relationship with a guru. If success depends on creativity, exceptional talents, and specialized skills, the leader must commit to recruiting and retaining only the brightest and best people for the team. The adaptive leader knows that not having enough of the right resources when they are needed is the surest route to failure and fail he will not.



Be skilled at using informal strategies to get things done.



This certainly is likely consistent with your experience. There are formal policies, procedures, and ways things are to be done. It is also true that they sometimes do not work and situations come up where there is no formalized approach that will get from here to there in the time available to get there. Now and then, though, people take this to mean that they can ignore the rules, not pay attention to the formal processes. This definitely is not the adaptive leader's perspective. The informal approach supplements formal procedures and is not a substitute for them.



People also sometimes see the informal approach as a convenient way to bypass the chain of command, to shortcut processes they think take too long, to shop around for the decision they want, or to avoid jobs that they do not like. That is not the point either. For the adaptive leader, the informal approach is simply one more strategy that is available to him within the formal context. He wants his team to use informal strategies, to talk with each other, to informally innovate when they need to, to avoid being too rigid about the rules when something unusual comes up that does not quite fit into the established procedures. They are responsible people who can and are expected to use their good judgment and common sense. He liberally uses informal strategies himself but you can have too much of a good thing.



Being skilled at using informal strategies includes knowing when to use them and when formal is better. If informal strategies are used too much or inappropriately, things become disorganized, efficiency and quality suffer. If they are used too little, the team becomes rigid and inflexible, creativity and innovation disappear, and the team loses its cutting edge. On the adaptive leader's team, the real skill in using informal strategies is in finding and maintaining the balance.



Understand and tap the knowledge, skills, and resources of everyone.



You are not surprised? That old cat is already out of the bag? The adaptive leader's secret is no secret anymore? He is a sponge who goes around soaking up whatever serves his team's purposes. Everyone's knowledge, skills, and resources fit right in with his absorption strategy.



Here is what you may not know. He is also a master at finding the specific know-how, particular skill, or perfect resource for the immediate purpose, whatever the need happens to be. He knows someone who either has or can get exactly what the doctor calls for, so to speak. When the success puzzle requires a new or unusual piece, the adaptive leader reaches out, pulls it in, and slips it into place. What's more, it is miraculously an exact fit, not just what the doctor ordered. It is a cure for whatever the condition happened to be.



How does he do it? He sees everyone he meets as a potential resource for his team. He then talks with them about what they do, their knowledge, their skills, their resources. Of course, they are normally pleased with his interest and happy to share with him. What they do not know is that he is listening and filing away anything that may one day be a piece for his success puzzle. He then remembers the potentially useful details he has learned, ready to tap them when the need arises.



Distribute work and responsibilities efficiently and fairly.



Distributing assignments efficiently is a science in its own right and the adaptive leader does it well. Being sure that the right people are assigned to the right tasks is where it starts. It goes on to include being sure things are done in the right order, at the right time. The science of efficiency expands out to include avoiding bottlenecks, eliminating any loss of resources and materials, preventing errors and having to do things over again, and getting continuous feedback from customers. Achieving and maintaining efficiency is quite complex.



For adaptive leaders, though, there is an underlying dimension that they emphasize at least as much as maximizing the efficient conversion of resources into programs and services that are fully responsive to the needs and interests of customers. The skilled, adaptive leader does not take advantage of anyone. There are obvious and not so obvious ways people are taken advantage of and he avoids them all.



The most blatant abuse happens when a good team member has more and more work piled on top of work that was piled on yesterday. Another version of the same kind of abuse happens when work is given to someone just because the leader is not going to get any hassle or flack. Some people have positive attitudes and just do not say, 'No,' when asked to do something. They are simply too nice for their own good. He understands that even his best workhorse can be run too fast or pushed too hard. The best of them needs a good measure of oats and some time in the barn now and then.



Two other areas of unfairness and abuse are also worth noting. First, tolerating anyone's not doing what is expected or doing less than is expected is unfair to others on the team. Letting shirkers get away with it does nothing but shift the burden unfairly onto others. Second, assuming that everyone is equally efficient is wrong. This is particularly unfair to those who are unusually efficient. The exceptional few can routinely do a two-hour job in an hour and a half. Do you then expect them to do more work in the extra half hour? The adaptive leader does not think so. He will discuss options with them; but the choice is theirs. He certainly would not increase the load just because someone is especially efficient and hard-working.



There is a further but hidden area of unfairness that even the most skilled and sensitive leader can overlook if he is not very attentive. People should not be expected to do things they do not know how to do or do not know how to do well. The solution here is fairly simple. Identify individuals who do know how to do what is expected and add them to the team. For the adaptive leader, there is an even better solution. Train people who are already on the team to do the job, to do it well. They are already on board, already committed to the mission, already vested in the team's success. He knows that it is always better to invest in those who are already on your team than to take a chance on newcomers. The Johnny-come-lately likely will do fine but the adaptive leader is committed to sticking with the horses that got him there, whenever he can.



Defer to others when they are more knowledgeable, skilled, or competent.



None but a certifiable power junky would go with his own ideas and skills when someone more competent is readily available. Nonetheless, power junkies are more prevalent than you might think. You can find them mostly in the middle ranks but rarely at the top. Leaders do not get there by ignoring or overlooking expertise in others and especially not in people whose knowledge, skills, and resources can increase their chances for success. Skilled leaders take full advantage of whatever may give them the winning edge.



The adaptive leader's reason for deferring to the expertise of others goes a little farther, though. He truly values differing styles and opinions. Each person on the team has know-how, skills, and resources that are unlike those of anyone else. They all have their special areas of expertise. They also have their individual approaches, ways of thinking, and perspectives. This gives fullness and flavor to the team. Not to take advantage of this richness would be like ignoring the matador when he suggests that you let him handle the bull this time.



Deal with problems before they become crises.



You already know that the adaptive leader has an organized mind and an uncanny ability to see problems before they are problems, opportunities before anyone else knows that an opportunity is at hand. There is a value-added benefit of having a skilled, adaptive leader that you may not know about. He deals with problems and issues as soon as he becomes aware of them. It is part of his 'do today's business today' approach to everything. It also makes it easier for him to have an organized mind. The less there is to keep track of, the easier it is to keep it organized.



You know about how hectic things are the day after vacation. Stuff has not gotten done and work is backed up. Did you know that there are people whose days are like that all the time? Sure, it may be due to having impossible jobs where they are always behind. That is a different matter that they need to deal with. More typically, though, the problem is caused by not doing today's business today, even though the opportunity is there to do it. They do the routine things but set the more difficult or unpleasant tasks aside. They want to think about it, will get back to it later, or do not feel like they have enough information.



The adaptive leader has learned that most all of these tasks are five-minutes-or-less activities and require a decision or response to a problem or issue. It is not that he does not have the time. He is avoiding action. His rule here is simple.





  • First, delegate. Pass the problem or issue along to the person who has the needed information and the responsibility for the outcome. 'Please take care of this. Let me know by next Tuesday how you handled it.'

  • Second, if you cannot delegate, the rule is handle it now. Make the best decision you can, based on what you know right now. Trust your experience, your instincts, your well-tested judgment.

  • Third, if you cannot delegate and are not prepared to act, the rule is to trash it. A lot of unnecessary work is appropriately avoided by this simple step. Less than 5% of the non-routine tasks outlive the previous three rules. This is, at least, much more manageable. The adaptive leader's rule for this 5% is:

  • If you cannot finish it today, assign someone to work on it with you. That person is responsible for developing a completion schedule, getting the needed information together, and bringing a recommendation to you.



When the recommendation comes back, start with the first rule and run the steps again. The most likely outcome is that you accept the recommendation and delegate the task to the person who has been working on the problem or issue. However you handle it, today's business has been done today.



Do not react to people or problems impulsively.



As the adaptive leader follows his rules for being sure that he does today's business today, his approach is not impulsive. First, he resists the temptation to just do something, do anything to make the person or problem go away.





  • 'What exactly would you like for me to do?'

  • 'How do you see this working out?'

  • 'What else have you tried before bringing this to me?'



Questions like these get more information. Just as importantly, they slow things down. While the adaptive leader is listening, he mentally sorts through his options. By the time he has considered two or three, the impulse to just do something has passed and his response is at least more thoughtful than merely acting on the first thing that came to mind. Most leaders are quick to act, quick to go with their first reactions, quick to follow their instincts. This characteristic is one of the personality elements that separates the best leaders from the mediocre. The down-side of this is that they are also extraordinarily reactive. Their mental and perceptual quickness can cause them to jump to wrong conclusions or act too quickly. The patience required to listen and learn can easily allude them.



Knowing this, the adaptive leader is slow to confront people and even slower to get into arguments, understanding that these are normally impulsive events. He has no problem expressing his point of view and no reluctance to confront people when necessary. However, doing either without thought and clear reasons is risky and usually counterproductive.



An important benefit of this more considered approach is that he has an opportunity to exactly fit his reactions to the situation or circumstance. People tend to think that the issue is over-reacting. This leadership pitfall is well-known. The adaptive leader's experience tells him, though, that under-reacting is often a more significant problem. If his reaction is too intense, he can usually go back, apologize, and correct his reaction. If it is not intense enough, he may never know. He thinks he made his point but others do not think it was particularly important or that he was all that serious. Getting the balance right is a continuing challenge for every leader.



Being assertive but tactful is where the balance is to be found. He needs to be assertive enough to avoid any misunderstanding while being tactful enough to avoid emotionally pushing people away. Here is his secret. The more important and strongly held his point, the more quietly and the more slowly he makes it. Whispering would be going too far, even though people are more likely to hear and decide it is important if you whisper. The skilled, adaptive leader runs no chance that he will not be heard and understood. At the same time, he gives these little voice clues that it is time to listen and learn.



Of course, he does not interrupt. He waits his turn to talk, especially if he wants to make an important point. He has another little strategy, though. He waits until the conversation has moved on to another topic. He then says, 'Let me take us back for a minute. We were talking about.... Let me make this point clearly. (He then succinctly makes the point that he had not made before.) Thanks for letting me interrupt. We were talking about .' His point will now neither be missed nor forgotten.





  • Be hard on problems and soft on people.

  • People deserve consideration; problems do not.

  • The adaptive leader wants good people to stay, annoying problems to go away.

  • Problems need solutions; people need support.

  • People are not the problem, problems are the problem.



You are driving along a country road and run out of gas. Are you the problem or is your being out of gas the problem? Should you choose to focus your frustration on yourself and not deal with the problem, you could easily miss the point.



Your being out of gas is not the problem either. Your immediate problem is that you cannot go with your plan to get where you were going by driving your car. Suppose that, just as you ran out of gas, your trusted brother and his friend stopped and offered to give you a ride.



There, your problem is solved; but not quite. You cannot leave your car on a country road. Oh well, you will just sit there and pound on yourself. You are not off the hook. You did run out of gas.



'I don't think so,' you say. You will see if they can either siphon some gas from their car or go get some and bring it back to you. You will be at least soft enough on your self and hard enough on the problem to take advantage of what now seems like an obvious solution.



Be honest now. You did assume that you had neglected to get gas, did you not? Had you paid more attention, you would have avoided the problem all together.



Stop and think about this for a minute. Are there other reasons why a car might run out of gas? Is your screwing up the only reasonable explanation? Maybe you did forget; but if that is your only consideration, you could easily miss other, more serious reasons.



You likely can now think of a couple of additional reasons why you might have run out of gas that have nothing to do with your neglect, but why did you need to be coached? More importantly, do you suppose that you would have been less hard on someone else, slower to jump to conclusions, had that person been driving the car instead of you? It is unlikely. That is the point. There are other and many times more likely explanations for problems than, 'People cause problems.' As the adaptive leader might say, 'Problems cause problems. People are problem solvers. Be soft on people if you really want your problems solved.'



Be flexible and willing to compromise.



Have you ever played American football? If so, you know that on fourth down with 4 yards to go, it does not cut it to be flexible and compromise even if the other team does agree to give you three yards on a friendly basis, with no conflict or confrontation. It will not even help if they agree that the next time you have the ball, you will only need nine yards for your initial first down. If that is not good enough, they are open to being even more flexible and are ready to compromise. If you will just give them the ball now, you can have a free point added to your score.



You acknowledge the utility of flexibility and compromise. You share, take turns, and are skilled at give-and-take. You do not expect to get your way every time, you are a team player; but you and your team are going to pass on the offers and go for it. If you get the four yards, that is great. If not, that is the way the game goes now and then. Either way, you will play, no flexibility, no compromise.



What is the real message here, then? It is wisdom in two parts. 'Do not deal with people in win/lose terms, if it can be avoided.'



Now, there is a message worth taking to heart. It is also a talent that skilled, adaptive leaders have carefully perfected. They know how to manage, how to be flexible, when to compromise, when to avoid getting into win/lose transactions. They have also developed the skills needed to avoid the rock's colliding with the hard place.



Adaptive leaders know equally well when it is time to shift to part two. They know when to move the hard place directly into the path of the rock. It would be convenient to tell you that there is a well-tested guide to direct you to have the battle here but not there, to hang tough over this but not over that. Sorry, nothing so simple this time.



Each leader has to carefully pick and choose, being very cautious and thoughtful about the choices. Nonetheless, he must make the stand where and when it has to be made. Do so, fully understanding the consequences and being prepared to accept them, win or lose. Leaders have to do what leaders have to do, including accepting the consequences of their actions, no exceptions, no excuses.



Remember and own what you say, agree to, and do.



People think you said what they think you said, agreed to what they think you agreed to, and did what they think you did. Therein lies the adaptive leader's opportunity. On the one hand, he can deny everything. 'I never said that.' 'I certainly did not agree to that.' 'I did not do it.' As option one, this has the advantage of simplicity.



On the other hand, he can capitulate. 'Although I do not remember saying that, you are undoubtedly right.' 'If you think I agreed to it, then we have a deal.' 'If you say I did it, then I did it.' As option two, this has the advantage of avoiding conflict.



Although simplicity has a lot going for it, option one has the leader obstinately contradicting whomever he is talking with at the time. 'You are wrong and I am right.' That is possibly not his best choice, although he may very well be right. Even if he is, people will come to distrust him and he soon loses whatever credibility he may have.



Option two is no better. He is just going along to be going along. He does avoid conflict, at least for the moment but he does so totally at his expense. Even worse, people will quickly come to believe that he does not know what he said, agreed to, or did. It is but a small step to their not believing him when he says, agrees to, or does anything. His effort to avoid conflict destroys any credibility he may have.



Using options one or two only now and then is not much better. It takes longer to lose credibility, but lose it you do. In some ways, occasional use of one or the other option is more problematic than consistent use of either. Being unpredictable in the credibility department is harder for people to deal with than dealing with the leader who is either bull-headed or spineless.



If he said it, agreed to it, or did it, the adaptive leader of course acknowledges the fact. If he believes he did not, then he says, 'That surprises me. I must be blocking on that one. Will you help me get focus? If you will, take me back to when you are talking about. You were there so help me into the picture.'



More often than you may think, the response is, 'Well, I wasn't there but so-and-so told me .' Other times, you are reminded that the person really is right. Once in a while, you are able to see why your words or actions were interpreted differently than you intended. Whatever the outcome, you have an opportunity to reprocess and reinterpret the event. The outcome is not necessarily better but you normally keep your credibility and your commitment to Leadership Excellence is intact.



Work with people instead of merely relying on your power and control.



You know that relying on power and control stifles innovation, creativity, and cooperation. Further, it increases tension and apprehension while causing people to become anxious and fearful. Even if they are not the focus of the power and control, the effect is about the same. Just being in a power-oriented environment is unsettling and stressful. The adaptive leader recognizes these unacceptable outcomes but his favoring working with people rests more specifically on the less obvious down-side of routinely using power and control.



Regularly using power and control is ineffective and counterproductive. It does not work. More specifically:





  • The more skilled the employee, the less effective it is.

  • The more important the person's participation is to the team, the more using power and control jeopardizes the team's success.

  • The more choices the person has, the less acceptance there is of such nonsense.



Unnecessary use of power and control leads to your best people leaving. What's more, if they cannot leave, they gradually shut down on you. You do not consistently get the best they have to offer.



Give this a minute's thought. The team's brightest and best either leave or perform below their best. Over time, what is the result? You have only those people who are less skilled and competent along with others who are not at their best. Now, who is left on your team and how does that bode for team success?



The adaptive leader works with people because it is the right thing to do. He only uses power and control when he has no other viable options, since he wants to maximize innovation, creativity, and cooperation. Most critical to his success, though, he passes along as much power and control as people on the team can productively and constructively manage. Working with people who are so empowered keeps good people on the team and extends to them the opportunity to be great. Given that potential for excellence, the skilled, adaptive leader never loses focus on this simple point:





  • 1. Power and people don't mix.



Take everyone into consideration when making decisions.



People need and deserve consideration. They want to be involved and to have their interests and points of view considered whenever decisions are made. They expect to matter and to make a difference as individuals.



There is another level of truth here. On the one side, not taking everyone into consideration runs the chance of alienating those who are left out or ignored. If that happens, they become less invested in the team and less committed to its success. Odds for achieving the mission go down and leadership is weakened. It is a similar outcome to that seen when power and control are used excessively and inappropriately. Do-it-yourself leadership does not work, unless you really do intend to do everything yourself.



On the flip side, the decision itself is suspect. There are people who could have and should have been consulted. The people who have to deal with the effects of the decision are taken by surprise and may not be prepared to handle the consequences of the decision. The rumor mill gets a new source of fuel, and confusion within the team increases. Unintended problems develop and the original decision often has to be modified to accommodate to the consequences of not taking everyone into consideration. With all this, taking everyone into consideration is not only the sensitive thing to do, it is an essential strategy for leaders who value making the right decision, the first time, on time, every time.



Related to this is trying to understand the what and why of problems before taking action. This cannot be done without taking everyone into consideration. Simply put, that is the only way to be sure that you first understand the problem. Even for the most experienced leader, it is ordinarily impossible to handle a problem until he actually knows what the problem is.



Recall the stool with only one leg? It is a good example of the what and why of problems. That stool belonged to a team that had a take-charge leader. He knew what the problem was and how to fix it. He simply threw the piece of junk into the trash and the problem was solved.



He first observed and analyzed: that is a piece of junk. Next, he defined the problem: junk should not be left laying around. Finally, he problem solved: into the trash it went.



Did this 'I know what's best for everyone,' approach solve the problem? Yes, it did. Did it cause other problems? It likely did not. Can you think of reasons why the approach might not have been appropriate? You probably can.



The issue with the approach is not so much whether it works as that sometimes it does not. When it does work, which is most of the time, it goes unnoticed. When it does not work, people are upset, other problems develop, and a round of second guessing begins. If the leader is committed to doing the right things right, the first time, on time, every time, he will need to reconsider the approach.



Two points are important. First, problems seldom need an immediate, right-now solution. When they do, then action must be taken but there is normally time to at least ask a question or two. 'Is there some reason why that one-legged stool is just laying there? Does anyone have plans for using it? Is throwing it away going to cause anyone a problem?'



Second, and here is the most serious issue, the 'I'll fix it myself without consulting with anyone' approach is habituating. The symptoms include an irritating increase in arrogance, less value being placed on other people and their contributions, increasing insensitivity to the needs and interests of others, and less focus on the team and its mission. Over time, the symptoms also include an increase in bad decisions and a decrease in problems really getting solved. Instead of things getting better, they actually get worse and the misguided leader does not have a clue why. He believes that it is because people are causing problems instead of taking care of business.



You may hear him say, 'I spend all of my time putting out fires. It is no wonder we don't make much progress. If everyone would just do what they are supposed to do, I could get things on track.' Of course, he never considers the possibility that his attitude and problem-solving approach are, themselves, the underlying source of all those fires.



Make the tough or unpopular decision when necessary.



One of the adaptive leader's most challenging leadership dilemmas comes with this strategy. He takes everyone's ideas and points of view into consideration, gets input from those who are familiar with the problem or issue, and consults with people who may have special interest in the outcome or an important perspective. A high level of consensus develops from these activities and it is clear what most people think he should do.



He then struggles with the decision, processes it through the filter of his experience and judgment, and makes the one decision that no one expected or can support. Even more exasperating for others is his inability to give them an explanation for his decision that they can understand or accept. They think that he is wrong, believe that he has made things worse, and feel betrayed. They are unhappy and now are less trusting of anything he says or does. 'He is just going to do whatever he wants to do. He doesn't care what we think or feel. When he talks with us, he is just going through the motions. He is out of control and it does not matter what we say or do. There is no point in talking with him about anything. He won't listen to anyone.'



Does he thus take the easy alternative and simply accept the advice and guidance others have provided, go with their preferred decision? If he does, few will second guess or find fault however things turn out. Additionally, he avoids the unpleasant need to deal with the 'I told you so,' chorus if the consequences of his decision are not what he expects.



If he goes with his decision and things work out well, he may or may not get the credit. If things are worse, he gets the blame, whether his decision had anything to do with it or not. Had he done what they advised, things would be fine now. It is a 'damned if you do and damned if you don't' dilemma, for sure.



This dilemma is at the heart of adaptive leadership. When should a leader defer to the collective wisdom of others and when should he go with his personal best judgment, given what he knows at the time? His solution is fairly simple, as it turns out. He always goes with the collective wisdom of others unless he believes very strongly that they are wrong. It is not enough to believe that he is right. He has to also believe that they are wrong. Having made that decision, he may still go with the collective wisdom if he believes that the consequences will not be excessively problematic or can be reversed, if necessary. They might be right; and even if they are not, their empowerment entitles them to their turn at bat, so to speak.



On those few occasions when he believes he is right and others are wrong and that the consequences of going with their recommendations would be very negative and not reversible, the leader does what he has to do. He has only one responsible choice. He can handle people's being unhappy or upset with him at times. He can not accept his failing to do what he knows needs to be done. Even more to the point, he could not accept his failing to lead.





  • A leader leads; and if he caves-in when the heat gets turned up, it is time for him to pass the torch along to a more legitimate leader. 'If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.' (Thank you Mr. President.)



Attend to the details without getting bogged down in them.



'The devil is in the details.' That is the only point here. What can be missed is the fact that this devil is particularly devilish. Every situation, set of circumstances, problem, or issue has its broad-brush look and feel. From that perspective, it takes on its special definition. Given that definition, one leader draws on his insight and experience and takes appropriate action. He does not need the details to know what to do. In fact, he is so oriented to managing people and processes at this level that he quickly becomes impatient with those who insist on providing far more detail than he wants or needs.



Other leaders take a different approach. They want and need every detail, no matter how trivial. They believe that the more information they have, the better will be their choices and decisions. These leaders see themselves as thoughtful and thorough. Leaders whose style is not as detail-oriented are, they think, impulsive and inclined to shoot from the hip.



Here is the underlying problem. No matter how much detailed information leaders have, there is most always more information that could be made available, if they are patient enough. There are also things they cannot know and details that will not be forthcoming no matter how patient they are. It is normally possible to know more and impossible to know everything.



Leaders always act based on partial information. The challenge is knowing when to act and when to wait on more detail. Were that not enough, information tends to go down in proportion to the potential unwanted consequences of the decision or choice. The more potential there is for bad outcomes, the less well-informed the leader is likely to be. In these situations, some leaders tend to act too quickly and others tend to get bogged down in the details and postpone action indefinitely.



If you are apt to act too quickly, slow down and assimilate more detail. If instead, you are apt to obsess over the details, take a deep breath and act. Either way, you may want to use a special technique of adaptive leadership. Set a specific, future time to decide. This forces you to consider more detail and to get more input. It also forces a closure to input and an end point for attending to detail. When the time comes to decide, you decide. When the bell rings, jump on that bull and hope you can hang on.



Give people clear, frequent, and accurate feedback.



This unusually complex strategy starts with being as quick to tell people what they have done right as you are to tell them what they have done wrong. That does not sound difficult, does it? What if the order is reversed, though? Be as quick to tell people what they have done wrong as you are to tell them what they have done right. Now it sounds odd. It seems like equal attention needs to be given to both 'what's right' and 'what's wrong.' That is exactly the point.



It is not necessary to go into a lot of detail about leaders who only relate to team members in terms of problems and things they have done wrong. They also point fingers and know that every problem is someone else's fault. Their major activity is finding someone, anyone, to criticize or blame. You are also well-aware of leaders who appropriately point out problems but seldom point out good work. It is not unusual to see the compliment/criticism balance favoring criticism. The adaptive leader certainly attends carefully to keeping the balance in balance.



Finding and keeping the balance is based on taking it for granted that people are trying to do a good job. They do not intentionally screw things up, make mistakes, or perform below their abilities. Even more, most everyone on the team consciously and intentionally gives that little extra that moves good work into the excellent category. Their commitment to excellence is a major reason why they are on the team; and excellence is what you get from them, the first time, on time, every time.



Here is the rub. With highly successful teams, the expectation is that team members perform at the excellent level every time, no exceptions, no excuses. People are extraordinarily good at what they do. With teams like this, compliments and praise are plentiful and lavish. Even when people are not being complimented directly, they receive indirect compliments and praise from customers and others in the external environment. They are among the best and they know it. It helps to attend to direct praise and acknowledgment of superior performance but this is merely an extra quality touch in an already self-reinforcing environment. If a team is not doing well, compliments and praise will not, by themselves, help much. If it is doing well, additional praise and compliments will not add much to its success.



The real issue here is criticism. Of course, the adaptive leader praises publicly and only criticizes in private. He also is very careful to assure that his criticism is an exact fit with the problem or issue, not overdoing it or under doing it. Criticism, no matter how well it is managed, introduces a negative element into a fast-moving, stressful environment where people are already on edge and pushing themselves to their limits. The effect is that the person who is criticized (and those who are coincidentally in the immediate environment) becomes apprehensive and less productive, at least for the moment. The point is that criticism is always temporarily counterproductive. For this reason, the adaptive leader is quick to praise but very cautious when criticizing anyone, for any reason.



Clear, accurate, and frequent feedback is certainly important. The adaptive leader knows, as well, that providing constructive and effective criticism is the most delicate area of the feedback balancing act. If this feedback is inappropriate or excessive, the person will overreact or withdraw, and the outcome is often worse than the original problem. If criticism is not forthcoming when it is appropriate, or is not focused enough, the problem or issue persists and likely will get worse. Getting criticism right is critical for any leader and an essential ingredient of a high-performance team.



As if the challenge of getting criticism right were not enough by itself, there is an additional dimension that further complicates the matter. The standards increase. Yesterday's acceptable performance levels are under continuous review and may not be acceptable today. Team members who have performed adequately in the past may have that same quality of work criticized and judged unacceptable today. They find that they have shifted from valued team members to people who are marginal performers. At a minimum, the bar is constantly being raised and higher levels of performance are expected. The unavoidable but possible result is that a member has to leave the team. If this happens, other members then become anxious about whether they might be next. Because of this anxiety, any criticism must be managed very carefully and judiciously.



The major implication of all of this is that an adaptive leader must be a very good teacher. Further, all incidents or situations that could potentially lead to criticism must be redefined as teaching opportunities. Good leaders never criticize. It is just too dangerous. Instead, they know how and when to teach and are careful to never miss a teaching opportunity.



The key here is in understanding the nature of the teaching opportunities. The most common prompt for these types of teaching opportunities stems from an inadequacy in work or work performance. The team member is just not up to today's expected level in one or more areas. Dealing with this is fairly easy. Simply sit with the team member to discuss the inadequacies and to develop a mutually agreed on plan for correcting them. This may mean more training, more attention to detail, connecting with a mentor, or anything else that will get the valued team member from here to there. Set specific dates for activities, for evaluation of progress, as well as for having the deficiency corrected. As you can see, it is simply another application of the adaptive leader's usual problem solving strategy.



The more serious challenge comes when the team member either cannot or will not do what is expected or continues unacceptable behavior after having been warned. First, there must not be any delay. It is unfair to the member to put off confronting the issue. Further, avoiding doing what needs done gives the member the impression that there is no problem. Do today's business today, even if it is uncomfortable or potentially unpleasant. If you need additional incentive, the task will become even more uncomfortable and unpleasant if you postpone it until tomorrow.



When you do confront the issue, say, 'My problem is.... (Be quite specific.) You either will not or cannot do what I expect. If you can't, we will talk about that. If you will not, there is nothing to discuss further. You cannot remain on the team. Is it can't or won't?' If the team member feels capable, develop a plan to correct the problem. If the member feels incapable, reassign the team member to other responsibilities, if possible. If the member has to leave the team, make the arrangements to do that, giving as much consideration to the individual's needs and circumstances as you can. You are still dealing with a valued person, even though team membership is terminated. People in this situation are entitled to the same level of humanity and respectful treatment as they received while they were being recruited for the team. The adaptive Leadership Excellence basics still apply every day, every time, with everyone, no exceptions, no excuses.



By Gary A. Crow, Ph.D. March 24, 2017