Pandemic Inspired Leadership Lessons #2: Practice Adaptive Leadership

Leading in the midst of any kind of sustained crisis is risky business. Most crises involve at least two distinct phases.  And the work needing to be done in each is distinctly different.  For example, during the crisis phase (which is essentially what many colleges and universities have been experiencing since March) our priority is to survive.  During the second—often referred to as the adaptive phase—our attention shifts to preparing our organizations to thrive on the other side of the crisis.  

Since most of us have never been trained in the how-to’s of adaptive leadership, this second phase is especially tricky.  I am proud to share that this is a distinguishing aspect of how we prepare our students in the Bay Path University doctoral program in higher ed leadership and organizational studies.   

So why do leaders sometimes struggle with this second phase of crisis management?   Think about what happens in highly uncertain times—like right now.  No one likes uncertainty.  We naturally want our leaders to calm our anxieties by providing answers and clear-cut direction.  And yet, we are living in times where the way forward is not at all obvious.  Indeed, twists and turns may be the only thing that is certain.  

When leading through crisis, there is a tendency for leaders to hunker down; to grab for what feels familiar and where they have expertise, e.g. short-term fixes such as instituting across-the- board cuts or restructuring plans.  Such actions are not necessarily bad.  However, adaptive leaders don’t stop there. They use the crisis at hand to rethink their organization’s raison d’tre. They muster the courage to look realistically to the future; to consider changes that will enable their institutions to thrive beyond the current crisis.   For adaptive leaders, short term actions are always framed in a big picture context.

What does this look like in practice?  Here are five suggestions that come from the leadership framework that Ron Heifetz developed to help organizations thrive in the midst of uncertainty.

1. Know the difference between technical and adaptive challenges.

One of the most common causes of leadership failure is addressing an adaptive problem with a technical fix. We do it all the time in higher education. According to Heifetz, adaptive work shares many common features including:

  • There is a gap between the way things are and the desired state.
  • There are multiple perspectives on the issue.
  • New learning needs to happen.
  • Behaviors and attitudes need to change.
  • Old ways need to change, creating a sense of loss.
  • People with the problems are key to solving the problems.
  • Resistance is triggered in stakeholders.

Technical work is not unimportant; it just doesn’t go far enough to address adaptive challenges.  Budgets are a great example. On the surface, budget work seems very technical.  Why then is everyone so tense at budget time? Difficult discussions, tradeoffs, and disappointments happen at budget time—this is the adaptive work. Generating the financial data is technical work but how we use the data to make important decisions about the future is adaptive work.

In the midst of the difficult budget discussions happening on nearly every campus right now, keep in mind that the work at hand is anything but straightforward.  Use the budget discussions to deal with immediate financial concerns while also developing ‘next practices’ that will enable your institution to be ready for the future; to adapt what and how things get done and let go of practices that no longer serve you well.  Decisions about resource allocation should take into account your bold aspirations for your institution’s future–beyond the pandemic.

2. Spend Time on the Balcony and the Dance Floor.

 Heifetz and Linsky use the analogy “reflect in action by spending time on the balcony and the dance floor” to illustrate how leaders need to metaphorically step away (head up to the balcony) while in the midst of their daily work (the dance floor). This helps leaders broaden their perspective and gain fresh insights.  If leaders stay hunkered down (on the dance floor) without seeing the issues and themselves as part of the big picture (from the balcony), they risk losing sight of the big picture, forgetting what the most essential work actually is, and exhausting themselves with things that don’t matter. At the same time, leaders need to resist overstaying their time “on the balcony” to avoid becoming disengaged or out of touch.

Especially during a crisis, it is important to consider how you are spending your time.  Are you building in opportunities each day to do the strategic thinking that your institution needs now more than ever? One president I know takes a few private moments at the end of every scheduled meeting to jot down notes about the meeting’s significance.  She reviews these notes at the end of the day, looking for ‘aha’ connections and big picture implications.  According to this president, the practice of regularly going to the balcony before taking critical action keeps her leadership grounded in what matters most and helps her avoid making short-sighted and potentially flawed decisions.

3. Summon the Courage to Confront Legacy Practices.

Every institution has these.  For example, think of those things that we tend to believe are sacrosanct—the academic calendar, course delivery, billing practices, faculty workloads.  Higher ed leaders are often reluctant to confront these practices for fear of attack or losing their jobs.  In a recent IngenioUs podcast episode, college president Dr. Valerie Roberson reminds us that ‘You can’t be concerned about losing that job…that can’t be your driver. You have to be willing to lose that job in order to make the hard decisions that you have to make.’  This is adaptive leadership.

This current crisis has forced us to rethink just about everything.  As you consider eliminating or changing practices that seem ill-suited to a changing environment, be sure you distinguish the essential from the expendable. For example, what is so precious and central to your mission and identity that it must be preserved? What, even if valued by many, must be left behind in order to move forward and prepare your institution for a new reality?  These are the questions that leaders must ask.  Very few things are so fundamental to our institutional existence that they must be preserved exactly as they are.

4. Keep your Institution in a Productive Zone of Tension.  

People need a certain amount of tension to do their best work, but the amount of tension needs to be productive. Without urgency, difficult change is unlikely. But if people feel too much tension, they will flee or shut down.  Faculty and staff need the right amount of tension—not too much or too little—so they can engage in and own their work. This helps them build their confidence and sense of effectiveness, especially during challenging times. When people are in the productive zone of tension, they can work in their optimum zone of creativity, and better handle the uncertainty.

Keeping an organization in a productive zone of tension is more art than science. If people seem complacent and no one is asking uncomfortable questions, it may be time to increase the pressure.  On the other hand, if a sense of panic is about to ensue, time to reduce the stress.  But how much “tension” should you allow? From my experience, you want to allow enough tension to keep change moving forward while continually adjusting the “thermostat” (applying more pressure for change or backing off temporarily) as the process unfolds. 

5. Honor Loss and the Need for Grieving

What often gets overlooked during times of crisis is the sense of loss many of us are experiencing: the loss of routine, financial stability, health, human connection and most tragically, loss of colleagues, friends and/or loved ones.   Adaptive leaders give voice and space to this sense of loss and take the time to sincerely validate what people are feeling.  As with any grieving process, validating the loss is a critical first step to closure and moving on.

Be careful to not fall into the trap of spreading false optimism or worse, outwardly denying the emotions those in your campus community may be feeling. I have known leaders whose own personal discomfort with strong emotions made the crisis and its impact worse. By genuinely honoring whatever your faculty and staff may be feeling right now–be it fear, anxiety, grief, anger, or stress—you will help people gain the resiliency they need to move forward while also addressing the more adaptive aspects of the crisis.

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