The purpose of leadership is shifting, along with the rest of the world. Traditional heroic leadership models are no longer relevant in our accelerating world. Today’s adaptive challenges require leaders who can enable collective action and are ready to experiment with bold, new approaches. Patient, resilient leaders who put people at the centre and speak to their hearts and minds.

Adaptive leadership is a set of tools and frameworks that helps leaders respond dynamically, creatively, and respectfully to complex problems, emerging crises and ambiguous system changes.

This approach recognises the human element of managing change and helps leaders identify and navigate the mess and complexity that comes with that human element.

At the 2023 AGSM Professional Forum: Adaptive Leadership in an Accelerating World, Adjunct Professor Farayi Chipungu, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, shared a refreshed view on the role of leaders.

“As leaders, we should be trying to figure out how we gradually expand frontiers of competence. So we can build additional capacity and make adaptations to deal with the increasingly complex challenges that we're facing throughout our organisations and communities. And to take advantage of opportunities when the window presents itself.”

This highlights the critical role adaptive leaders play in creating meaningful progress and impact within their organisation.

See also: Making messy challenges manageable with adaptive leadership


Getting the problem right

“More than three decades of studying failed change efforts has revealed that the biggest waste of time, money and energy is caused by diagnostic failure – failing to correctly assess the problem at hand,” said Adjunct Professor Chipungu.

She found that problems fall into two categories:

1.       Technical problems – ones that can be easily identified, require clear expertise and can be solved with enough time, money and expertise.

“A broken arm is a clear example of a technical problem: it is easy to diagnose and can be fixed by a doctor.”

2.       Adaptive challenges – these are messy, complex challenges that are hard to define and require discovery, collaboration and engagement. They can’t be solved with resources alone – often they can’t be solved at all.

“Heart disease falls in the category of adaptive challenges: diagnosis can take time, and while a doctor plays a part in helping a patient get better, there is an entire ecosystem (food, exercise, family and friends who can influence) that needs to swing into action for meaningful impact.”

When adaptive challenges are misdiagnosed as technical problems, efforts to make progress tend to fail.

“A quick way to start identifying an adaptive challenge that you’re facing is to identify your concerns in your business, its aspirations and the gaps between them,” advised Professor Catherine Althaus, ANZSOG Professorial Chair Public Service Leadership and Reform, UNSW Canberra, and Director of the UNSW Academy of Adaptive Leadership, during a masterclass session at the AGSM Professional Forum.

“Ask your teams, organisation, perhaps even your system planners what concerns they hold and what aspirations they have. If there’s any divergence, you may not have a shared purpose or a shared understanding of what the issues are. Or perhaps you've got a lot of commonalities, which may be surprising because you thought everyone was doing different things.”

Learn how to disappoint people effectively

Research has also found that people struggle to lead because they’re afraid of disappointing people. But change is impossible without some discomfort or loss – whether that’s losing a sense of control, competency or identity, or financial or material losses.

“The work of leadership is disappointing people at a rate that they can tolerate. If you're able to diagnose and recognise the loss, you can bring it in smaller pieces so people can absorb it at an appropriate pace,” explained Adjunct Professor Chipungu.

She said sometimes the pace will be set by the change itself. Other times you can set it. You might start with a specific region, rather than rolling it out through the entire organisation at once. Or you can try to create some quick wins or speak to the purpose of what you’re doing so people have a reason to absorb those uncomfortable losses.

“And then sometimes, there'll be people who just can't come along for the journey. And we need to honour that too,” Adjunct Professor Chipungu said.

“We need to think about how to help them through the transition because everybody else is watching how you handle casualties to decide whether they're going to get on that ship as well.”

Balance the heat to maintain growth and learning

A challenge or problem generates heat – a sense of discomfort or disequilibrium, explained Adjunct Professor Chipungu. That makes continuous progress on adaptive challenges difficult, as it requires people to step outside their comfort zone.

But to grow and learn, organisations need some level of heat in the system.

“When you're trying to cook a vegetable stew and you put your vegetables in the pot without turning the stove on, they just sit there and nothing happens. We need some heat.

“But we also don't want to increase the heat too much, because if we hit the limit of tolerance, people will flight, fright or freeze. And that might look like people throwing shoes at each other in Parliament or people marching on the Capitol.”

A leader’s role is a delicate art of holding people within this pressure cooker and controlling the heat in the system so people can stretch themselves without burning out, suggested Adjunct Professor Chipungu.

“Sometimes you need to raise the heat to get people to focus. And sometimes the work of leadership is actually lowering the temperature and creating more space, more time and more breathing room.”

See also: It takes a village: Change doesn’t happen in isolation
Build a coalition

At 20 years of age, Greta Thunberg has already been a climate change activist for more than five years, Adjunct Professor Chipungu pointed out.

Despite having no formal authority in the field of climate change, Greta has influenced millions of people around the world – something people with decades of experience in the field have not managed to do.

This can often occur in a business setting, too. For example, the Chief Financial Officer with formal authority and power might struggle to create change, while a middle manager with social influence really shifts the dial.

Adjunct Professor Chipungu said leaders need to shift the focus from the most senior person in the hierarchy to the most popular, given the work that’s on the table, asking them:

  • What is the coalition I need to build?
  • Who is the most relevant to this challenge?
  • How do I engage them?
  • Where do the gatekeepers stand on the issue?
  • What are their losses?
  • How do I engage with them and bring them on board?

“Think about who you need on a team. Leadership is an activity, not a role, so even people outside of the system can exercise leadership. Think about what that means for the mechanisms and for the options you have,” Adjunct Professor Chipungu suggests.

Leadership is not a solo sport. A significant part of it is mobilising others to make progress and building a coalition that supports your cause and helps you move work forward.


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Learn more about the Advanced Adaptive Leadership Program

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