The problem is not that they are not watching what you do, the problem is they are” is something that Tom Peters once said. He is right. Leaders are under greater scrutiny now more than ever given the situation in which we find ourselves. In fact there is a raft of new information coming out concerning how leaders need to ‘show up’ when connecting with their teams virtually, as is the ‘new norm’. A simple removal of glasses and temple rub can and is interpreted in multiple ways by those watching and so the scrutiny on the leader’s body language is under the microscope like never before. Of course leaders have always been under scrutiny, it is just that it is now unrelenting, unforgiving and news, both good and bad, travels fast. Leaders find themselves in a goldfish bowl not always of their own making.

Almost daily one reads of prominent leaders who are exposed in some or other way by the media. Shocking details of often sordid or corrupt private lives making headlines and revealing character flaws out of keeping with the leadership positions and responsibilities they hold. We wonder just how they could have maintained such duplicity and how they thought they could get away with it!

What often masquerades as leadership is nothing of the sort. Authentic leadership is about the character ethic. You lead out of who you are and today leadership has been confused with positional power. Just because you hold a leadership position, does not make you a leader. In fact leadership is perhaps one of the most abused terms and concepts in today’s world. It is a world in which often leadership is proclaimed prematurely and credit given where judgment should be reserved. It is a world that confuses leadership with celebrity.

Perhaps the test of authentic leadership is to simply pose a basic question: Is anyone following? If no one is following, there is no leadership. Where influence is exerted, leadership is being practiced. Putting aside deeper debate around the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ when understanding leadership as influence, the point is that leaders have both followers and exert influence. When the best of authentic leadership is practiced, it evokes engagement rather than compliance.

All of which brings me to leadership in the corporate environment. Avoiding the well traveled and pot-holed road of leadership verses management, I want to consider some of what I consider to be important aspects of leading into the future: what it will take to lead in the ‘new world of work’.Recently a CEO asked me what I considered to be the most important leadership trait for leading into the future. I did not hesitate in answering this interesting question: My answer? Adaptive intelligence.

It was Darwin who stated that those who will survive will not be the fittest, strongest or those with the biggest market share (well he didn’t actually say that last bit but, given our context, one could imply it from what he meant) – but rather, those who will survive will be those who are able to best adapt to changing circumstances. Today leaders find themselves leading in a constantly changing world, one in which change is unpredictable, non-linear and complex. Understanding the need for adaptive intelligence at both a personal and corporate level is essential.

But what exactly is adaptive intelligence?

A study done by Gunderson and Holling in 2002 identifies four characteristics that make up the DNA of adaptive intelligence. They are helpful insights when it comes to understanding and applying adaptive intelligence to leadership in the corporate environment.

Learning to live with change and uncertainty. This alludes to an acceptance that the context in which we live and do business is one of constant change. A fixed rigidness and inability to embrace change and uncertainty militates against the development of adaptive intelligence. Of course living with change and uncertainty is not easy and one way we cope is to make extravagant plans when it comes to the future. In a sense our plans are often nothing more than attempts to control the uncontrollable. They provide a sense of security that can be limiting when what we really need is an ability to hold lightly and move quickly. Futurists tell us that 80% of what tomorrow holds is what they term, ‘novelties’: In other words, the unforeseen – the unpredictable.  Smart leaders recognize this and both model and build capacity within their organizations to live with change and uncertainty. All too often we cling to certainty – think of how we arrange learning and development programmes and curriculum; off-sites and conferences; meetings and strategic sessions.

Nurturing diversity for resilience. There are several advantages that come with diversity – innovation for one, but one benefit that is not often recognized is that of resilience. What CEO doesn’t believe that organizational resilience is important in today’s climate? Of course leading diversity is tough. It requires a different mindset and skill set to what worked in the past and the diversity that leaders face today transcends personal, cultural, generational and structural boundaries. However, leading diversity is not optional and so those in leadership need to build an awareness and acceptance of diversity that will ultimately lead to the development of resilience. I have been told that South Africa is the most diverse country on the planet (South east Asia is the most diverse region) – this means that as South Africans, we have a head start when it comes to understanding and dealing with leading diversity. Doing so requires new models and thinking and a willingness to learn from mistakes that will undoubtedly mark the journey.

Combining different types of knowledge for learning. This is where the collective failure of how we do leadership development / education is exposed. We still embrace the classroom experience as the dominant means of undertaking such learning with the emphasis on information dissemination. We need to be bold in our willingness to try different things and whether or not they work, there will be valuable lessons to be learnt. In teaching a strategic leadership class recently at one of South Africa’s premier business schools, I was asked not to do an adaptive exercise essential to a deeper and practical understanding of Ron Heifitz’s model of Adaptive Leadership. The reason was that it was considered ‘too risky’ and the faculty concerned suggested that this was the client’s request. Here’s the problem: what if what we need to learn requires risk and a measure of discomfort? What if we don’t know what we don’t know? The client needs to trust the educator when it comes to the learning process. When the education process (well actually it is normally always a ‘programme’ rather than a ‘process’) is about ‘pleasing the client,’ then questions as to what real learning is taking place have to be asked.

Exercising authentic leadership in which adaptive intelligence is required demands that you be willing and competent at stepping into the unknown and stirring things up. “Most people prefer stability to chaos, clarity to confusion, and orderliness to conflict. But to practice leadership you need to accept that you are in the business of generating chaos, confusion and conflict, for yourself and others around you” writes Heifitz in his book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (pg 206). This represents the polar opposite of what often is considered ‘good leadership’ and certainly his statement, and the thought it represents, demands serious consideration from those in leadership.

Given all this, what methods or approaches will then work? If it is true that the mind works best in the presence of a question, then perhaps posing select questions will lead to finding out what methods and approaches might work best for you and your organization. Here then would be some questions to lead you to deeper conversations that will result in practical outcomes relevant to your particular context of leadership:

  • If leading involves risk, what are the risks involved in teaching leadership?
  • Can new insight move beyond conceptual awakening and actually change leadership behaviour at the level of default settings – habitual ways of responding, especially in crisis and under stress?
  • If so, what are these ‘new insights’?
  • Who is the self that leads?
  • What is your capacity for connectedness?
  • What does ‘leadership beyond technique’ mean / look like?
  • What is it about you that allowed great mentoring to happen?
  • What does the ‘learner leader’ look like?
  • What do you need to learn, unlearn and relearn when it comes to leading in the new world of work?

Be suspicious of cookie-cutter approaches to leadership development. Be willing to allow open space in the learning process and look to build curiosity rather than certainty in both the programme and process. Be willing to fail and don’t be afraid to model and champion the need to reflect. Pay attention to habits as much as you do results and don’t sacrifice the long-term for the short-term. Be patient but hold high standards. Give opportunity to participate and ask questions – lots of questions: of others, the organization and most importantly, of yourself. Be a learner and always believe there is a better way. Know the why that underpins the what and the how; be intentional. Invite the best from others and always believe that everyone has a contribution to make (and that they would rather make that contribution than not).

This represents a start but of course not an end. The quest for authentic leadership and adaptive intelligence will be the hallmarks of leading in the new world of work. Maybe, this has always been the case.

  • Have access to a relevant leadership model for a time such as this
  • Understand what adaptability requires and why it is so vital
  • How to develop adaptive intelligence in your people and organization
  • What Covid-19 means for leaders and organizations in tomorrow’s reality

The world needs a new leadership response to a global context of change, complexity and uncertainty. Leadership expert (and author of this article), Keith Coats is passionate about helping audiences around the world to understand what this response looks like and to equip leaders with the tools needed to respond to this changing context.

Keith’s research and global experience of over 20 years has helped him identify the key-defining factors of a successful leader in the 21st century as the ability to learn, grow and be adaptable. It is his great privilege to help leaders access new frameworks and thinking in order to successfully lead into the future. Chat with us if you’de like to explore how he could help your team prepare for the future.

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