Strategy & LeadershipAdapting leadership in a shifting landscape

Adapting leadership in a shifting landscape

Leadership is not objective; it's circumstantial. Here's what's required of leaders in 2021

“The only two certainties in life are death and taxes”: a common expression derived from a Benjamin Franklin quote. But while still true in many cases, this is no longer an objective, explicit reality. There is now a third certainty: change.

As ironic as it sounds, change is the main constant we should expect to experience in our modern world. Change is omnipresent: it’s perpetual and it’s exponential. For people (and especially leaders), it’s also pervasive and it’s unfolding across multiple verticals.

It’s not just our work. It’s our personal lives and our family lives too. Change is happening so fast it can give you whiplash – and it’s accelerating at an increasingly rapid rate.

The changes happening right now

Change defines the climate of the world we’re living in today. Some examples of this include:

  • An unprecedented pandemic and a resulting crisis which has required a lot of organisations to rapidly reshape themselves
  • The relentless drive of technological innovation which has made digital capabilities a make or break for business success
  • Enormous social movement where organisations are coming under ever greater stress to take responsibility for their social impact.

And crucially, we are also dealing with climate change on a global scale, the facts of which are harrowing. We are living through a sixth mass extinction and marching to a point of no return for multiple climate systems. At ICF Next, we believe that every business leader needs to embrace this new reality and transform their organisation and business models so they can have a net positive impact on the environment.

Needless to say, these rapid changes are causing all manner of difficulties for leaders: so much so that a minor crisis has erupted in the world of business. Leaders need to pivot into a new way of thinking and acting to cope with the shifting landscape. A positive shift in the right direction will take leaders into the realm of adaptive leadership.

What we mean by adaptive leadership

Adaptive leadership starts with clarity of oneself. Anybody who takes on a leadership role needs to be clear on what their personal purpose is and where their own strengths and motivations lie. They need to be focused on who they are as individuals, who they are in the business, and where the two intersect.

They also need to know their blind spots, have the humility to say ‘I don’t know’, and pay close attention to the world around them, constantly questioning their beliefs and assumptions.

In our experience, leaders can often become trapped in two modes of thought which can impair their ability to lead adaptively:

  1. Leading and executing in the now
  2. Setting a strategic direction far into the future.

This shouldn’t come as any real surprise. These are what we tend to do naturally, given the sheer volume of work coming in and the requirement to be always on the ball. Unfortunately, if you’re stuck in a rigid mindset of controlling and executing the now because it was planned from the beginning, it’s unlikely you’ll be flexible enough to adapt to change.

Ideas come from everywhere

Leaders also need to balance giving guidance with encouraging exploration and discovery among their teams. That means allowing teams to lead themselves by providing sufficient context and the necessary feedback.

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Relinquishing total control and trusting in people will enable leaders to adopt a more adaptive (and disruptive!) mindset. If you can build a strong culture of innovation where all colleagues are encouraged to generate new ideas and robust processes, then you can drive your own adaptive change. Ideas can come from across the organisation not just from senior leadership. It’s a leader’s job to facilitate these ideas.

Leading with a shared purpose

To ensure employees feel connected to their organisation’s north star, leaders need to lead with values and a shared purpose. This can have a major impact on an organisation because it creates focus, which in turn creates resilience and buy-in from customers and colleagues.

That buy-in is an essential ingredient to successful execution of adaptive leadership. Having a strong sense of purpose also means organisations can go after truly ambitious goals and, critically, they have the room to adapt and evolve with changing trends and consumer habits, rather than sticking to a long-term strategy and a specific set of products and services.

No one person is an island – taking a systemic view

Change can be frightening, and it can be even worse to go it alone. If they are to adapt to change effectively, leaders must take on a more systemic view of who they are and how they operate. No one person is an island, just like no one organisation is an island; they need to keep in mind the partnerships they can enter and the networks and systems they’re members of. When leaders know they’re not alone, they become more comfortable with the unknown and adapt to it.

This is where we can help. At ICF Next we are change experts. We can help organisations and leaders to have more clarity on adaptive leadership and help them to develop and grow into leaders who embrace change. From there, we can help to mobilise your colleagues as agents of change for your organisation, driving authentically towards an environmentally and socially responsible purpose.

For a deeper dive on adapting leadership in a shifting landscape, read the full ICF blog here.

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