Three More Orientations and Practices of Adaptive Leaders

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Matt Presenting at CCP CroppedIn our last article, we began a conversation into the orientations and practices of adaptive leadership. We focused on the first two of the five orientations and practices: inner quiet and curiosity. In this article, we will talk about three more orientations and practices:

  • Respect
  • Delegation
  • Learning

Let's dive right in where we left off last time.


The third practice is respect. Intentionally approaching people believing that they are resourceful, creative, and whole creates a respectful relationship - as far as it depends on us. Respect equalizes the helping relationship. Someone asking for help often feels themselves "one down", as Edgar Schein puts it, so respect allows the relationship to come back in to balance. Respect keeps the relationship personal, making sure we do not lose the living people amidst the results we are trying to achieve.

Respect powers relationships. When we see others as equals, we become more other-oriented. This empowers us to empathize with them not just in a narrow professional sense, but in the personal sense needed to work through the change together. Empathy can create the common ground that is so often missing in dynamic situations - whether through conflict, innovation, or transition.

Respect also allows us to observe the power dynamics in play in the relationships around us. Instead of slotting ourselves and others in a role or position, respect allows us to see the unwritten power dynamics in play. Since we see others as equals and can empathize, we can pick up on the ways power, privilege, and prejudice are at work in the room.

Taken together, the practice of respect moves us to two orientations that can be very helpful as we lead adaptive change.

First, respect means that the process, not just the results, is important. In our business development, that means we focus more on process than we do on product. In other words, respect means we help people make the best decisions, rather than just try to trade money for product. In our relationships, we know that treating people well is more important than our results.

Second, and as an outgrowth of the first, respect means that we are always oriented to what the client or the customer needs and wants, and build our work around that, rather than putting the client or customer into our process and our product list. This client orientation means that we would rather lose the business than give someone we respect the wrong thing - service or product.


The fourth practice is delegation. When anxiety is high in an organization, it is often high in its leaders. Anxious people tend to become more reactive, and end up trying to control those things they can in the face of disruption all around them. The more we try to control, the less capacity we have to sustain organizational change. The practice of delegation, truly handing work off accountably to others, creates two benefits right away: self-differentiation and intentionality.

Self-differentiation helps us to step aside from the organizational anxiety of change without becoming aloof. It allows us to engage without either dismissing the emotions of others or being drawn into reactive space. The practice of delegation prompts this because delegation both requires handing things off and accountability, if it is to work well. This helps us empower others, shift work off our plate, and requires us to follow up. Delegation helps us focus on what is ours to do, what we can defer, what we should delegate, and what we should dump or delete. The things that are important for us, in our core competency and core responsibility, we should do or defer, depending on urgency. We should delegate those things that are urgent but not part of our core competency or responsibility. We should dump or delete those things that are neither urgent, nor important, nor on mission.

This kind of work means that every action we take becomes intentional and purposeful. We aren't just "doing our job," we're thinking about every action we take or refrain from taking. This, in itself, reduces anxiety, knowing that we are doing what we can and should do, and the rest is for someone else or another time.

Combined together, the practice of delegation's benefits of self-differentiation and intentionality (along with the other practices that precede this) allow us to have the self-confidence to orchestrate conflict. This is a powerful tool of change management. Orchestrating conflict means we are not afraid of conflict. Our sense of self is not riding on the outcome. We also don't just take every conflict that comes our way. In fact, we are very deliberate with what we engage in. When we do choose to enter in to conflict, we pick the place and the time and the subject, and push folks together into the kind of constructive conflict that will allow new results to emerge. Only when people trust deeply enough to engage in constructive conflict will they be willing to make firm commitments to a course of action. Leaders who attempt to lead change conflict-free will find themselves unable to get any commitments from anyone. When people have had their say, and done so respectfully, they will make stronger decisions and end up working together in healthier ways.


The fifth practice is learning. In any change process - large or small - each step gives us the opportunity to learn something new. Adaptive leaders seek out opportunities to learn throughout their change processes, and aren't afraid to admit when they don't know something.

There are two key ways this is expressed in the typical change process. First, adaptive leaders who practice learning always start their inquiry with Why, rather than What or How. If we start with how, we often limit ourselves to our current set of tools. If we start with what, then we may miss the larger sense of what we are trying to accomplish. Leading our inquiry with why makes sure that our who, our what, our when, and our how - and the resources we must commit to the process - are all aligned behind purpose. Leaders often gripe that people use excuses as to why something is the way it is - often, "That's how we have always done it." Purpose has been replaced with methodology. The Why has been buried, if not completely lost.

The second expression of the practice of learning is the habit of running experiments. Ultimately, every change is an experiment. Every change. Thus, leaders who want to help their organizations change and adapt have to make room for experiments to happen.

Let me explain: Change is a step into the unknown. We hypothesize that the changes we engage in will have a positive outcome. When we set up our change as an experiment, we can test our hypotheses (instead of having to project certainty from the get-go), look for contrary information (instead of dismissing it), change course as needed (instead of pressing on ahead no matter what, lest we lose face), and admit failure when appropriate (instead of declaring a redefined victory or engaging in shameless fibbing or misinformation).

What other orientations and practices do you see as essential in change leadership?

Let's chat about it.

Matthew M. Thomas

Matthew M. Thomas, EPC, is the President of the L M Thomas Group.

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[email protected]

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[email protected]