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Fire ExtinguisherIf it’s one thing I hear from business owners and leaders all the time, it’s that they’re busy. While “busy” is, for some of us, a badge of honor, for most of us it’s just reality. And despite being in leadership, being our own boss, or at least having quite a bit of latitude, we start to feel like our business holds us hostage. We can’t get away because of how busy we are.

In fact, despite the fact that we often want to get away, we find ourselves more in the role of crisis manager than anything else. We often find ourselves running around putting out fires.

“Dave dropped the ball.”

“This customer says the new product failed when they installed it. What do we want to do?”

“We keep missing deadlines and customers are going elsewhere.”

“We have a revolving door at the administrative assistant position in accounting.”

“The pipe froze and our tenant’s space is flooded.”

“The contractor didn’t show up.”

“We missed our sales numbers three months in a row. What should we try next?”

And there are other things we would rather be doing.

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Businessman in dark suit and red tie as hostage hands tied by thick hemp ropeOver and over again, I talk to business owners who feel trapped inside their own businesses. Recently, one of them described it as feeling like he was “held hostage” by his business. Why would he say that?

In this case, he felt trapped putting out fires all the time caused by staffing issues. People would just not show up – which meant he had to scramble. Every day was another fire he had to put out, and yet he was under contract to finish a job with a specific deadline under certain conditions, and so he had to just roll with it. But he hated every minute of it.

Another business owner got trapped in a different way in his business. He grew his business from a staff of five to a staff of 28, but his profitability was slipping. He was working harder for less money. What to do? And yet now, the momentum was growth – he didn’t exactly want to stop that, but he knew he had to do something, so he didn’t keep working more hours for diminishing returns.

Still yet another business owner wanted to sell his business. He had a number in his head of what he wanted, and potential buyers had very different numbers. If he sold at what people were willing to buy, he would essentially lose his retirement. So, he kept working in the business, hoping to find a way to make it sustainable. But the value kept coming back too small. He began to ask himself if he would die in the shop.

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5aa5c142 b2e0 47cf bf72 7eef5206f5f9 1781458 28029 gfqg3jym3k79Experienced leaders may disagree on a lot of things, but one thing almost all agree on is that growth as a leader is deeply personal, inner work. One may start off as a leader because of natural charisma or a position of authority, but staying a leader, and maturing as one, requires growth. Nowhere is this more true than in an adaptive leadership space - where the problems themselves may not be clear, let alone the solutions.

History is full of great speeches - real and imagined - that rally people to a cause and change the course of events. These make for good reference points, but they do not, in themselves, make things happen. Working through the vulnerabilities of adaptive leadership to achieve a posture of confident humility requires not just oratory of the Shakespearean sort, "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears," but inner transformation.

Inner transformation creates orientations and practices that allow us to lead sustained organizational change with confident humility. Organizational change often requires a great deal of stamina, so a stump speech does not make our work sustainable. Sustainability comes from a self who is at peace with itself, its vocation, and its surroundings. Since none of us really start there, it takes a transformation process to get to that place of peace.

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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.

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5aa5c142 b2e0 47cf bf72 7eef5206f5f9 1781458 28029 gfqg3jym3k79In the past three weeks, we have talked about leadership postures that increase the likelihood that change will go well. We have talked about change identification and building change capacity in the past two months. This week, we look at the third posture, leaning in to the vulnerabilities of adaptive leadership.

Successfully leading through change requires simultaneous confidence and humility. Both confidence and humility ground us in our own vocation while complex, and often chaotic, situations develop through the change process. We take humility as our baseline in all situations, remembering that:


  • We didn't get here on our own.
  • We know we have blind spots.
  • We have more to learn.
  • We can learn from our critics and enemies.
  • This too shall pass.
  • We are but dust.

This kind of humility challenges the protective and defensive behaviors our training as leaders has often conferred on us. Our training tells us that leaders command confidently, often blustering our way into whatever is next. More often than not we lead by:

  • Telling instead of asking.
  • Knowing instead of discovering.
  • Deciding instead of inviting input.
  • Doing for instead of doing with.
  • Asking "how can I help" instead of asking "who is the right person for this?

In change situations, and adaptive change especially, instead of starting with "I know how to get us out of this", a leader has to start with "I don't know." That is because the most significant change operates outside of a leader's direct control:

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