by Peter Johnston

Adaptive leadership: a tough but essential trick to master

Apr 05, 2020
CareersChange Management

During these times of VUCA - volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity – leadership dilemmas are the rule rather than the exception. Navigating these dilemmas is a full-time job.rn

This post is part of an occasional series of opinions from experts in New Zealand. This post was written by Peter Johnston, a strategy, business design and transformation specialist based in Auckland.

During these times of VUCA — volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity — leadership dilemmas are the rule rather than the exception. Leaders around the world have never been under so much pressure to get it right as they grapple with the profound impacts of COVID-19 on those they lead. 

Knowing when to motivate the troops versus when to step back and give them space. Knowing when to step in and give vision versus when to let the vision emerge from the team. Navigating these dilemmas is a full-time job.

In the olden days – well, until pretty recently – there was a predominant leadership style that was generally accepted as a model for good leadership.

This is the all-knowing, direction-setting, charismatic (if you’re lucky), relatively top-down, ‘I’m in charge and I’ve got a handle on it’ type of leader.

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Over most of the last 200 years, it worked great in industrial settings, where work was deconstructed into discrete activities, was predictable and repeated in high volumes, and was all figured out by management before it got to the front line to execute.

This type of work was largely individualistic, needing minimal interaction with others, followed a rigid process and was executed without much use of brains. Leaders put all of their energy into – literally – telling others what to do and how to do it.

This type of leadership suited how the customer marketplace worked too.

Henry Ford’s famous quote “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants, so long as it is black” says it all.

Efficiency and standardisation was king, the human race was just starting to make clever and useful things but hadn’t yet developed the skills or technology to provide much choice to customers.

Customers had to travel to a store to buy a car, after seeing a picture of it in a glossy brochure delivered to their door by the milkman.

This linear, slow and physical customer value chain required leaders who were good at figuring out every single step, in advance, so that work demand could be accurately estimated, ‘human resources’ assigned their cog in the wheel, and controls and processes put in place so no thing or body stepped out of line.

Optimising this efficiency machine better than others was how good companies became great. This was the job of the leader.

Today’s world of work is utterly different

We live in a world where one of the world’s most profitable companies – Apple – is built almost entirely on the power of aesthetics to make people feel good.

Apple is successful because they have mastered the science and art of capturing and bottling human emotion. Given that human experience is pretty random at the best of times, it’s an incredible company that can harness this phenomenon for commercial benefit on such a massive scale.

Today, customers expect absolute immediate service. Customer impatience and intolerance is at an all-time high and will only increase.

A 2.5 second delay inside an app means it will never be used again, discarded and forgotten forever. We can buy a book in three seconds, be reading it within 10 seconds, and return it to get our money back in five minutes after reading a rubbish first few paragraphs.

When the uber app is down, calling a taxi company to book a car, waiting for the car, then paying with a credit card at the end of the trip is the slowest and most mind-numbing and excruciating experience we’re ever likely to survive. Our expectations of immediacy and choice have been changed forever.

In this new world, there’s way too much going on, too many changing market and customer demands, too many advances in technology, too many complex problems to solve and too many constant changes to make, for employees to wait to be told what to do.

Waiting is so slow. And one central, magical leadership brain to make sense of and solve all these problems is – to put it bluntly – stupid.

It’s a case of ‘all brains on deck’ at places like Apple, Google and the other large tech companies that have played a big role in creating this new connected, customer-driven world.

Which type of leader isn’t ideal for this new world of work?

Probably not the top-down, task-focused, high-need-for-control, process-oriented autocrat.

Employees today need to think clearly and in an unconstrained way, fuelled by the fresh air of creativity.

People are at their best with problem solving when they can think straight and are not overly stressed. An autocrat barking instructions and reminding you of the process you need follow creates precisely the opposite effect

People need to feel at least good – ideally great – while engrossed in a task that they have a sense of pride in and ownership for, with line-of-sight of the positive impact it has on others. Some call this being ‘purpose-driven’. It’s hard to be purpose-driven when being told what to do and how to do it.

People are at their best with problem solving when they can think straight and are not overly stressed.

An autocrat barking instructions and reminding you of the process you need to follow creates precisely the opposite effect. The big picture, rational part of the brain that can plan and think ahead – the prefrontal cortex – suffers an emotional hijacking by the brain’s (very sensitive and powerful) threat response.

The hormones adrenaline and cortisol flood the brain, making us way more emotional and reactive. We literally can’t think straight. High levels of cortisol destroy brain cells related to our memory, so we start to forget things. The combination of these effects severely restrict the clarity, continuity and focus we need to do great work.

And there’s a growing body of evidence that the good vibes of social exchange lead to improved outcomes like productivity and innovation. There’s a hormone for this too – oxytocin – which helps explain the positive effects of doing work in teams, and even the reasons why it just feels so bad to feel lonely.

A task-focused leader only interested in metrics and outcomes often discounts the importance of the good social vibes of great relationships, for wrestling with and solving problems.

Anybody who has been a part of a motivated, trusting high performing team has felt the energy and self-perpetuating enthusiasm this brings, which causes a sustained focus on fixing what needs fixing and building what needs building. Crafting this highly effective social vibe takes very deliberate leadership of the right variety.

The servant leader in the new world of work 

Anybody who has been to a training course focusing on agility, or a conference run by the agile community, will have gotten a pretty big hint that the answer is – wait for it – servant leadership.

In theory, servant leadership makes perfect sense.

Coined by Robert Greenleaf in the ‘70’s, the servant leader is relationship-oriented, keeps the needs of team members front of mind, is open to other’s perspectives and uses community-focused joint decision making so everybody feels involved.

The pros of this mode of leadership are many – high levels of engagement, psychological safety and team spirit. It feels good to work for this leader. It’s a values-aligned, harmonious way of working which can make it a pleasure coming into work every day. This leads to great results – right?

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Not always, despite sounding almost perfect in theory. Because in practice, servant leadership is often misunderstood. Leaders aspiring to become great servant leaders, as taught in any number of leadership courses today, forget about or miss a few other things that are critical for producing great results.

A common misunderstanding is that the role of the servant leader is to create team harmony. The sense that if there is conflict, if people are disagreeing – indeed, if there are signs of disharmony – then there is something dreadful going on inside the team. In fact, the opposite is true. A great servant leader sometimes helps the team the most when they invite discord, disharmony, and healthy conflict. This essential role of an effective leader is sometimes hard to decipher in a world full of happy ceremonies, clapping squaddies (don’t get me wrong – clapping is awesome) and even – err – some singing. It’s the absence, not the presence, of healthy tension and constructive conflict that leaders should worry about. Because this means that the problems aren’t being raised and solved transparently. This leads to disaster down the track, sooner or later.

Another misunderstanding is that the provision of structure, process, and perhaps some direction as a leader, somehow disempowers the team. This is a common source of confusion for leaders in today’s new leadership paradigm of agility and inclusivity. In our coaching, one of the most frequent phrases we hear is “I know I can help solve the problem by diving in, but I hesitate because that would mean I’m being controlling”. We see leaders trying to fit inside the theoretical mould of servant leadership by holding back potentially useful skills, experience and problem-solving ability from their team. This often leads to teams chewing themselves inside out, directionless, and lacking in process and performance discipline. Great values alignment, but no decisions and terrible results.

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The best servant leaders pick their time to jump right in and help solve the problems, bringing their full selves to the situation. They don’t sit back when asked about repeated performance issues and say ‘oh, I’m letting the team figure that out – I’m empowering them’. That’s a sign that something not quite right is happening. Sometimes, leaders need to step in and help solve a problem and make a decision. Setting up highly inclusive decision-making committees isn’t always the best way forward.

Another frequent misunderstanding is that servant leadership is the one correct style of leadership in today’s agile world. Not quite. It’s important as sentient, unique individuals to find our own style, strengths and ‘peaks’ as a leader. Trying to fit a generic corporate competency framework or leadership style, or basing our style on the hipster in the office wearing designer sneakers, is a mistake.

Imagine if Steve Jobs saw himself as a harmony-conscious theoretically-correct servant leader, afraid to give his engineers a rev-up because of their atrocious early attempts at design. It was this very dogged passion in leaving no room for doubt with his design standard that built the design-led culture that is the Apple we know today. What Jobs did better than many others was recognising and using his own strengths as a leader – his ‘peaks’. It was Job’s unrivalled determination to create the best products ever made, changing the entire world in the process, that people followed him. Not because he fit a certain leadership mould or style. And he didn’t apologise for it.

In a sense, leaders today face a mini-leadership crisis. Their worst fear is coming across as pushy and overbearing (“Oh no, the team doesn’t like me.”) So, they try to be communal and inclusive, and the team gets away with blue murder at the pub on Wednesday afternoon. What are leaders supposed to do?

Find your leadership balance – one size doesn’t fit all 

No matter who the leader is, or what their natural style is, it’s highly likely they’re going to need to experiment with a mixture of vision, direction-setting, problem-solving and decision-making…with being inclusive, relationship-oriented, delegative and empowering.

It all depends on the situation and the team you’re leading. Is your team newly formed, lacking in basic processes and relatively new to the workforce? Then they’ll probably need more direction, a bit of process defined for them and even might benefit from a bit of wisdom from their leader.

Is your team mature, high performing, stacked full of PHDs doing highly specialised work in the field of rocket science or a related discipline? Then you might be best giving them plenty of room and space to create, leave most technical decisions to them, only stepping in when the team asks for your help or expertise.

Know where your people are at, so you know what type of leadership they need

Effective leaders prioritise empathy. Really and truly understanding your people, so you can enact the type of leadership they need, means becoming an amateur psychologist or anthropologist. Acutely observe your team’s individual needs, styles, habits, strengths, limitations and confidence levels. Get to know them and write it down. It’s this empathy for those you’re leading that gives you the knowledge to know what to do and when.

In one word, adapt…while staying true to your strengths and peaks as a leader

Saying that leaders need to adapt their approach, because the world is turbulent, uncertain and unpredictable, sounds a bit trite. But it’s true. And it’s a tough trick to master.

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But a leader who adapts to the point of becoming inconsistent, flip flopping between styles, eventually coming across like they’ve forgotten who they really are, isn’t ideal. People view this with suspicion and tend to back off when this is happening. The real challenge is learning how to adapt and be flexible, responding to the differing and changing needs of your people, whilst maintaining the golden thread of who you really are as a leader. 

Above all, people respect leaders not afraid to be themselves – warts and all

If you’re better at setting direction, and need to work harder at empowering your team, don’t worry about it. If you struggle raising and working through conflicts (like most people) as a leader, don’t worry about it. The point is that when the need arises, the leader jumps in and gives it a go, knowing it’s right for the team and their circumstance. The team will respect the leader who does this, even if it’s outside of their comfort zone and they mess it up sometimes – they are being themselves and giving it a shot.

We know that servant leadership sounds great, and that these days autocratic leadership mostly doesn’t cut it. We also know that it’s way more important that leaders play to their strengths, rather than trying to fit a mould.

Being oneself as a leader, observing what the team needs, establishing empathy for the team, adjusting approaches as needed, whilst balancing direction-setting with empowerment, is a pretty solid approach for leadership during times where increasing organisational agility is needed.

An organisation armed with leaders like this will be well equipped to deal with the unrelenting changes coming their way.

peter johnston

Peter Johnston is a strategy, business design and transformation specialist and writes about these topics based on his personal experiences in many organisations (This is a follow up to his article on Tackling agile dilemmas – tales from the frontline.) Having run business consulting teams across Europe, the UK and Australasia, he established and led the IBM iX consulting practice in New Zealand, and over the years has worked with Heathrow Airport, British Film Institute, ANZ Bank, Air New Zealand, Vodafone and Watercare, among others.