How Is the Coach’s Stance Valuable in Adaptive Leadership?

Elissa Perry shares her perspective on how a coaching approach can be helpful for leaders when tackling adaptive challenges.

A coaching approach to leadership involves collaboration and asking questions.
A coaching approach to leadership involves collaboration and asking questions.

When is an adaptive leadership approach necessary?

As Richard Evans, President of EmcArts, pointed out in his article Are All Organizational Challenges the Same?, different kinds of leadership are needed to address the many different types of existing organizational challenges.

The kind of leadership needed in many of our organizations and initiatives today is one that can bring resolution to adaptive challenges. Adaptive challenges are those where there is no pre-existing solution; the people with an adaptive challenge have to make some sort of significant transformation in their working process. Those same people are the ones best equipped to come up with a transformative solution, not necessarily an outside expert. The process of orchestrating to this emergent solution is what is called adaptive leadership.

My definition of leadership in education and my approach to coaching

In the last several years, I’ve been intentional about developing responsible and informed educational practices.

While preparing to teach high school in 1996, I came up with a personal philosophy of education. I defined education as something that:

should have at its root the goal of inspiring questions, developing skills with which to ask these questions, sharpening the necessary skills to seek answers, and fostering the desire to do so.

Several years later, I was working with principals, administrators and others and came up with a definition of leadership in education, which still holds true for me today. I define leadership as:

the practice of a group or an individual that creates something, solves a challenge or addresses an issue that is of value across communities and the practice of continuously developing that ability to create and solve  in self and in others.

Within this view, there are still many different styles of leadership that exist on a spectrum, ranging from authoritative to collaborative. I’ve learned that a lot of my perspective on both leadership development and teaching could be described as a coaching approach, which is primarily collaborative. I take what I call “the coach’s stance”: the overlap between the principles, formalities, theories, and successful practices of the education, leadership, and coaching fields.

A spectrum of leadership styles, from authoritative to collaborative.
A spectrum of leadership styles, from authoritative to collaborative.

Donald Schon in Educating the Reflective Practitioner offered that, in the complexity of life, people cannot simply be told what they need to know. They have to learn by seeing for themselves. Coaching helps people move forward by doing exactly that—guiding and supporting people to take a complete look at their situation, explore various alternatives, set realistic goals and take action towards reaching those goals. Coaching helps people explore multiple perspectives, which opens up more choices for action.

How is adaptive leadership related to the coach’s stance?

Coaching is also a way to describe the quality of interaction in educational and adaptive leadership contexts.  In coaching, the presenter or the coachee is the expert in the situation; in an adaptive challenge, the group with the challenge is collectively the expert. The coach’s role is not to come to the conversation with pre-defined solutions and advice, but to ask good questions such that the coachee begins to see new options, try on new behaviors, and otherwise make changes to address their challenge. Likewise, the adaptive leader relies on the whole group to bring into full view all of the intricacies of how that situation is interconnected within several systems to comprise the full picture of the organization and its context.

In an organization facing an adaptive challenge, a transformation can come from the group and the work of the leaders (formal and informal) by approaching the situation with a coach’s stance. By taking this stance, the group works from the core belief that everyone together is the expert on the problem and will be a part of solving the challenge and transforming the organization.  The coach’s stance entails:

  • Listening on multiple levels
  • Asking good questions
  • Clarifying the issue
  • Drawing out a shared vision of success
  • Lifting up possibilities as they emerge
  • Making connections
  • Recognizing progress
  • Paying attention to accountability
  • Using authority in service of the adaptive transformation

What’s your stance? Does it match the kinds of challenges you or your clients are facing?

Elissa Perry helps people and groups of people with a social mission get better at what they do. For over 15 years she has worked as a staff member, consultant and coach in the areas of leadership, education and the arts. Elissa also teaches in the MA in Leadership Program at Saint Mary’s College in California and recently helped establish a social justice concentration. Elissa was a Salzburg Fellow in 2006 and the recipient of an Individual Artist Commission from the San Francisco Arts Commission in 2010. She earned a BA in Humanities and holds an MFA in Creative Writing.