March Topic: What Is Adaptive Leadership?

In March, we’ll be focusing on the topic of leadership to explore what “adaptive leadership” looks like in practice.

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This post is the first in a series of investigations into the practices, processes, and behaviors that organizations undertake in order to stay continuously adaptive. Each month, we’ll explore a different area of organizational life. Learn more about this series.

This month, we’re kicking off our exciting new editorial direction, in which we’re deeply exploring our 2014 Research Question: How do organizations stay continuously adaptive?

In March, we’ll be focusing on the topic of leadership to explore what adaptive leadership looks like in practice.

What is adaptive leadership?

Today, organizations face a continuous stream of complex challenges that can’t be solved by improving what they’re already doing. These challenges demand adaptive change.

At EmcArts, we’ve noticed that adaptive change requires a kind of leadership that’s different from the traditional ‘heroic’ leader. The heroic leader is a singular individual who is the driving force of an organization. They are the sole visionary behind whom followers unite. The heroic leader solves problems from the top down, often supported by a hierarchical culture where decisions are filtered through levels of staff.

According to a 2009 study, heroic leadership leads to over-management, defense of turf rather than concern with shared goals, and weak teamwork.

We’re finding that the ‘heroic’ style doesn’t work for today’s complex challenges, which demand a kind of leadership that releases the potential power of everyone. Ronald Heifetz calls this ‘adaptive leadership.’

Adaptive leaders recognize that these complex challenges can’t be solved by even the most brilliant individuals if they are working alone – they require contemporary leaders to be skilled in mobilizing groups of people to work in new ways.

What does adaptive leadership look like in your practice?

This month, we’ll be investigating what adaptive leadership looks like in practice by gathering insight and testimonials from a wide variety of voices.

Our goal is to better understand what ‘adaptive leadership’ really means for arts leaders right now, and to gather specific examples of practices, processes, and behaviors that are helping leaders distribute responsibility and mobilize teams to solve organizations’ most complex challenges.

We’ve developed three research questions to help guide our inquiry. They are:

  1. How do you seek out perspectives different from your own and let them influence you?
  2. What practices help you establish continuous learning?
  3. How have you evolved your staff structure to meet your changing practices?

How can I share my experience?

To share your own experiences in response to these questions you can respond publicly in the comments section at the very bottom of this post, or click here to share your responses with us privately.

We look forward to hearing about what practices you are implementing in your work and your organizations!

UPDATE: To read responses from other arts leaders about their leadership practices, visit our response post: What Leadership Looks Like in Practice.

Karina Mangu-Ward is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at EmcArts.

  • Linda Rogers

    Great new direction! When I view the description of Heroic Leadership I think about the most noxious forms that style can take on, Founders Syndrome. The literature is full of articles about Founders Syndrome: the causes, advice to Boards grappling with the situation. However I feel that it is largely dealt with as a private matter between Leader and Board. Considering the public investment in the Arts, the scrutiny we are all under to assure good management of both money and people, does this make sense? Staff who find themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place in organizations suffering under such a leader are often advised to keep their mouths zipped and their resumes current. Most know that the costs of whistle-blowing about ineffective, abusive, micro-managing arts managers are very high and usually totally without effect.

    What can we do as a profession and as a society to stop the bullying, support staff, investigate mismanagement in the public interest and for the reputation of the Arts as a great place to work?

  • Ian Oliver

    A topic we would love to cover in more detail here in the Centre for Creative Practices. We do a lot of work with artists and arts organisations in Ireland on creative, innovative solutions – especially in relation to public funding – and to see articles like this really helps us to push the boundaries even further and to focus more attention on revenue, entrepreneurial skills and 3rd alternative solutions to this kind of problem. Looking forward to reading more – thanks :)