Supporting You as an Adaptive Leader

Last week we introduced new online services from EmcArts, aimed at supporting you through this time and helping you to keep focused on the crucial and necessary work of adapting your organizations for a future that likely will not return to business-as-usual. Full details of our weekly webinars on remaining adaptive, virtual office hours with EmcArts facilitators, and this series of articles, can be found here.

Moving beyond crisis management is meaningful and difficult work. The vital role of leaders at this time is to propel, support and enable the emergence of new meaning and purpose – for themselves and for those they lead. Let’s remember that, unlike the more familiar and singular heroic approach to leading, adaptive leadership is not a function of rank or seniority – it can be taken on by anyone and everyone who wants to be a change-maker, as a way of being, feeling and acting in disruptive times.

Here are some tips from that may help provide you with the courage and stamina you need now:

Make things visible, beyond your usual practice!  Share your thinking.  Give context.

There aren’t any hallway conversations right now that keep the information flowing. As much as you can, give (brief but spectacular!) context of why you’re holding this meeting, prioritizing this initiative.  In this time of incredible disruption and uncertainty, share as much as you can of your reasoning behind making choices and decisions. Brief framings of context and thinking will assist people in staying motivated. Name which things are complex and need an emergent new practice, and which things are basically known (clear or complicated challenges) that only need some adjustments in this COVID-19 time.

Be clear with yourself, and then with others, whether you believe an adaptive way forward is likely needed.

Or if a known strategy or technique will probably suffice with a few tweaks. If an adaptive way forward is needed, but watchful of and open to calling out the “nay-sayers!” There’s going to be a lot of anxiety, a lot of discomfort and tiredness of living with ambiguity. Think in advance of various meetings and interactions – what are your preferences when needing to think and work adaptively and what are the likely preferences of your partners, colleagues, board members? Your role is likely going to be spent more on questioning assumptions, encouraging all to play with “what ifs” before rushing to “but that will cost too much or be too difficult.”

Model reflective practice.

Quite different than stillness, this is a very active thinking process focusing on the present moment. This reflection encourages individuals, whether or not in positional leadership roles, to process, understand, and reframe what’s happening as a means of identifying how they can be more purposeful and influential. Some prompts might be:

  • How am I understanding what’s going on within me? Around me?
  • What tendencies do I notice in my behavior? Which of those are serving me well? Less well? What options might I choose going forward?
  • What steps can I take to be more direct in sharing information and clear in stating my point of view, to be a better questioner, to be a better listener, all in assuring we make necessary, yet informed decisions?

Tap into organizational anxiety as a creative asset

Providing a framework to animate and leverage the brilliance, goodwill, expertise and experience within your organization toward the future is a proven way to mitigate the worry that can consume us at times. Encourage your team to envision possible futures for your organization. This visioning can guide thinking about new pathways to creating value, new channels for support, novel organizational structures, and more. This kind of work pays off now in that it reduces anxiety. Then, once released from the current moment, the organization can step into ‘what’s next’ well equipped with options (some viable, some perhaps not), yet no longer bound to simply trying to rebuild what was.

Create a quick, easy way to allow ideas to get to you. Encourage them! Read, acknowledge and share them.
Our normal ways of putting on a show, concert, or exhibit and inviting participation are out the window during this time. Odd, curious, half-baked ideas and lots of them are needed – and need an outlet and landing place. Is there a general email address that everyone in your organization or on your team is encouraged to send these ideas? Is there a simple form that everyone is encouraged (daily?) to jot their ideas on and send? Make sure a least a few people, preferably from different parts of your organization, read every idea – knowing they can take, riff, evolve, use these ideas wherever and however. Take time to acknowledge receipt of every idea. Then credit where an idea comes from if it’s used in any way. This demonstrates how the organization fosters inviting leadership voices from below and to the side as well as the more expected paths.

We hope this post offers you some concrete examples of ways to move your work forward in this uncertain time. Stay tuned as we continue to post more tips here each week.


ArtsFwd is an online community of arts and culture leaders committed to doing things differently in their organizations in order to stay relevant and vital in a changing world.