The other day, I stopped by to see a friend and colleage, as I was traveling through his town. On his desk was one of the best leadership books of the past decade, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership by Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Alexander Grashow. It is stellar because the capacity to adapt is a key skill for leaders who are trying to manage change while at the same time create stable, sustainable enterprises. We all know how tough that is these days.
Sitting there with this friend, talking about aspects of leadership, dealing with people, I came to a realization about myself, and about adaptive leadership.
In order to be an adaptive leader, we must be an adaptive learners.
I realized, then, that virtually everything I know, I learned from someone else.
It wasn't like a student learning from a teacher. Rather, it was learning by listening to the lessons embedded in a person's perceptions and experience.
Informational or Contextual?
There is no way I can tell you what I have learned from any particular individual. It isn't that type of learning. It isn't informational learning. Rather it is contextual learning.
Learning from the context of a person is learning to see how ideas matter within a certain distinct situation. It isn't abstract, or detached from experience. Rather, it is how an idea is applied in a particular situation.
Take the use of values in an organization as an example.
There are two types of values. There are the ones that are on a list that the company claims are their values. Then, there are the ones that actually are practiced by the people in the company. These two sets of values are not always the same, congruent or even aligned. Depending upon different conditions, the same understanding of value will have a different application in an organization.
Company A espouses to be an open, transparent organization placing a high value on communication. Company B makes the same claim. The difference is in their context.
Company A is physically structured so that executives are separated into their own discrete offices. Communication is mediated by administrative assistants, and written information distributed throughout the company. If you want to speak to V.P. Joe, you go through his assistant Mary, or look at the latest memo.
Company B is physically structured around an open space concept. My friend Dana Leman of RandomKid share with me her experience of touring the Bloomberg offices in New York. She sent me a link ot a video tour of their offices. Regardless of your position, your office is in the midst of this open concept. The benefit is a greater exchange of ideas.
So, two companies can claim allegiance to the same values, but their application of those values be totally different. To understand the difference is to understand how to these insights and apply them in your own context.
Through my conversation with Dana, my perception of how to organize office space is different.
This is how adaptive learning happens. We listen for insights for applying ideas in various contexts. The more we learn from others the clearer our own understanding becomes, and how we can be adaptive leaders.
This kind of understanding is tacit and intuitive. It isn't an understand derived from an analytical process. Rather, our brains synthetically weave together many thoughts, impressions, experiences, and feelings to provide understanding. The more this emergent awareness is allowed to take place the greater the capacity for adaptive leadership.
Adaptive leadership is a shift away from the old command-and-control method. It requires openness to other people, their ideas, their experiences and an appreciation of their particular context. The easiest way to begin to learn this kind of adaptive behavior is simply to listen and apply the good ideas that you hear each day.
The Difference Adaptive Learning has made to me.
Sitting in my friend's office, I came to realize that adaptive learning had been my practice for over 30 years.
Listen and learn from people, whomever you meet, you can learn something from them.
Listen to them, ask questions to clarify what their experience was. Listen without trying to compete. Listen to learn.
Take what is heard, then, reflect, process and apply what you learned.
Share what you learned with others. Express gratitude.
This is how the Circle of Impact Leadership Guides came to be developed. Lots of conversations about what was happening in organizations. Each one contributing a little piece of wisdom and understanding. So, in effect, these are not my ideas, but rather my catalog of what I've learned from other people. As a result, the lessons here have wide applicability because this is the product of contextual learning, not simply the exchange of information.
The benefits of adaptive learning are many. Here's what I've learned.
1. We learn that Ideas matter. They are the key to understanding where we are and how we can adapt to the changes that are constantly confronting us. They connect us to people. They are tools for being more effective communicators. All learning at the most fundamental level is about ideas. Without ideas, we are left only with feelings. As a result, adaptive leaders must also be idea people who are interested in the ideas of others, not just in what they are thinking.
2. We learn that Relationships matter. When we place ourselves in a position to learn from every person with whom we meet, every single one, we come to understand how our interaction within a social context is where the action of organizations is found. The greater our capacity for forming adaptive learning relationships, the greater our capacity to develop the adaptive capacities of employees. Those adaptive capacities provide employees the opportunity to lead from their own specific work context. This is part of what I mean by the idea, Community of Leaders.
3. We learn that Structures are either tools for adaptive learning and leadership, or they are obstacles. If the structure of a business does not provide a way for people to learn from one another, and to apply that learning, then it is stuck in a system of operation that is not sustainable.
For many businesses, the structure of their organization is, seemingly, the only tangible, secure, stable, set, concrete, real thing that exists. It is a monument to the past, not a platform for constant adaptation and innovation.
4. We learn that learning matters more than knowing. When our posture towards others is learning from them, we are less concerned about making sure they understand just how much we know.
It this is an issue for you, then practice asking questions about things you do not know. Read books in subject areas in which you have no background. Stop trying to reinforce you own knowledge, and start expanding it. Start listening for the wisdom and insight in others.
5. We learn that if we never stop learning, we also never arrive at a full and complete understanding of anything. Adaptive learning isn't a tactic we deploy for a period of time to ramp up our current knowledge on a subject. Rather, adaptive learning is a lifestyle of openness to new ideas, fresh insights from people and a reflective approach to applying ideas by doing things differently one step at a time.
6. We learn that adaptive learning changes us so that adaptive leadership is possible. Adaptive learning simplifies the way we approach leadership. It becomes about the impact we need to have right now. The old way of strategic planning is having to change to become more adaptable. This approach produces leaders who are nimble, intuitive and able to take advantage of the changes that are constantly happening.To adapt is to change. To change in this way is to make a difference that matters, it is to create impact. Becoming impact focused simplifies leadership.
7. We learn that adaptive learning leads to adaptive leadership which leads ultimately to becoming a Community of Leaders. An adaptive leader will be most effective in creating a culture of adaptive learning. To do so means that each person takes responsibility for their learning, their contributing and their responsibility to create impact. Adaptive learning starts with the personal decision to learn from others. This nurtures within the individual the personal intiiative from which all leadership originates. It isn't just the individual initiating change. It is the whole organization as a community functioning as adaptive leaders. This is what I see as a Community of Leaders.
Realizing that I have lived this way throughout my life, my gratitude grew towards the hundreds of people from whom I've learned. Many are no longer with us. Many have no idea of the impact that they have had on me. Many are friends who are my go-to-people for counsel when I need it. Many are random people whom I've met in passing whose stories and insight helped me gain a deeper appreciation of so many different ideas and ways of leading organizations. If you are one of these people, I thank you.