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Resistant to change, but built to adapt

There is an in-built contradiction to human beings. We are both insatiably curious and adaptable and yet find comfort in routine and the familiar. Never has this internal tussle been greater than in our attempt to navigate an ever-changing, hyper-complex digital world. As individuals and leaders, we need to develop greater adaptive capacity. It can be difficult to distinguish where we should concentrate our efforts and how to adjust to such all-encompassing unpredictability.

In his book The Big Shift: The 83 Most Important Changes That Everyone Should Know About, and The Big Shift that Changes Everything, author and consultant Langdon Morris neatly divides this cacophony of change into three parts: ‘world shift,’ ‘mindset shift’ and ‘skills shift.’  In short, structural changes like labour, capitalism and business; a personal focus on making sense of this new world and adapting accordingly; and new ways of working, leading and innovating to stay ahead of the pack.

Without profound mindset shifts accompanied by personal growth, it is unlikely that deep, sustainable change can effectively be achieved without a high level of adaptation. This underlies the importance of developing leaders capable of supporting organisations through adaptation and transformation. 

What is adaptive capacity?

Adaptive capacity refers to one’s ability to adjust to a changing environment and system. From a psychological and self-development perspective, we often rail against the notion of change – clinging to the tried-and-trusted ways of the past. Change, however, is profoundly transformative and can be incredibly positive – it forges hardy individuals capable of resilience, perseverance, optimism, and the critical skill of leading others through change.

In theory, these are precisely the skills and competencies required of today’s business leaders. Yet, for many companies, the preferred ‘toe-the-line’ culture is fiercely at odds with encouraging a more entrepreneurial, adaptive leadership style.

There are exceptions, such as enterprising organisations like Pixar, Google, Apple and the African Leadership University, but for the most part, moving up the corporate ladder is less about climbing and more about sitting in the system. Companies tend to groom employees who follow the rules, and don’t wilfully rock the boat.

Why every great company needs adaptive capacity

While many current leaders, and those in the corporate pipeline, are competent managers capable of dealing effectively with technical challenges by applying proven methodologies, there is no such blueprint for tackling an adaptive challenge. This unsettles managers – many of whom may not necessarily yet possess the requisite leadership skills to guide companies through a sea of disruption.

Take banking, for example; the industry is being ravaged by disruption and digitisation. In South Africa, we see the rise of new digital banks like TymeBank, Discovery Bank, and Bank Zero. Faced with fresh, innovative, legacy-free start-ups, the traditional top-down banking leadership model of Mancos and Excos executing downwards is hardly conducive to leading at speed. However, they are up against a conventional banking model that is often not geared toward quick decision-making and slimline structures. This disparity alone is causing a great deal of tension in these organisations, which is entirely understandable.

There is an urgent need for leaders who can take risks, manage up and down and sideways, and lead through impact and influence rather than approval and mandate. The scope of leaders has massively increased as they navigate both the professional and emotional by-products of change. While leaders need to support teams, they also need to manage their boundaries and burnout potential and become more human-centric.

How to boost adaptive leadership

Teaching such traits cannot be achieved through outdated leadership education, which involves sitting in a classroom and taking in information. New methods must be more integrated, collaborative, interactive, and digitally focused. Future leaders need to be challenged to step out of their comfort zones.

Businesses must foster a wide range of continual learning interventions and build a culture of openness to new experiences and ideas. Leaders must engage in a meaningful way with people and cultures that think differently and challenge their assumptions. Encouragingly, many companies are currently using unusual learning interventions, such as cultural immersions and cross-industry exchanges. However, companies must not expect radical shifts; developing adaptive capacity requires something more enduring, such as working with a professional coach. Unlike classical leaders who know and show the way, an adaptive leader will facilitate the best thinking and then collaboratively set the course.

The implications of a head-in-the-sand approach

Globally, educators are battling to envisage a system wholly removed from the model instituted in the First Industrial Revolution. We’re seeing radical adaptation in pockets, such as the move by many Scandinavian countries and our very own Future Nations Schools, that allow children more time to play and explore. However, education continues to exist for generations, albeit with a healthy dose of technology thrown in for good measure. Leaders in this field need to reconsider the system and its potential through the eyes of adaptive capacity.

People are also unable to change because they are afraid of failure and fear change and the future. An adaptive leader however will bring foresight to such a stalemate, the ability to recognise what needs to change, and the acumen to bring together all the right people and build an inducive atmosphere to promote change.

Globally we are seeing this thinking in the agricultural sector where, in the United States, corn yields have increased dramatically over the last 50 years through technological innovations like crop irrigation, gene editing, and new farming techniques.

Companies like Cape Town-based start-up Aerobotics are also revolutionising how farmers monitor their fields. Using drone and satellite imagery to analyse crops and farmlands, the company enables advanced crop monitoring to save man-hours, increase productivity and manage crop yields. Farmers who don’t incorporate these methods risk being unable to compete, however, such innovations also raise issues around farmworkers being replaced by technology. 

Gone are the days of a secure career in a large corporation. This lack of certainty is fuelling anxiety. The adaptive challenge is to shift mindsets from ‘job-for-life’ thinking to include more flexible employment options and a willingness to adapt skills – we need to change how we handle our finances, structure our lives, and deal with unrelenting demands on our time.

In such a reality, leaders must maintain intrinsic trust in their abilities and competencies; something psychologists call self-efficacy. Such a leader is a facilitator of fresh thinking, skilled at the art of critical questioning, and fueled by unrelenting curiosity.

How to build adaptive capacity

  • Understand and evaluate context – use powerful questioning frameworks and deep environmental exploration.
  • Be self-aware – practice mindfulness, taking psychometric tests and listening to feedback.
  • Challenge fundamental assumptions – by examining biases and beliefs that frame world views.
  • Embrace a new leadership identity – allow yourself to be vulnerable, facilitate exploration, experimentation and collective thinking.
  • Develop ‘comfort with discomfort’ – through rigorous practice and discipline, supported by mindfulness, reflection, observation, emotional regulation, self-efficacy beliefs and support networks.
  • Accept that change is linked to loss – real or perceived. Manage your own concerns, fears, and reaction to change to support your team more confidently and effectively.

For information on the recently launched GIBS Master’s degree with a specialised focus on Change Leadership (MPhil in Change Leadership) click here. DM

This article was written by Tanya Stevens, professional associate at GIBS and business coach, Natalie van der Veen 


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