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Leadership Unraveled: Thriving by Adapting to Complex Challenges

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tanya Settles
October 6, 2023

As the saying goes, “if it was easy, everyone would do it”.  There have been multiple iterations of this saying in various places and circumstances. Tom Hanks’ character said it in the movie, “A League of Their Own”. Bob Parsons said it in comments about entrepreneurship. I’ve said it, myself, as an educator of graduate students of public affairs on the brink of quitting their academic programs because they hit the wall of exhaustion. Where this statement fits best, though, is in reference to leadership. Public sector leadership, as both a profession and pursuit, is exhausting and invigorating at the same time. Just when you think you’ve got it right, the environment changes and all your planning flies out the window. And then you wake up the next morning and start again. 

For many, leadership is a calling, and while there is benefit to learning the mechanics and technical skill of leadership, those who thrive find balance between mobilizing resources, challenging the status quo and navigating organizational minefields. Leadership in the public sector means accepting that the environment is continually changing—often in unpredictable ways, balancing the needs of governance with the interests of communities, and responding to difficult challenges that seem to crop-up out of nowhere. Leadership certainly isn’t for the faint of heart.

Many personal characteristics contribute to public leadership success, such as humility, empathy and vision but the attribute less likely explored is the ability to adapt to complex problems. In the pantheon of leadership styles, there’s less talk about adaptive leadership as compared to other models, but it may well be the most important tool in the kit to manage shifts in a continually dynamic environment of change. Adaptive leadership recognizes that strategically shared and informal leadership may resolve problems authoritative “top-down” leadership cannot.

Early and influential work on adaptive leadership is attributed to Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky who, in their book, “Leadership on the Line” laid the groundwork a quarter century ago in recognition of a need for more flexible and dynamic approaches to addressing complex challenges. Adaptive leadership is particularly helpful when challenges are interconnected across multiple dimensions where there is a convergence of significant social challenges. An example may be the intersection of housing insecurity, domestic violence and opioid misuse. In situations like this, multiple leaders with different areas of subject matter expertise are needed to achieve problem resolution.  

Success stories of adaptive leadership include achieving environmental sustainability and citizen participation and the successful reduction in COVID-19 mortality rates in Juneau, Alaska. Success is arguably attributed to an adaptive pivot toward concurrent examination of multiple areas of subject matter where no single leader is the dominant authority. Adaptive leadership means strategically sharing the generation of solutions and accountability for decision making.    

Applying Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive leadership requires following a mindset that is open to change, and then managing that change in creative and innovative ways. By design, there’s no set approach to follow, though there are some principles Heifetz and Linsky identified to guide the work of adaptive leadership. 

  • Differentiate between challenges that are technical and adaptive. A technical challenge means that there’s a known solution. Adaptive challenges are those where there are no-clear cut solutions and the circumstances surrounding the conflict or challenge are dynamic and changing. 
  • Recognize that leadership is not necessarily formal. In some cases, a city or county administrator may not be the best leader to spearhead the solution. Look to staff and community experts with specialized knowledge and expertise. Distribute leadership when it presents opportunities for strategic advantage, but at the same time, avoid overburdening others, particularly when shared leadership presents an opportunity for a performance deficit.
  • Be genuinely curious and listen intently to diagnose the challenges at hand. Ask questions, conduct research and seek to understand the root causes of the challenge. Create opportunities for dialogue and then learn from the experiences and perspectives of others before deciding on a course of action.
  • Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Develop emotional resiliency to handle discomfort and resistance associated with adaptive leadership. Ask for feedback from staff, community members and people who are impacted by your decision making even when that feedback might be hard to hear.
  • Commit to continuous learning. Adaptive leadership isn’t a one-off strategy reserved for only the most complex problems governments face. When applied as an approach to change management and continual improvement, adaptive leadership can create opportunities for innovation and deeper connections between leadership, communities and staff.

Adaptive leadership is not a panacea and application takes time, courage and perseverance. However, as public leadership evolves and we collectively look for alternatives to authoritative leadership that is inclusive of multiple perspectives and experiences, adaptive leadership is a tool that should be included in the complexity playbook. 

Author:  Tanya Settles is the CEO of Paradigm Public Affairs, LLC.  Tanya’s areas of work include relationship building between local governments and communities, restorative justice, and the impacts of natural and human-caused disasters on at-risk populations.  Tanya can be reached at [email protected].  The opinions in this column and any mistakes are hers alone.

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