Are leaders equipped to cope with adaptive change?
The term “adaptive challenges” was used by Ronald Heifetz, Harvard professor, and they must be distinguished from the technical challenges.
The technical challenges are those in which the set of competences and skills required to succeed already exists, although they are still not known to the person and they exist within its current paradigm or mindset.
As just one example, I may have to face the challenge of being able to sail a vessel during a storm. To become able to do it, I have to study meteorology and follow a theoretical and practical course that allows me to acquire the knowledge and experience necessary to maneuvering the ship in difficult weather conditions. All these knowledge exists already and I don’t have to question myself to learn them. Maybe I’ll just have to deal with my apprehension.
The adaptive challenges instead require that the person develop completely new mindsets, values and ways to learn. The adaptive challenges have to do with personal and collective transformation.
They have to do with questioning the assumptions and beliefs underlying the way of seeing and interpreting ourselves, others, the circumstances and the world, and with being able to reformulate them. The problem is that without having developed a transformative personal leadership, leaders will continue to apply technical solutions to adaptive challenges. And to complain because it doesn’t work.
The complexity and the rate of change in our times are adaptive challenges. We cannot expect to win them without profoundly transform our mentality and our paradigms, without increasing our ability to hold different perspectives and without learning to be comfortable with uncertainty and the tension of opposites.
When the challenge requires us to transform our mentality, we have access to a more sophisticated level of mental complexity.
Unfortunately, research has shown that leaders with the degree of mental complexity to deal with adaptive changes are very few. Only 1% of leaders seems to be there. There is a significant gap between what is expected from the minds of the leaders and what they are capable of. As Harvard Professor Robert Kegan says, “the current leadership capacity is not adequate to the global emerging challenges. Too few people are actively involved in a learning process of development which has a transformational trajectory.”
Leaders must embark on a journey towards psychological maturity that cut through different intelligences, they cannot get away with acquiring technical excellence and experience in only one system of knowledge anymore. To do this, leaders must learn to look within themselves, engage in deep self-reflection and expand their mental capacity.