Adaptive leadership can help with challenging times

Article was written by Amy Greil, Community Development Extension Educator. 
Originally published in The Kenosha News.

We are living in challenging times.

Between March and mid-April 2020, three rounds of COVID-19 response stimulus packages—some the largest ever made law through federal policies—were approved to meet the crisis. These packages total nearly $2.5 trillion of what is presumably, largely, new national debt.

Here at home during that same time, we saw new initial unemployment insurance claims jump from 100+ weekly to over 2,000 weekly.

There have been nearly 400 calls in this timeframe to 2-1-1, Kenosha County’s public service access point and referral source for emergency services.

Meanwhile, there have been 282 confirmed cases to date in Kenosha County and six deaths.

State of disorientation and stress?

This rapid succession of events has me feeling very disoriented with the scope and scale of events that will leave lasting impacts on us all. It makes me, naturally, want to minimize the threat, blame people and (prematurely?) move on to get things back to normal.
However, these challenges could give us the opportunity to reflect and grow as people, as leaders. So I have recently started rereading a book written over 20 years ago by a psychiatrist from Harvard University entitled “Leadership Without Easy Answers” by Ronald A. Heifetz. It is classic work that offers strategies to help move oneself through challenging times.

Strategies to consider

1. Scrutinize the challenge. Consider the situation in relation to your personal values. Some may require technical solutions; others may require adaptive ones. Match the response to the nature of the challenge.

2. Keep the level of stress within a tolerable range. Finding time to renew yourself and reflect upon what you are encountering is key. Otherwise you may get run down.

3. Recognize distractions. Catch yourself and stop yourself when you find yourself indulging in tactics like denial, scapegoating, externalizing the enemy, pretending the problem is simply technical in nature, or attacking individuals rather than issues.

Differences between technical versus adaptive challenges

Heifetz describes that technical challenges are not necessarily “easy” nor are their results necessarily unimportant or insignificant. The skills necessary to perform these complicated responses are, however, well-known.

Example: A technical challenge with a technical solution may be a like detecting a new viral infection. Doctors can say with relative certainty how to prevent the spread: “If you do A, B, C, you slow the spread, protecting yourself and others.”

Adaptive challenges, however, present themselves with no known solution, no precedent, where iterative experimentation is needed to unearth what response “works.” It involves hypothesizing, testing, evaluating and retooling.

Example: Knowing how to stop the spread means little if people resist, for whatever reason, taking precautions. What may have been a technical challenge, now becomes adaptive as we try to determine how to limit exposure when only partial compliance can be achieved. This is more difficult yet when economic situations are worsening, increasing pressure to undo compliance measures.

Allowing closely held values to evolve

Heifetz, as a psychiatrist, suggests that by transforming values, adults—particularly those in leadership roles—can advance through higher stages of brain development. By doing so, we learn to cope with increased complexity with less anxiety. Ultimately, the secret is that personal values must be reassessed while the grounding purpose remains intact.

We will all come to live in what is described as a NEW Normal soon enough. When we master these skills, we will realize greater capacity to see obstacles for what they are—and what they are not — and to recognize opportunities and mobilize resources to move through the challenge successfully.