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    Adaptive Leadership During Chaos

    We are fans of this quotation from Marilyn Ferguson which seems especially relevant now.

    “Our worries are our safe boundaries; over time we have learned to identify with our limits.  Now, leery of trusting the promise of an oasis, we defend the merits of the desert.”


    With the increasing challenges associated with the COVID 19 pandemic, we hear a lot about the importance of leadership during a crisis.  While much of that discussion revolves around political leadership, we see many organizational leaders on the front lines.  Many of them are expressing leadership in ways that we will not fully understand and appreciate until we can look back on it.

    Leadership during times of chaos feels like leading without a roadmap. It’s during these times that it’s important to remind ourselves of the leadership models that have already paved the path for adaptive leadership approaches. These models are great tools for leaders who find themselves pushed away from their safe boundaries and into the unknown.

    The Cynefin Model:

    We tend to think about leadership, and developing leaders, during relatively normal times. The Cynefin Model (2007, Snowden and Boone) points out that different situations require different ways of navigating. The Cynefin Model distinguishes between challenges and problems that are simple (clear cause and effect relationship), complicated (less clear relationship between cause and effect but patterns can be discerned), complex (relationship between cause and effect is mostly broken, jeopardizing prediction and planning), and chaotic (triage mode).

    Until March 2020, most leaders were focused on complexity and the capacities needed to thrive. We now look back on those times fondly as many leaders are discovering that they are living in, and leading through, chaos. During times of chaos, The Cynefin Model instructs us to gather information, identify the domain, determine the proper decision making mode for the moment and move on.

    Adaptive and Technical Challenges:

    Heifitz and Laurie (2001) contribute an important distinction between Adaptive Challenges and Technical Challenges.  In a technical challenge, the answer is known or at least knowable.  This is similar to the simple and complicated challenges presented aboveOn the other hand, adaptive challenges refer to those issues where there is no apparent answer. It becomes virtually impossible to predict the impact of your actions; unintended consequences rule the day.  The leader has to adapt their way of seeing and making meaning in order to see the challenge in a new way and with new perspective. The capacities needed for adaptive leadership include the ability to be present and notice, to see what is trying to organize and emerge, to discern weak signals from noise, and pursue those signals in safe ways.

    Hunker Down – or Press “Reset”: Navigating the Short-Term and Long-Term

    Perhaps the most challenging aspect of true leadership during a crisis is to hold both a short-term focus and a long-term focus. For those familiar with navigating polarities, this is most certainly one to pay attention to. Both short-term and long-term focus have upsides and benefits.  Both also have important downsides of overuse.  Heiftetz, Grashow, and Linksy (2009) offer this important question. Do we “hunker down” or press reset?  You can easily imagine that “hunker down” is a beautiful “solution” and one that we are all encouraged to embrace as we practice social distancing. It is not a big stretch to realize that there is a time when “hunker down” becomes less beneficial, both in reality and in mindset.  If we have overused our short-term survival focus, we may find ourselves ill-equipped for what happens next.  Similarly, if we overuse a long-term focus, our organizations might not survive that long. Let’s explore a few examples of a short-term versus a long-term focus:

    In the short-term we look to our empathy, compassion, and loyalty to help us navigate the turbulence. This is also the time to double-down on our self-care.  It requires a lot of energy to stay fully engaged when most of our patterned responses are no longer viable. Almost everything is now a conscious act.

    A long-term perspective requires that we use the opportunity presented when everything feels “up in the air.”  For example, many of us are being forced to work virtually.  When this is finally behind us, do we default to our previous stance or do we engage our curiosity to potentially adapt to our future?  The opportunity is to see the required move as also an experiment.  What do we learn and how might we use that learning to reimagine what we want our organizations to be?  This work requires deep presence, mindfulness, emotional fluidity, suspending judgment, and patience.  The leadership challenge is to sort noise from signal; to notice with new eyes what we’ve become; to ask ourselves what else might we become.

    If you would like to learn more about adaptive leadership and leading through uncertain times, please contact us.

    We recommend these resources to expand on the ideas presented here:


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    Proven Approaches in an Unproven Time