A few years ago I was fortunate to spend some time in beautiful Italy. We travelled the country by train, staying in quaint hotels along the way. During our time we were enamoured with the exquisite scenery, the rich history and culture, and of course, the remarkable food and wine. The people were warm and welcoming, and I was constantly amazed by their ability to take the time to enjoy the simpler aspects of life.

All the places we visited were wonderful, however, I was particularly intrigued by Venice. I recall wandering along the Grand Canal one morning, drinking an espresso. It was early, so the crowds of tourists had not yet emerged. The locals were going about their life…stopping for their morning espresso, making their way to work, and taking their children to school. I was struck by the normality of it. The city of Venice is built on closely spaced wooden piles, most of which have been submerged for centuries. It is often besieged by flooding and is slowly sinking into the lagoon. However, over the centuries the people of Venice have adapted to all of these challenges, and through innovation, have created a thriving city.

I was reminded of this experience during the 2013 BC Health Leaders Conference, which I recently attended in Vancouver. The conference theme, entitled, Adaptive Leadership- Complexity, Passion and Possibilities, focused on mobilizing adaptability in order to thrive in changing and challenging environments. The world we lead is becoming increasingly complex and subsequently, our organizations experience a continuous state of change.

It is evident that traditional leadership approaches may not yield practical and effective solutions to quickly changing challenges. Therefore, today’s leaders must be able to respond accordingly. Consider the adaptable Venetians as an example.

Adaptive leadership, as defined by Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky (2009) in their book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing your Organization and the World, is the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive. Many issues in organizations today cannot be solved with existing knowledge and approaches, and as such, become adaptive challenges. Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky discussed these challenges as requiring changes in individuals’ attitudes, values, or behavioural habits. Adaptive leadership generates a capacity for progressive changes to occur, not a passive dependency to watch and wait.

The practice of adaptive leadership has particular relevance in addressing complex systems issues, particularly in organizations dealing with diminishing resources and increasing performance expectations, as it encourages innovation and the development of new capacity. What is intriguing about this approach is the emphasis on thriving, as opposed to solely solving problems.

As you reflect on your work, are you, and your organization, dealing with adaptive challenges? What successes have you had with practicing adaptive leadership? As a leader, how do you see adaptive challenges as opportunities to thrive?

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