Adaptive Leaders are best for Everyone

Most leaders, if they choose to, will admit that they get along better with some people on their team. True for all of us human beings. The good leaders I coach feel a responsibility to change that. They want to ensure the people with whom they “just click” aren’t privileged by it. They want to be fair. Rather than ask others to bend to suit their nature, good leaders know they need to adapt and respond to each person. Just as they adapt to changing market and industry conditions, so great leaders adapt to the diverse needs of those they lead.

A well-known framework that still makes sense is Ken Blanchard’s Situational Leadership. This model suggests that leaders assess two attributes of followers; competency in a particular task and motivation to do the task. “Skill and will” for short. Based on this combination, the leader determines how supportive and how directive they should be. The framework is meant to be applied to each individual assignment, but it is sometimes used incorrectly as a broad-brush assessing of a person.

How else might a leader become more attuned to the specific needs of people? In Integral Coaching we use a process called “looking As.” This is different than “looking At” – the typical way we interact. In looking AT someone, we assess, we judge, we try to “figure them out” in order to strategize our best response to them. Communicators do this when they talk about making the message fit an audience. So do salesmen when they want you to buy. It’s mostly a cognitive function.

Looking As requires empathy. It means that we get curious about what the other person is actually experiencing. We ask questions about their perspective, about their opinions, thoughts and feelings. We wonder what it is like to be them. Most of all, as Covey used to say, we “listen first to understand”. This requires emotional intelligence.

Looking As requires imagination. A good way to build this is to read fiction. Canadian cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley found frequent fiction readers increased their interpersonal sensitivity. Writers often give you access to the interior monologue and unique viewpoints of diverse characters. It’s like using a flight simulator to experience being a pilot.

Reading autobiographies and memoirs also opens a wider perspective. Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs of her time as England’s Prime Minister, gave me an inside-view that her critics’ work missed. Leaders I’ve coached have enjoyed books by Richard Branson, Michelle Obama, Neil Armstrong and Sheryl Sandberg.

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