What works for Elon Musk as a leader is not necessarily what will work for you in your unique leadership challenge. While it may be interesting to read about the approaches and strategies Musk – or any of today’s popular movers and shakers – have taken to launch remarkable companies, his approach is not necessarily the one that will fit your approach. That is because leadership is largely driven by the unique challenges within a particular context. Leadership requires identifying the changes that you want to make; strategically identifying supporting stakeholders and listening to stakeholders that can foil your attempts.
Ron Heifetz of the Kennedy School of Government likens leadership to evolution. Take an organism that is impacted, for example, by tremendous increases in temperature due to a meteor hitting the planet. The organism can stay the course and go extinct due to the unbearable heat, or adapt by changing itself or circumstances, whether by moving into water or forming a shell.
It is human nature to stay in the “default normal”. It is comfortable and a known entity there, but it can also prevent the change that is needed to adapt to a competitive new normal. And in today’s world, the rapid change we are experiencing for individuals, groups, and organizations has never seen a greater need for this quick adaptation.
Leadership is about mobilizing resources for change and creating a context in which change is tolerable for the system. Too much change too fast often leads to a rejection of that change and a desire to return to the default. Too little change and nothing happens. Leaders need to bring stakeholders into the disequilibrium of the change and hold it long enough so that there is an opportunity to move to a new normal.
This is achieved by taking the time to diagnose what the leadership challenge at hand is. Too often we substitute technical fixes for adaptive challenges, saying things like “once we get the new computer systems in place, then everything will be fine,” or “once we have a new CEO, then all will be fine.” These technical fixes are important, but don’t always create the true change that leaders want.
Take for example dieting. Given the information and knowledge that we have about being fitter, the United States should have some of the fittest people on the planet. Instead, obesity rates are climbing. That is because people are looking to use technical fixes to improve their health rather than using adaptive ones. Therefore, they buy books, exercise equipment, and gym memberships that may technically lead them to greater health, but they more often avoid the adaptive variable that makes the real change.
Adaptive changes require a leader to address and challenge deeply held values, beliefs, attitudes, and culture. This isn’t easy. Returning to the previous example, someone who wants to move towards greater health needs to make lifestyle changes that are disruptive, including moving away from Netflix and shifting towards movement; and moving away from processed food choices at the grocery store towards more whole food choices. These may sound trivial, but they are critical adaptive shifts.
In order not to fall into the trap of trying to use technical fixes for adaptive challenges, leaders need to be sure that they are diagnosing the situation correctly. Leadership coaching supports leaders in understanding how to do such a diagnosis, identify stakeholders that support (or hinder) your change, and look to allies and advisors (very different groups of people) so that you can support adaptive change. Survival and thriving versus extinction is very much at stake.
Dr. Gregory is an individual consultant and psychotherapist (humanistic and positive psychologies). His focus is on adaptive change work and carries international expertise work with start-ups (Sidekicks International, meQuilibrium.com), as well as with non-profits, and NGO’s (Public Health ministries in Swaziland and South Africa), higher education (including Fielding, William James, New England Conservatory, Northeastern, UCLA Extension) and for-profit organizations (such as Mazda and Fablevision).