Senior Partner & Managing Director; Director of the BCG Henderson Institute
We commonly think of leaders as strong personalities who have a vision and set the course for the organizations they lead. But leaders increasingly find this view lacking. In his essay “The Globally Integrated Enterprise,” Sam Palmisano, Chairman of IBM, explained “Hierarchical, command-and-control approaches simply do not work anymore. They impede information flows inside companies, hampering the fluid and collaborative nature of work today.”
This observation is particularly true for public-sector organizations in today’s environment, which encourages leaders to be both averse to risk and highly responsive to change. Public-sector leaders often work against a backdrop of unexpected political and policy changes and crises. In addition, their roles may be further constrained by the term limits they face as political appointees or elected officials. Their organizations also face pressure to offer increasingly complex services and to adapt to new technologies—all while subject to high levels of public accountability and scrutiny. A traditional command-and-control approach ignores the realities of the current climate and the needs of teams that often remain long after politics and policy have left their mark. (See “Adaptive Leadership Can Help Ease ‘Change Whiplash’ in the Public Sector,” below.)
Governments with shorter electoral cycles can suffer from a “change for the sake of change” mentality, or “change whiplash.” Incoming leaders may ask themselves several of the following questions.
What change can I implement quickly to differentiate my time in office from that of my predecessor?
Public-sector leaders often serve limited terms, particularly if they are elected officials or political appointees. This can lead to short-term, policy-only change agendas rather than deep reforms that address infrastructure- or capability-building needs. Leaders in this position too often think:
Why adapt to the existing organization when I have so little time to make an impact?
The leadership teams that outlive various administrators’ limited “regimes” often rely on survival skills and become exhausted by the regular cycles of redirection. In other words, they unlearn adaptivity. They wind up saying to themselves:
Why adapt when I know the next leader will change direction yet again?
Short-term leaders and their long-term staffs have inverse requirements and incentives. Adaptive leadership can break the vicious circle by deploying two adaptive leadership attributes.
Our research and experience suggest that the fundamental shifts in today’s environment compel us to rethink the nature of strategy, organization, and consequently, leadership.
Consider the following trends:
Turbulence and uncertainty have undermined the effectiveness of long-range forecasting and traditional strategic planning.
How can leaders chart a course when they can't predict the outcomes of their choices?
Government agencies are increasingly interdependent—and often have overlapping missions or scope.
When boundaries are blurred, who leads whom?
The pervasiveness of digital communication and technology has made every organization an information organization.
In such an environment, how can leaders ensure that their organizations are reading the right signals and acting on them?
The pressure on public services is intensifying as populations age, expectations rise, and resources become more stretched.
How can leaders build up society’s trust in public organizations? How can they harness the creativity and passion of the workforce to deliver more from the same resources?
Some environments are mature and predictable, while others are highly uncertain.
How do leaders ensure that they are taking the right approach—or the right mosaic of approaches—for the specific challenges at hand?
These shifts call for adaptive strategies and organizations, and they require leaders to become adaptive as well. Adaptive leaders create conditions that engage employees at all levels of the organization and enable them to achieve common goals particularly in an environment of uncertainty.
There are four dimensions to leadership that distinguish the adaptive leadership model from more traditional leadership models: navigating a new environment; leading with empathy; learning through self-correction, and creating win-win solutions. (“New Leadership Rules” BCG White Paper, May 2010.)
Navigating the New Environment. Nelson Mandela once said, “[T]he ways in which we will achieve our goals are bound by context, changing with circumstances even while remaining steadfast in our commitment to our vision.” Adaptive leaders must embrace uncertainty and adopt new approaches if they are to chart a course amid today’s turbulent conditions.
Leading with Empathy. Adaptive leaders create a shared sense of purpose and manage through influence rather than command and control.
Learning Through Self-Correction. Adaptive leaders encourage—indeed insist on—experimentation by creating safe, no-risk environments internally. Of course, some experiments will fail, but that is how adaptive organizations learn.
Creating Win-Win Solutions. Adaptive leaders focus on sustainable success for both the organization as well as its external network of stakeholders.
Unpredictable environments will require different leadership styles like those characterized above. Not all environments or challenges are alike, however. Just as different organizational models are needed for different environments, so too are different leadership styles. Over time, an organization might move from one leadership archetype to another—for example, during periods of major policy reform, stable organizations can be disrupted, and a shift to a more experimental style may be more effective. Or when an organization is facing a period marked by more stable policies and less reform, then a more deliberate, analytical style may be optimal. When an organization is not yet adaptive but needs to become more so, strong individual leadership may be required initially to disrupt the status quo—but might later give way to a more collaborative style.
There is no universal checklist for adaptive leadership, but leaders who are focused on the four dimensions we’ve described will be better equipped for a turbulent and unpredictable environment. To gauge how adaptive your leadership model is, ask yourself and your leadership teams just three questions about what you are doing and how you are thinking as leaders:
We conclude with a quote from John Clarkeson, former CEO of BCG, who presciently and vividly sketched this new model of leadership 20 years ago in a BCG Perspective titled “Jazz vs. Symphony”:
Leadership will flow to those whose vision can inspire the members of the team to put their best abilities at the service of the team. These leaders will create rather than demand loyalty; the best people will want to work with them. They will communicate effectively with a variety of people and use the conflict among diverse points of view to reach new insights. They will exert influence by the values they choose to reinforce. They will make leaders of their team members.