The Gift of Adaptive Leadership

Photo by <a href="">Alex Holt</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>

Every time we turn around, we seem to be in challenging times.

Every time we turn around there seems to be something more that threatens to divide us even further.

Increasingly, I find myself running out of ways to be adaptive. And I am exhausted.

For over a decade, I have worked with young people in multi-faith, multi-cultural, and multi-national settings. In every single moment of this work, I have been forced to think simultaneously about three things:

  1. The deep complexity of the identities that each of us brings to every single moment, conversation, and relationship that we have.
  2. The immense baggage we each carry – built from innate implicit bias, and media soundbites, learned from family and cultural values and, and, and…
  3. The miniscule number of factors and structures that we have any control over when creating opportunities for “multi-” anything.

You might read this list and say, “holding all of these in tandem seems too hard,” and you would be right. How do we complete the immense task of overcoming the politics and hatred that feed our division? Of learning the histories and present-day realities about each person, community, and identity in our world. Of overcoming the fear that seems to grow around us and between us? It is hard. It is complicated. There is not a singular answer to any of these questions, but I know for sure that we can’t address them alone.

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This is why I find myself believing deeply in the work of religious pluralism and the work of complex, multi-identity relationship building. I believe in the power of connection, the power in learning about traditions other than our own, and the power of moving past the news soundbites and assumptions embedded in our society to have complicated conversations.

As leaders, we want things to be predictable. We want this work of bringing people together to fit into the latest leadership models or into frameworks that feel comfortable. At a minimum, we want it to make sense!

Considering this, I want to offer four insights about adaptive leadership that might give us permission to embrace the unpredictable, at times chaotic, role of being a leader amidst a messy world.

1. Being an adaptive leader means getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Being uncomfortable does not mean being endlessly anxious. It does not mean constantly overthinking your words, actions, or decisions.

What it does mean is that you are willing to consistently ask yourself and others, “is this working?” or “what am I missing?” Being uncomfortable means that you are willing to set down your assumptions about what will work and invite ideas, perspectives, and feedback that answers these questions.

Being uncomfortable also means you are willing to say yes to ideas that do not fit your own personal frame of reference, trusting that when we create spaces to stretch into something new, more often than not, something beautiful is learned.

2. Being an adaptive leader means that you are traveling a windy mountain road rather than a straight and narrow path.

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The journey to being adaptive is filled with switchbacks and one lane bridges and cliffs with no guardrails.

What does navigating this look like?

It looks like a willingness to throw out all your best-laid plans in favor of what the human beings in front of you need on any given day and in any given moment.

It looks like distilling your plans down to clear, concise, mission critical goals, and knowing that the journey to achieving those goals will not be linear.

It looks like your most used phrases being, “I’m sorry” and “Thank you for bravely sharing that with me” and “I see you and hear you. Do you have ideas about how we move forward to this shared goal?”

3. Being an adaptive leader means that sometimes you will be the target of everyone else’s emotions.

This one can sting and put even the strongest and most experienced leaders into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Being the target of an entire group’s feelings is exhausting.

Even so, being the target is also a rare and unique opportunity to show the power of deep empathy, consistent listening, and a willingness to offer honest feedback to those you are leading.

Please hear me when I say: you do not ever deserve to be a punching bag for someone else’s feelings. Ever. No exceptions.

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As leaders, we have the unique opportunity to help validate that each of us experiences the world differently, and we get the opportunity to create a container to uncover the raw and honest experiences that bring us into deeper understanding of ourselves, of each other, and of the dynamics that drive our messy and complicated world.

I believe that one of the most important skills that we can have as adaptive leaders is the ability to hear deeply enough to find what is not being said and bring it to life. When we find these deep things, we have the privilege of owning our own flawed humanity, apologizing for the things that we need to own, and guiding the whole group to the next step along the journey.

4. Being an adaptive leader means that you are never going to make everyone happy.

One of the most common misconceptions many leaders have is that we should be trying to make everyone happy. In my experience, making someone feel seen, heard, and valued is infinitely more powerful.

When I think back on the feedback I have gotten after complex or challenging events, it is rarely “it made me so happy when ___.” Rather, it is “thank you for letting me be honest about ___” or “I did not like when ___ happened, but this is what I learned.”

If we constantly strive to make everyone happy, we quickly drive ourselves into frustration and burnout because we will never find one answer that meets the needs of the whole group. We are going to make people mad; we are going to make mistakes and missteps.

Perhaps the very best thing we can do amidst challenging times is to find our way forward through listening, processing, and taking a next step, repeatedly, one step at a time, knowing that each step will not make everyone happy, but that each step is guided by seeing, hearing, and valuing every person along the way.

The Practice of Being Adaptive

Let me share a story to illustrate these insights. A few summers ago, I was serving as the director of a multi-faith and multi-national summer camp for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim young people. Our multi-faith staff team was from different regions around the world, as were the young teens who were participating in the program.

We did the best we could to encourage collaborative relationships between staff members, connecting by video call and email in the months before the program, even though we could not all be together in person. Despite this effort to connect, we still found ourselves in a situation where the adults who were coming together struggled just as much as the youth did to navigate the complexities of the community we were building.

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After a particularly challenging day of misunderstandings and frustration, I found myself sitting in a room with the staff team listening as they each shared (some with bigger emotion than others) the struggles they were having. They were angry, they were sad, they were confused – each of them was working so hard to advocate for what they needed and what they thought would best protect and care for the youth that they had brought with them to camp.

To say that I was uncomfortable would be putting it mildly. On the outside I was actively listening and thanking people for their honesty as they shared. On the inside I was completely panicking. Did I need to rewrite the entire camp curriculum? Did I need to change the staff roles that people held? Should I be as worried as these caring adults seemed to be about the youth not having a meaningful experience at camp?

After the meeting, I went on a long walk with one of my colleagues to process all that had been shared. As we were walking, I remember reflecting that it did not seem to matter how old you were or how much experience you had. This work of building community across differences is hard to do and it takes an extraordinary amount of courage and vulnerability.

Ultimately, I did rewrite some of the program and readjust some staff responsibilities to better balance the gifts that people brought to the team. I also kept a lot of things the same. The most important thing I learned that summer was that leading amid constant complexity ultimately means sorting through the messiness to find the gems of wisdom and insight that move you step-by-step towards your shared goals.

Accepting the Gift

The four insights I’ve shared are just some of the puzzle pieces that are part of this unpredictable, at times chaotic, role of being a leader amidst a messy world.

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The intricacies of any sort of “multi-” work – multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-generational, multi… – will always be complicated, they will always be challenging.

As leaders, what might happen if we approach our work with the mindset that we GET to be adaptive, rather than we NEED to be? How would this change the way we lead and engage with those around us?

As we slowly open ourselves to the idea of adaptive leadership being a gift rather than a mandate, I believe we can find great meaning and power in doing the work of religious pluralism and complex, multi-identity relationship building.

Originally published by The Interfaith Observer

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