Two Practices of Adaptive Leaders

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5aa5c142 b2e0 47cf bf72 7eef5206f5f9 1781458 28029 gfqg3jym3k79Experienced leaders may disagree on a lot of things, but one thing almost all agree on is that growth as a leader is deeply personal, inner work. One may start off as a leader because of natural charisma or a position of authority, but staying a leader, and maturing as one, requires growth. Nowhere is this more true than in an adaptive leadership space - where the problems themselves may not be clear, let alone the solutions.

History is full of great speeches - real and imagined - that rally people to a cause and change the course of events. These make for good reference points, but they do not, in themselves, make things happen. Working through the vulnerabilities of adaptive leadership to achieve a posture of confident humility requires not just oratory of the Shakespearean sort, "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears," but inner transformation.

Inner transformation creates orientations and practices that allow us to lead sustained organizational change with confident humility. Organizational change often requires a great deal of stamina, so a stump speech does not make our work sustainable. Sustainability comes from a self who is at peace with itself, its vocation, and its surroundings. Since none of us really start there, it takes a transformation process to get to that place of peace.

This points us to five practices that help to bring about this transformation. This article will cover the first two; the next three will follow next week.


Quieting Ourselves

The first practice is to quiet ourselves. Our inner self is full of messages that run counter to healthy leadership. For most of us, these messages involve one or more of three emotions: anger, shame, or fear. We tend to vary in how these play out: by expressing, repressing, or denying them. As we quiet ourselves, this allows us to face the core emotions, and their sources.  This helps us become aware of what underlies our behaviors, our mindsets, and our habits.

Quieting ourselves, then, is the seed of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence works at four levels:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness (other-awareness)
  • Relationship management

Each of these levels builds on the other, and grows in us in a spiral or loop: each time we deepen one, it opens up opportunities to grow in the others, which in turn offer opportunities to grow in the place we started - but from a better vantage point.


Emotional intelligence empowers adaptive leadership by making our interactions with ourselves and others more intentional. Self-awareness and self-management allow us to be more intentional about what we do, what we say, and what we do with our feelings in any given moment. Social awareness and relationship management allow us to be intentional about how we interact with others. Emotional intelligence does not just make us aware of the emotions and needs of others, but it also shows where we and they begin and end. This allows for clearer, healthier responses to others' statements and actions. Most importantly, it allows us to engage deliberately with others without nearly so much anger, shame, or fear clouding the relationships. When that happens, we and they are more likely to achieve what we want. This quiet realignment allows us to point toward the second practice.


The second practice is curiosity. Curiosity finds others genuinely interesting and wants to know more. Our curiosity can include learning about details about how, what, when, and who. Adaptive leaders always start with why and end with why. For us, the reason for something and its significance are the most important of all. What drives people? What inspires us? Why is this important? Why are we talking? Why did they say that? Why did they respond this way? Why did that trigger something in me?

Curiosity allows us to open ourselves up to a listening posture. Listening begins, as we see, with quiet insides; the quiet insides build us to greater awareness of and empathy for others; that empathy drives curiosity; and the curiosity creates openness to listen - and really listen. We listen not just with our ears, but with the inner quietness that isn't just sitting there preparing our response. And this one is the hardest for those of us who can predict where someone is going before they even finish their sentence. And so we quiet ourselves again.

Listening allows us to be truly helpful when it is time to help. How many times have we been helped un-helpfully? Given something we didn't want or need? How many times have we done the same to others? Listening well increases the chances that the help we offer matches what is really needed.

The three remaining orientations and practices of Adaptive Leaders will be the subject of our next article. They are:

  • Respect
  • Delegation
  • Learning

How do you see this inner, personal work at play in your leadership? The inner quietness? Curiosity?

I'd love to hear what you have to say.

Matthew M. Thomas

Matthew M. Thomas, EPC, is the President of the L M Thomas Group.

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[email protected]

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[email protected]