Two Orientations and Practices for Leading Change

Posted by Matthew Thomas

matthew-thomas-2Experienced 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 month.

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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.

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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.

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Topics: adaptive change, adaptive leadership

Confident Humility in Leading Change

Posted by Matthew Thomas

MatthewMThomas10KIn the past three months, we have talked about leadership postures that increase the likelihood that change will go well. We have talked about change identification and building change capacity in the past two months. This month, we look at the third posture, leaning in to the vulnerabilities of adaptive leadership.


Successfully leading through change requires simultaneous confidence and humility. Both confidence and humility ground us in our own vocation while complex, and often chaotic, situations develop through the change process. We take humility as our baseline in all situations, remembering that:For more content like this, click here to Subscribe to this Blog!



  • We didn't get here on our own.
  • We know we have blind spots.
  • We have more to learn.
  • We can learn from our critics and enemies.
  • This too shall pass.
  • We are but dust.


This kind of humility challenges the protective and defensive behaviors our training as leaders has often conferred on us. Our training tells us that leaders command confidently, often blustering our way into whatever is next. More often than not we lead by:


  • Telling instead of asking.
  • Knowing instead of discovering.
  • Deciding instead of inviting input.
  • Doing for instead of doing with.
  • Asking "how can I help" instead of asking "who is the right person for this?


In change situations, and adaptive change especially, instead of starting with "I know how to get us out of this", a leader has to start with "I don't know." That is because the most significant change operates outside of a leader's direct control:


  • The problem may have clear symptoms, but the problem itself may be veiled and/or unclear.
  • The main place where work happens to affect the change is in the stakeholders, not in the leader or those directly under the leader's command. Leaders can command changes in some behaviors, but not changes in mindsets and the habits that express those mindsets.
  • The solution itself is unclear because the problem is unclear.
  • Both the problem and the solution require the leader and other stakeholders to learn alongside each other as the change progresses.


Each of these things challenge the way our training led us:


  • Telling instead of asking: we miss critical information.
  • Knowing instead of discovering: we stay solely in expertise, in a process where expertise is not enough.
  • Deciding instead of inviting input: we reduce or eliminate buy-in, our ability to broaden knowledge, and operational alignment.
  • Doing for instead of doing with: we isolate ourselves more than necessary by reinforcing power and dependency rather than interdependence and collaboration.
  • Asking "how can I help" instead of asking "who is the right person for this? We assume we are the solution, and remain focused on our own expertise instead of what the organization needs. This means we often produce the wrong results or pull things toward what we need, not what they need.


Humility, then, grounds our leadership vocation and helps us reduce our protective and defensive behaviors by taking the power out of our fear:


  • Asking means we don't have to be afraid of answers.
  • Discovering means we don't have to be afraid of our lack of knowledge.
  • Inviting input means we don't have to be afraid of criticism or challenge.
  • Doing with means we don't have to be afraid of the loss of power: we intentionally give it away.
  • Asking "who is the right person" means we don't have to be afraid of being useless: we stay rooted in our vocation.


This allows us to approach change with confidence in our humility. Sometimes, we mistake perpetual self-doubt and lack of confidence for humility. To the contrary: humility increases self-knowledge. Humility knows that we have blind spots, hidden places, and things we do not know. But it also is honest about what we do know, while being open to challenging even that.


So confident humility becomes the posture of an adaptive leader willing to lean in to the vulnerabilities of such leadership. Taking off all the posturing, reducing the fear, and opening ourselves (with Brené Brown's "strong back, soft front"), allow us to be confident in our humility.


As leaders living in confident humility we can:

  • Establish trust, now that we are more ready to show our true selves to one another.
  • We can empower learning, because we are no longer focused on blaming and punishing.
  • We build a culture of grace that allows for failures - and the structure that allows us to learn from them and grow instead of repeating them endlessly.
  • Empower others to make decisions, giving them the tools they need to take charge of their area of responsibility and experience the satisfaction of success.


How have you seen this in your leadership? In your organization? What would you add to what is here? What would you challenge? What resonates? What misses entirely?


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Topics: adaptive change, adaptive leadership

Why is identifying adaptive change important?

Posted by Matthew Thomas

matthew-thomas-2-1Last month, I wrote about four leadership postures for organizational change. These postures shape our leadership stance, increasing the likelihood that our change process will achieve healthy results.


The first posture of those four was change identification - knowing what type of change we were dealing with: adaptive or technical. To recap the difference between the two:


"Adaptive changes deal with habits, mindsets, and behaviors, and require organizations and their leaders to learn something new to resolve the challenges at hand. Adaptive changes often have open-ended problem definitions and solutions. Technical changes, by contrast, require application of specific skills to bring a closed-ended issue to resolution."


Putting this posture first hints at its importance. So why is identifying adaptive change important for organizational leaders?


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To understand its importance, we have to look at our usual starting point. For a summary of the reasons why, skip to the end - otherwise, read on!


Where we (tend to) start


As leaders, we are trained to attack most problems as technical issues, which our expertise or an outside product will be able to resolve. Perhaps our challenge fits squarely in the middle of our deep, core expertise, something we trained for, we have degrees and certifications in, and have practiced over time. Alternatively, we may perceive the current challenge to be adjacent to our core expertise, and so we tend to apply our expertise there as well - to the degree we can.


This is how most of us were taught to solve problems: see problem, find solution. This works very well when we are working our way up through our core expertise - whether deepening it, broadening it, or both. This works particularly well in fields where the same problems come up over and over again, and the application of technique, product, or knowledge is tried and proven suitable.


Local to Champaign-Urbana?    Illinois?    For local offers click here!The problem comes when we find ourselves in our first leadership position where our core expertise is only a part of what we do. All of a sudden, the "Hello, Problem; meet Solution" approach doesn't work in all those other areas.


Our first instinct is, then, to see the fact that the solution didn't work as a matter of degree. We go back and check our work, and then increase the intensity of what we are doing, one way or another. And when that still doesn't work, we start troubleshooting: fiddle with this over here, adjust that over there, and see if that finally solves it.


In cases where intensity and troubleshooting don't work, we often find ourselves - and those who work for us and with us - frustrated, upset, and demoralized. We realize that the application of expertise hasn't worked, that increasing or decreasing the degree, intensity, or volume hasn't worked, and now we are stuck - having spent resources toward something that didn't get us where we wanted to go.


Our habits, our training, our expertise: all of these point us toward solving problems as technical ones. So we tend to apply technical expertise to leadership challenges and organizational situations. The problem is clear, the solution is clear, and, based on our authority as leaders, experts, or owners, we bring the problem to resolution.


When technical doesn't work


The problem is, as we well know, that's not always the case. We all deal with adaptive change more than we may even realize. In fact, the more leadership we experience, the less we see of technical issues and the more we deal with the adaptive. So being able to identify adaptive changes on the front end will help us apply a different approach to them, saving us time, money, and relational capital along the way.


Adaptive challenges begin with unclear problem definitions, and their solutions require the leader and the organization to learn something new. By virtue of that, the application of our expertise won't work. Therefore, in most cases, the authority we have that derives from that expertise does not give us the leverage to make something happen that it otherwise would. Therefore, the bulk of the work doesn't come from the expert applying expertise, but from all involved (the stakeholders - which could include staff, vendors, and clients/customers/members/beneficiaries) finding ways to engage with and wrestle through the challenges.


Significant organizational change is almost always adaptive; adaptive change does not always show up as significant organizational change. In other words, if an organization needs to change its culture, its way of operating, or has experienced a major stuck point, it is likely that these are adaptive changes. On the other hand, adaptive challenges can appear in small ways on a daily basis. The cumulative effect of these may be significant organizational change, but that's not how they first appear. So many of us do, in fact, deal with adaptive change more than we think we do.


So why is identifying what type of change we are experiencing so important?


We have seen several reasons why identifying what type of change we are in is important.


  1. Adaptive change shows up a lot more than we might expect, and not usually in dramatic ways.
  2. Adaptive challenges require a significantly different approach to resolve them than technical challenges do.
  3. We are primed to solve things technically by our training and expertise - even when our training and expertise do not apply.
  4. Taking a technical approach when the challenge is really adaptive can waste time, energy, and money, and hurt relationships. In fact, it can make the challenge worse.


Where have you seen the importance of identifying what type of change you are in?


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Topics: adaptive change, adaptive leadership, identifying adaptive change, leading organizational change

Leadership Postures for Organizational Change

Posted by Matthew Thomas

matthew-thomas-2-1I work with a lot of leaders in the midst of significant changes to their organizations. They tell me stories about the change processes that lead to positive transformations, and they tell me stories about changes that caused harm and distress. What I have discovered is that the success or failure of a change process is more about a leader's stance as they approach organizational change than it is about their particular skill set.


This stance is made up of four postures that, taken together, increase the likelihood that change will go well. There are, of course, no guarantees in situations that are inherently complex. But as many leaders have learned, more often than not, we have to work with improved probabilities, not certainties. Let's look at these four postures that position us best for organizational transformation.


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The first posture in leading organizational change is change identification. Change identification makes sure we have the mental and organizational perspective to identify the type of change that is going on or needing to take place: is it primarily adaptive, or primarily technical? Adaptive changes deal with habits, mindsets, and behaviors, and require organizations and their leaders to learn something new to resolve the challenges at hand. Adaptive changes often have open-ended problem definitions and solutions. Technical changes, by contrast, require application of specific skills to bring a closed-ended issue to resolution. They often involve a mechanical repair, a software upgrade, or a program or event. These two different types of changes, and the mixture of the two, require strikingly different approaches in leadership and process.


The second posture in leading organizational change is change capacity. As successful leaders, we position ourselves to build change capacity into the organization. Building change capacity means that the organization's ability to manage and integrate changes increases and improves over time. Instead of just having the capacity to manage this current change, the organization is empowered to manage the change after that, and the one after that, and so on. Given the complexity facing most organizations, change capacity is essential to both long-term stability and overall return on investment.


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The third posture in leading organizational change is to lean into the vulnerabilities of adaptive leadership. Adaptive leadership takes the protective and defensive behaviors we have acquired as leaders and sets them aside in favor of a new openness to experience and discovery. As leaders, we are primed to be in the know as much and as often as possible. Adaptive leadership, however, means leading into areas where we do not necessarily have core training or expertise, where we learn alongside others. When that happens, we realize we can't lead from what we know any longer. This requires us to be open to others in a way we may not have had to be in a while - and that can be both scary and fulfilling. In other words, we must build true humility into our leadership style if we hope to lead for the long term.


The fourth posture in leading organizational change is to engage in the orientations and practices of an adaptive leader. Ultimately, these boil down to listening, helping, and learning. Listening, because we actively engage to truly hear what is going on. Actively, we play back what we hear, making sure we understand another's perspective. We help, coming alongside rather than working from above, behind, or in front. We learn, since adaptive leadership requires that we discover what the problem really is before we try to discover what solutions might emerge.


These four postures help us have the stance we need to lead change in our organizations. This doesn't necessarily make leading change easy - adaptive changes are inherently complex - but this stance does make it more possible. What change are you leading (or preparing to lead) today?

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Topics: adaptive change, adaptive leadership, executive learning

Steward Leadership: Financial roles that lead financial change

Posted by Matthew Thomas

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matthew-thomas-2Leading change to bring about greater financial health in an enterprise will likely involve different people in different roles at different levels of the organization. Often, changes that lead to greater financial health are a complex of adaptive and technical changes - changes that require very different things from different people and groups within the enterprise. Adaptive changes require new learning and paradigm shifts in thinking. Technical changes involve new techniques and methods to change procedures, processes, programs, and products.


The more complex and adaptive the changes are, the more often that change must be led from closer to the top of the organization. Nevertheless, it is possible to lead change from any place in an organization. Any one of an enterprise's roles can lead change by working with peers, superiors and subordinates to the extent that the enterprise's structure allows. Steward leadership balances the need for change with the enterprise's capacity for that change.


Like what you're reading? Subscribe Now! Any change worth making encounters resistance. Leading change in an enterprise's financial health is no exception. The type of resistance will depend on the type of change and the steward leader's place and role in the organization. Technical changes proposed by leaders in technical roles often meet the least resistance; the more adaptive the change, the more resistance occurs above and below the steward leader who guides it. As resistance occurs, it is essential to see that as information to build toward the change, rather than assume the resisters are somehow fundamentally flawed.

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As you examine your role as a steward leader in your enterprise, how might you lead change to improve your organizational outcomes - including financial health?


Design Group International's Financial Services Roles tool can help you determine what changes would best be led by which leaders in your enterprise. The tool is free and shows what types of  changes typically can come from what roles in any given enterprise. Click the link below to get your tool today!

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Topics: adaptive change, Matthew Thomas, adaptive leadership, steward leadership, Financial roles

Steward Leadership: Toward a Value Proposition for Denominations

Posted by Matthew Thomas

Anyone who has worked in a denominational system in the past few decades knows that denominations, by and large, are declining in their sheer numbers of members, congregations (and other affiliated entities), and revenue, to the place where the future of some of these denominations is in serious doubt. The statistics have been studied, and studied again.

Decline of this type inspires organizational development consultants to ask some basic questions about denominational life, in order to help the denomination create a sense of value and purpose beyond the decline narrative. This is the first step toward creating a value proposition - why someone should join, affiliate, give money, or otherwise connect meaningfully with the denomination. Since these people are likely not the people that are already connected, giving and otherwise affiliating, these people should probably be considered "outsiders." The questions of what might be important to people who are not denominational "insiders" are essential: because that is where the connection points to new growth can come.

Some of the questions we might ask would be:

Is the average person in the pew (or chair) conscious of the fact that they are part of a denomination? If so, what do they think of their denomination? What value do they see in it?

What does your denomination offer that would interest a church in affiliating with your denomination?

If you had an influx of new money, what would you do with it?

These are a few of the questions that help dig in and get at the core of denominational vision and value. Steward leaders know that the answers to long-term decline do not come in short-term programs, but in asking and working through the hard, deep questions that will help denominations adapt and change to new realities.

We are here to help.

Design Group International consultants work regularly with denominational entities at local, regional and national levels. How might we work together to begin to grow your organization? Click the link below to continue the conversation.

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Topics: adaptive change, denominations, Matthew Thomas, Design Group International, steward leadership