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Adaptable Leadership in the Public Sector

Steve Dobberowsky

Director, Strategy and Value Service, Cornerstone

This article originally appeared on the ATD website.

What does it mean to practice adaptable leadership in the public sector, and why is it important?

People who are assessing public administration and related work often suggest that adaptable leadership is even more necessary here than it is in the private sector. Public sector leadership faces specific types of challenges and mandates and brings various types of opportunities to enhance how leadership works.

As we talk about the utility of adaptable leadership in public sector jobs, we’ll see how today's leadership roles work on a number of consistent values that help the best professionals provide results to the communities they serve.

Awareness and Change

Leaders who are self-aware understand the context in which they think and make decisions and are better able to become ongoing learners. As such, they are more adaptable.

Some people describe this type of adaptable leadership as requiring a continual bold disruption and iterating innovation on a regular basis. Adaptable leadership responds to challenges in real time and works in the context of fluctuating realities.

Leaders need to think about change in the form of macro and micro levels. This is one of several areas where the general principles of self-awareness support better leadership. As individuals actively practice this kind of scaled thinking, they come up with insights that can be beneficial to a constituency. That’s not to say that every idea coming out of this is going to be great. There’s a temptation and tendency in traditional models to think that good leadership depends upon someone’s intelligence. Beyond technical proficiency, though, is how well an adaptable leader can learn that makes a big difference.

Leaders who can achieve an adaptable leadership model are better able to lead global, established organizations as if they were startups with a startup mindset. A big business that can continue to operate with a startup mindset challenges paradigms that have held enterprise back for a long time. Again, that’s not to say that any startup mindset will automatically be superior. It’s more of a journey toward innovative thinking as a discipline. It’s not just change for change’s sake. It’s much more about growing and developing in a way that allows the leader to more frequently step back and engage in helpful forms of self-analysis.

Obstacles to Adaptive Leadership

Another way to characterize adaptable leadership is to look at the challenges that apply. Adaptable leaders are often involved in breaking down hierarchies and insufficiently agile silos. Agility as a key goal in software development is also necessary in public sector administration and beyond. Breaking down silos is also prized in software development. Data needs to flow to where it’s helpful, which is true in leadership too. There’s a real correspondence that is helpful to think about when you contemplate what makes adaptable leaders.

A Way Forward

When you start having a conversation about adaptable leadership, you often start hearing other values added into the mix. Wisdom and the ability to reflect well will add to the adaptable leader’s knowledge base. Values related to humility and empathy will allow that person to draw from the power of the community, rather than acting as an island, or, if you will, in a silo of their own.

Deloitte shows that only 14 percent of CxOs have a "high degree of confidence" in developing this type of leadership, or more accurately, in a similar type of innovative attitude that would help them to "make the changes that the digital revolution requires." However, it doesn't have to be this way. The keys to adaptable leadership are here for public sector and private sector leaders to use.

In the end, self-awareness is the key. There's the ability to reflect, be resilient, and to change. What all of this has in common relies on that core awareness. By developing a big-picture analysis that includes the individual’s own leadership styles, intentions, habits, and perhaps implicit bias or reactive thinking. Put it all together and you have a road map for developing an adaptive approach.

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