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Webinar Recap: Admiral Thad Allen Dives Deeper on Adaptive Leadership

Cornerstone Editors

Effective leadership doesn’t always mean sailing through calm waters—often, it means navigating a storm. This is something Admiral (ret.) Thad Allen knows well, given his long career that culminated in serving as the 23rd Commandant of the United States Coast Guard.

In the latest installment of the Adaptive Leadership Webinar series, a collaboration between Cornerstone and the Partnership for Public Service, Allen explained that to him, "adaptive leadership" requires integrity, honesty and bringing diverse voices together in pursuit of solutions. And constant change, he said, is an accelerant for adaptive leadership—meaning it’s perhaps more relevant in 2020 than ever before.

Hosted by Jim Gill, Senior Vice President-Public Sector at Cornerstone and Jeff O’Malley, Director for Executive and Team Coaching at the Partnership for Public Service, the webinar highlighted the qualities of adaptive leaders and the importance of empowering individuals to become adaptive leaders.

Leaders Need Self-Awareness and a Sense of Empathy

In framing the webinar conversation, Gill shared a basic definition of adaptive leadership: "Adaptive leaders may not always be right, but they’re always respected. They learn and they grow and they practice what they preach. But they also take the time to reflect on those decisions to think through how to improve/make the necessary adjustments."

To be an effective leader in today’s environment, Allen noted it’s just as important to listen and absorb the right information as it is to deliver expertise and crisis leadership that effectively rallies teams around solutions. This requires leaders to be self-aware enough to continuously educate themselves and pull in experts when they don’t know the answers and perhaps need help finding the answer to a specific situation or crisis.

Allen added that adaptive leadership also requires keeping tabs on how people around you are feeling and understanding that life events can impact individual efforts to achieve communal goals.

"It’s important to understand that sometimes, it’s okay not to be okay," Allen said. "If you’re a leader, you should be transparent with your subordinates and confirm that it also applies to them."

Leaders Can Learn to Embrace Adaptability

Leaders aren’t always born adaptive. Adaptability, like many other skills, can be cultivated. According to Allen, it boils down to two factors: life-long learning—continuously refreshing your skills and adapting to surrounding changes; and emotional intelligence (EQ) and empathy—the ability to understand and relate to the people around you.

Organizations increasingly provide individuals with many of the learning resources and platforms to gain these capabilities, as well as other hard and power skills including empathy. But leaders and future leaders need to take an active role in educating themselves to fully benefit from available knowledge sources. As a seasoned military leader with a personal commitment to lifelong learning and EQ development, Allen advocates for leading by example and practicing what you preach. He believes leaders need to keep themselves as accountable for learning from experiences as anyone else in their charge—if not more.

A focus on diversity also plays a crucial role in developing adaptive leaders. After all, a healthy variety of surrounding perspectives helps leaders make better-informed decisions. Allen says it’s "an absolute imperative to have a diverse staff with diverse backgrounds around you"—people that are willing to challenge your thinking as a leader and offer guidance to someone more senior.

Current Expertise is the Starting Point–Not the Final Word

As Allen sees it, every leader is a work-in-progress—even the world’s finest. He believes adaptive leadership is cultivated through experience as well as understanding when to listen. Part of the lifelong learning process for leaders is to learn from mistakes, interactions and other people.

Flexibility is also key, he also pointed out, and goes hand-in-hand with being open minded to other opinions and suggestions: "Existing plans and assumptions are the starting point. They are not the end or outcome of what you want to achieve," said Allen. "You have to start out with any existing policy, or plan or model as an approximation of reality that will allow you to make informed decisions."

Allen’s bottom line: Keeping pace with constant change inherent in today’s society requires the constant development of adaptive leaders that listen, observe and understand as much as they lead.

To watch the full discussion with Admiral Thad Allen, hosted by Cornerstone and the Partnership for Public Service, visit:

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