Absorptive, Adaptive and Wise


Much of the current literature about leadership is actually about supervisory leadership — how the leader interacts with those “in” the organization. Strategic leadership is a bit different in that it is about leadership “of” organizations — making decisions that create a viable future for the organization. Strategic decisions start with an outward-looking perspective and must be made in the midst of volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) external environments. Sounds fun, huh?!?

Actually, it can be very energizing to interpret and make sense of the variables swirling around an organization, as long as a leader can approach the challenge with a perspective that is absorptive, adaptive and wise. What exactly do absorptive, adaptive and wise mean?

Absorptive capacity refers to a leader’s ability to identify new trends/information/data, assimilate that information with the organization’s current skills and knowledge, and then use that refined perspective to identify new opportunities. One might describe it as seeing things that others don’t see as a result of combining external variables with internal skills. This requires curiosity and a willingness to look at approaches and processes from outside your industry and extrapolating concepts that could be applied to your work in new ways.

Adaptive capacity is the ability to be flexible, nimble and willing to change. Virtually every leader likes to think that their organization is flexible, nimble and willing to change, however for many organizations those are aspirational traits rather than ones that can be demonstrated through action. Is your organization structured and pre-disposed to respond quickly to changing variables? As a general rule, the larger an organization or the more successful it is in a particular product or approach, the less adaptive it becomes. (The old, “Why change when what we are doing is working?” philosophy)

Managerial wisdom is about discernment and timing. It is the layering of knowledge with experience and context when considering decisions. It is taking a long-term view and knowing the critical moment to act. One might describe it as “gut instinct” or a leader’s ability to anticipate, both of which are influenced by both conscious and unconscious values, relationships, and experiences.

Some leaders are naturally wired to think and act strategically, and others must consciously develop these skills. The good news is, they can be developed. How? Read a magazine, listen to a podcast to talk to someone who works in an industry totally outside your own, and then consider how you can apply what you have learned to your work. Try doing things in new ways. Be willing to fail and then come up with a different solution. Make “little bet” decisions based on your gut instincts. Share your dilemma with someone who doesn’t work in your field and listen to their perspective on the challenge — which may be totally different than your own.

What step will you take today to strengthen your ability to be absorptive, adaptive and wise?



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