Coaching Adaptive Challenges

A Blog Post by Brian Miller

We are living through a turbulent period in history. The culture is changing with lightening speed through technology and cultural shifts. In some ways, the culture is moving backward a couple thousand years, and in other ways, we are seeing something totally new. This turbulence is wreaking havoc on today’s leaders.

  • The church in North America is no longer at the center of community and their authority, once assumed, is now suspect. The church will have to learn to communicate the same message in a different culture through different mediums.
  • Seminaries which once were the bastion of theological education are no longer the assumed transport into professional ministry. They are struggling to learn how theological education will be distributed in a pioneer setting.
  • Local business owners are facing the unbelievable fact that it is becoming more convenient to buy everyday goods from Amazon than from the local store. They will have to learn how to add more value for the customer than they have ever provided before.
  • Parents are raising children in an atmosphere that bears no resemblance to their own childhood. They will have to learn new parenting skills that help their child mature and thrive in a world that has become totally alien to them.

In all these situations, the path ahead is unclear, and the former tools of navigation give no direction at all. They can either keep trying what worked before, give up, or learn a new way of moving forward. At this point, they have no idea what the next step is going to be.

These are all adaptive challenges. These are challenges that cannot be solved with existing knowledge and skills. We are living at a time when adaptive challenges may be at their most plentiful. We have developed so many skills and processes in the last few hundred years, and suddenly many of them have simply stopped working. We need to learn as much about adaptive challenges as we can.

I recently interviewed Tod Bolsinger, Vice President and chief of leadership formation at Fuller Seminary, on the Coach Approach Ministries podcast.  Tod has written about Adaptive Challenges in his new book, “Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory.”

You might ask, “How can you canoe a mountain?” Answer: “You can’t. Stop trying. You’ll have to learn a new way.” He weaves his thoughts on adaptive leadership with the exploration story of Lewis and Clark. These early American explorers were looking for a water passage from St Louis to the Pacific Ocean. For 300 years, everyone knew there was a passage, but no one had yet found it. Lewis and Clark’s first discovery was the passage did not exist. Not only was there not a river route to the west, there was a shocking obstacle that no one American had yet observed – the Rocky Mountains. Most people would have turned back and quit. Lewis and Clark decided to dump the canoes and adapt a new mode of exploration.

This analogy is a powerful one. The road ahead is uncharted. And worse, we don’t see any possibilities. We only see mountains, overwhelming obstacles.

As you might have guessed by now, coaches will be essential for adaptive challenges. Coaching is primarily a learning process. We have the ability to help leaders and their organizations become the type of explorers that adapt and learn new ways to move forward.

Bolsinger gives three characteristics of adaptive leadership.

  1. a changing environment where there is no clear answer
  2. the necessity for both leaders and follower to learn, especially the leader’s own ongoing transformation
  3. the unavoidable reality that a new solution will result in loss

 Let me speak briefly to coaching each of these characteristics.

Your client will be frustrated. She will have considered quitting as a primary option. Blame will first be assigned to whoever else can be blamed – customers, staff, government, but slowly she will begin to feel like the only one who can be blamed is herself as she realizes she has no idea what to do. This is where you as a coach can give a concise message about adaptive challenges. A distinction about adaptive challenges is that no one has a clear answer to the problem. She probably already knows this, but it needs to be brought to her consciousness. Your client will have to changer her perception of herself as the problem into an adaptive leader, who doesn’t know the way but lead a process to figure it out.

Your client will have to change. The obstacles to change are often internal. He will have to change things such as values, expectations, attitudes, and habits. This is one more good reason to be careful of only coaching the problem. Coaches of adaptive leaders will have to coach the person more than the problem. The client will have to change his attitude toward leadership. As Tod writes about Lewis and Clark, the expert was found to be a young Indian mother. She was brought on to the team as a partner and treated with great respect. This was certainly a transformation of values and expectations and standard policy.

Your client (and their followers) will have to grieve. The solution to adaptive challenges requires that much of what you knew (and maybe loved) will have to be discarded.  Tod quotes organizational expert Ronald Heifetz, “Leadership is disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.” Consider the weight that puts on a leader. Again, you will have to coach the person and not the problem to help your client carry this unbearable load.

If you work with leaders as I do, you are going to need to become familiar with this type of leadership. I’d encourage you to read Tod Bolsinger’s book. Give a listen to my podcast interview with him. Also, Ronald Heifetz also has several books on the subject, but from an academic viewpoint rather than a kingdom viewpoint. These works give me a way of offering hope to my clients.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

One thought on “Coaching Adaptive Challenges

  1. Hi Brian! Thanks agains for sharing around this topic of learning how to adapt to change. I know for the past nine years here in the Portland, OR I have had to adapt on several levels as it relates to Seminary, work, ministry, and personal goals. I really appreciated you sharing Bolsinger’s three Chracteristics of Adaptive Leadership. Always enjoy when you help us see it played out in a coaching format. Also, what a great podcast interview.

    Thanks CAM!

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