Adaptability and Authenticity as a Product of Courage
August 2014, Volume 27, Number 8
By Michael Rivera
Thousands of books have been written on the topic of leadership. To wade through the volumes of information, research, and insights on the topic would be a monumental task, and to separate the quality theory from the rest would be equally daunting. In addition, the ever changing landscape of the 21st century requires that we constantly evaluate and adapt our thinking about what constitutes strong leadership. We have developed an overwhelming acceptance of our past definitions of good leadership and an over reliance on static models that reflected the older and slower business environment of the 19th and 20th centuries. This can no longer be our standard. Our definition of good leadership must evolve just as quickly as the shifting 21st century landscape. We must begin thinking about leadership in a much more situational way, one in which good leadership is defined as much by the character of the leader—the virtues of his heart and mind—as by the possibilities and realities that create this new situational context. We must design a road map for leadership based on adaptability and authenticity, for in the absence of these behaviors we cannot hope to change.
Global development and increased international interdependence have brought our business and social environments to the point where change is now the new watchword. This change is often synonymous with progress, but it does not happen by chance. As leaders, we must be prepared to brave this road of continuous change, because it is our strong leadership that facilitates progressive changes. The task of those in leadership is to move something from what it is to what it could be and to do so in a timely fashion. The creation of a guiding vision is the responsibility of a leader, and that vision is the future that could, or should, be. The risk lies in the actions taken to make a vision a reality (Bender, 1997). Those actions require courage.
Two recurring themes that experienced leaders describe when explaining what traits are required to be a strong leader in the 21st century are adaptability and authenticity; both result from leaders drawing on inner courage. These traits derive from the major paradigm shift that leadership has undergone in the recent past; a shift from a strong top-down perspective to one that recognizes the value of all members of an organization and draws on the leader’s authenticity to motivate members and adaptability to synthesize multiple perspectives to achieve the best outcome. These traits require openness, others-centeredness, and an acknowledgement that all members provide value to the team. Research has shown that these leadership traits enhance morale and improve outcomes. However, it takes a special leader to be able to cultivate these traits within herself in addition to the visionary and decision-making roles that are a given in her position. In short, the ability to adapt to changes in the team, new ideas, or even changes in the market and the ability to be an open and authentic leader with others requires a deep inner courage—courage to let down walls that traditionally separate the hierarchy of an organization and courage to open oneself to new and better ideas and methods. In the absence of courage, a leader will be simply unable to respond to constantly shifting realities and new possibilities, to take the risks required in order to facilitate meaningful change. The absence of courage leads to both the absence of adaptive behavior and the failure to create and nurture the authentic and transparent relationships necessary to successfully move something from the desired to the actualized.
Winston Churchill said, “Courage is the first of human qualities as it is the quality that guarantees all others.” The single most important quality that will determine the success or shortcomings of any effort will be a leader’s ability to act courageously and guide his or her vision through the inevitable challenges that will appear. Leaders will require courage in order to stand firm, even in the face of opposition, on a position that they know to be right or true. They will require courage to achieve the vision and its predetermined goals even in the face of challenges. They will require courage in order to be the lone voice that defends what is right. More often than not, though, such courage is not easily summoned. It can come slowly, and it might need to be drawn out of us, for when we find ourselves in a position to act courageously we are usually confronting something outside of our predetermined comfort zones. It is courage that will help leaders accomplish the smaller pieces, the everyday actions and decisions that will ultimately accumulate into a change effort.
The need for courage is often due to the presence of fear. Peter Bender’s book, Leadership from Within (1997), defines fear as being a negative vision of the future. If we become too overwhelmed with negative visions, they can block any positive visions and feelings from our awareness (Bender, 1997). We need to summon courage in order to push past these feelings, as a negative vision is seldom, if ever, the vision we want to pursue. However, the fear of taking risks often impacts decision making. It is typically low achievers who avoid risks due to fear and who hold back from making courageous decisions in pursuit of a positive vision. High achievers, on the other hand, see the potential results and thus do not succumb to the more imminent fear of risk, and as a result, they are more likely to pursue their courageous vision. In other words, to be adaptive and authentic leaders, it is important that we accept and take risks. Taking risks ensures the presence of courage. Bender (1997) further describes risk taking as the creation of actions that will produce results. Improved results, then, are the evidence that courageous risks produced the desired outcomes. By taking risks, we also elevate our sense of self-efficacy and, over a period of time, we increase the probability of success (Bender, 1997).
According to C.S. Lewis, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” To confirm this, we need look no further than the industry’s leading voice on change. In 1996, John Kotter published Leading Change, which is widely accepted as some of the best foundational research on successful change, providing an eight step model for leading change. However, instead of just looking at the eight-stage process of leading change as a whole, or dissecting its series of individual steps, we can also look at the process through a lens of courage, one that demonstrates how and why courage is such an important prerequisite for adaptive and authentic leadership. At all eight stages, from establishing a sense of urgency to anchoring new approaches in the culture, the absence of courage will likely slow the process to a halt. Stage one requires an examination of the market and competitive realities, along with identifying and discussing crises while looking for opportunities (Kotter, 1996). This requires that leaders possess a high level of both honesty and transparency—key qualities of authentic leadership—in order to accept and adapt to challenges and changes. The subsequent stages of change leadership—assembling a guiding coalition, the development of a vision and strategy, and empowering broad-based action—require a leader of strong character who is able to combine authentic open leadership with visionary adaptive strategy.
In 2001, business researcher Jim Collins released his well-known work, Good to Great, on successful leadership, a book that quickly became a must read for anyone seeking to understand what exemplary leadership should involve. A separate monograph, Good to Great and the Social Sectors (2005), followed as a supplement, and offered its own specific definition of authentic and adaptive leaders. Collins called such persons Level 5 Leaders, proposing that leadership is not about being soft or purely inclusive. It is also not simply about building consensus. “The whole point of Level 5,” he wrote, “is to make sure the right decisions happen—no matter how difficult or painful—for the long-term greatness of the institution and the achievement of its mission, independent of consensus or popularity” (Collins, 2005). This truth, offered by one of the leading voices on the subject of exceptional leadership, can itself be interpreted as a meaningful definition of what courage looks like. Level 5 Leaders possess the courage necessary to pursue even the most difficult adaptive work, not for superficial reasons, but out of an authentic sense of virtue that manifests itself in devotion to the organization and its mission.
The 21st century leader will be navigating a landscape that is changing more rapidly than ever before. The realities of leadership in the 21st century will require new approaches in order to find success and meaning. Change will be so constant as to become the new normal, and only adaptable and authentic leaders will be capable of guiding their organizations through that unpredictable environment. Meaningful decision making will be the product of both the mind and the heart, as leaders learn to decipher a new, situational context while remaining grounded in their own strengths and genuine ideals. In order to navigate this new world with success, the 21st century leader must have the courage to drive adaptation and the courage to be authentic.
Bender, P. U. (1997). Leadership from within. New York: Stoddard Publishing.
Collins, J. (2001). Good to great. New York: Harper Collins Publishing.
Collins, J. (2005). Good to great and the social sectors. New York: Harper Collins Publishing.
Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading change. Boston: Harvard Business Press.
Michael Rivera is the Assistant Vice President of Academic Affairs at Montgomery County Community College.
Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.