Creating Space for Adaptive Action

Adaptive intelligence – emotional, social, intellectual, or practical – arises most assuredly in moments of reflection. They may be brief states of mindful pause in the rush of an otherwise briskly paced business day. They could also be more slowly born, perhaps incubated in the span of a good night’s sleep. But if there is to be anything novel and noticeably better in our work than the prosaic formulas of past practices, some freshness in perspective is needed.

This may occur within individual minds or within the collective mind of a group. In either case, this kind of intelligence is a vital part of leadership. It signals a confidence and readiness to go where we have not gone before. These qualities of attitude are both cause and effect in adaptive intelligence. They are also contagious and serve to release the potential to lead in others. We can observe the catalytic effect of reflection in certain paired leadership actions.

Reflective Pairings

As we consider the pairings below, let’s distinguish the mere doing of activity from the intentional pursuit of ends which we properly call action. Furthermore, let’s note that such intentions are not fully formed at their inception. Rather, they are approximations of ends, always accompanied, if you look carefully, by a cloudy fringe of the yet-to-be-discovered. And it is only in reckoning with that stubborn residuum of uncertainty that we learn to act with adaptive intelligence.

In each pairing, we first invoke a way of being followed by a mode of adaptive action. The first moment is a pregnant pause, which raises our awareness. The second is an emerging act of adaptive intelligence.

  • Present and Purposive. Relaxing the pull of forward-leaning thought, feeling, and movement. Clearing a space for emergence. Allowing fresh appraisals to form, to redirect and revitalize purposive action.

  • Inclusive and Assertive. Opening oneself or the current “we” to others, their ideas, interests, and goals. Expressing expectations for shared leadership. Noticing issues, encouraging constructive debate.

  • Attuned and Interactive. Attending, resonating, reflecting, and validating what we hear. Sustaining a pace and frequency of interaction, including feedback. Shaping focus, sustaining adaptive action.

  • Principled and Pragmatic. Processing beliefs, values, concerns that anchor people. Noticing how they align, discussing conflicting priorities. Balancing the virtue of means and ends in decision-making.

  • Genuine and Congruent. Being real, conveying sincerity, revealing oneself. Noticing incongruities, verbal and nonverbal, words and deeds. Working through differences in candor, gaining explicit agreement.

Notice that in these pairings there is no jolting or abrupt movement, but there is movement. The first moment broadens the scope of our awareness and inhibits a rush to judgment. The second builds a trajectory of action. It is within this kind of reflective pairing that we create the space for effective action. We may do so individually, within ourselves, but let’s remember that this capacity for inner dialogue is born of actual dialogue. Let me explain.

Contingency, Attachment, and Adaptation

Inherent to the human condition is contingency, imperfect knowledge, and the reliance upon judgment. In one dispositional extreme we may err in the direction of a ponderous paralysis of fear, which inhibits the formation of judgment. At the other extreme lay a reckless impulsiveness, which acts out of willful blindness to the contingent nature of reality.  Confidence, then, neither too much nor too little, is a critical indicator of adaptive adult development. 

We learn about navigating these features of the human condition very early in life, starting in our first year. Our mother and other vital caregivers (attachment figures) co-create with us a holding space that augments our nascent coping resources. In their preverbal exchanges, mother reacts to the infant’s expressed needs and distress. When successful, her actions quiet the distress and return the infant to feelings of safety and satiety. But whatever the outcome, both learn from these exchanges.

They are our first encounters with the contingent nature of human existence. When infants discover that the mother-infant pair can figure things out and reliably resolve distress, they acquire a greater boldness to explore their surrounding world. Their experience creates a sense of security, a secure base. They trust that there is a safe harbor to return to should they encounter more than they can handle independently. We now know that mature qualities of confidence stem from a secure attachment style.

These adaptively positive beliefs form in early life, and they often persist with enduring effects into adult life. Of course, this felt sense of security is subject to vicissitudes in a contingent world and social reality. Nonetheless, those who’ve formed strong, long-standing beliefs that relationships hold this positive potential enjoy a great advantage as leaders over those who are chronically troubled by an underlying skepticism or fear that this potential exists or can be achieved.  

Leadership as Joint Reflective Action

Research tells us that those of us who act from a secure base as leaders are more effective. They are better able to realize adaptive intelligence in action. They are also more able to restore their sense of security in difficult moments when anyone can be shaken by the unexpected and daunting challenges that we encounter in today’s global economy. What’s even more interesting and important is that leaders who act from a secure attachment orientation can create a shared space for adaptive action with those they lead.

Are you interested in more about how to incorporate these insights and ideas into your development as a leader, or how to draw upon this research to guide development of your next-generation leaders? I’d be happy to discuss your questions and offer suggestions.

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