A Meditation on Effective Action

Adaptive intelligence—emotional, social, intellectual, or practical—arises in moments of reflection. It may emerge from a brief but mindful pause in the rush of a business day, or from the incubation effects of a good night’s sleep. But if there is to be anything novel and noticeably better than prosaic formulas of past practices, some freshness in perspective is needed.

This reflective function may occur within individual minds or within the collective mind of a group. The intelligent actions it primes are a vital part of leadership. It signals 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

Before considering these pairings, however, we should distinguish the mere doing of activity from the intentional pursuit of ends which we properly call action. Further, let’s note that such intentions are not fully formed at inception. Rather, they are approximations of ends, always accompanied, if you look carefully, by a fuzzy fringe of the yet-to-be-determined. Indeed, it is only in reckoning with that residuum of uncertainty that we learn to act with adaptive intelligence.

In each pairing, the first term represents an attitude of reflection. The second term characterizes a forward-looking theme for ongoing action. An attitudinal shift prompts review and adaptive change. 

Being Present and Purposive. Relaxing the pull of forward-leaning action, creating a space for noticing how current activities align with intentional ends. Reaffirming and revitalizing purpose.

Being Inclusive and Assertive. Opening ourselves to others, their ideas, interests, and goals, and noticing convergence and divergence. Exploring and resolving issues through discussion and debate.

Being Attuned and Interactive. Attending intently, resonating, reflecting, and validating what we hear. Noticing needs to adjust pace, frequency, or quality of interaction to sustain adaptive action.

Being Principled and Pragmatic. Sharing felt values and concerns, and our core beliefs as affected by actions to date. Noticing needs to reconcile means and ends to ensure virtuous action.

Being Authentic and Congruent. Being real, conveying sincerity, revealing one's true self. Noticing and working through incongruities, verbal/nonverbal, words/tone, assertions/actions.

But where does this personal and interpersonal capacity for adaptive intelligence come from, and how do we develop it? We must leave the how-to questions for later, but we can at least briefly consider the origins of this capacity in human development. That may even provide clues for answering the how-to questions of development. 

Contingency, Attachment, and Adaptation

Inherent to the human condition, which is most fundamentally a brilliant mix of mind and mortality, is contingency, imperfect knowledge, and our reliance upon judgment. In one dispositional extreme we find the ponderous paralysis of fear. It inhibits the formation of judgment. At the other extreme lay a reckless impulsiveness, often arising from a willful blindness to the contingent nature of reality. Confidence, then—neither too much nor too little—is a critical factor in the cultivation of adaptive intelligence. 

We acquire confidence and learn about navigating these features of the human condition very early in life, starting in our first year. Our mother or 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. And 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 they, the mother-infant pair, can usually sort things out, reliably resolve distress, they acquire a greater boldness (confidence) to explore their surrounding world and also their inner world of self and subjective experience. This 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 know now, from more than a decade of research, that mature qualities of confidence—not the brash swagger of over-confidence—stem from just such a secure attachment style. The reliance we once had on the actual symbiotic dyad and physical presence of our attachment figure becomes an internalized mental model or paradigm. In adult life, we find that we use that prototypical model of relational security to shape relations with loved ones, friends, and co-workers, and with our supervisor and those we lead. It provides ongoing normative guidance.

These adaptively positive beliefs formed in early life persist with enduring effects into adult life. Of course, our felt sense of security is subject to the vicissitudes of 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, their access to the collective adaptive intelligence of the organization is more readily available to them as compared to those who are chronically troubled by an underlying skepticism or fear that this potential does not exist or cannot be achieved.  

A Word of Encouragement

Those of us who have a secure attachment style (estimated to be about 60% of the population) may find that we are able, with care and sustained effort, to help those who lack a robust internal model of relational security to acquire one. But if we find that our sense of security is lacking, research has also shown that these tendencies, shaped early in life, are indeed amenable to change in adulthood.

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