… don’t have a stomach for …

From online source

I heard this phrase several times and the latest occasion was when I went through the reading of an online course, called Adaptive Leadership. That context should give you some primers for questioning. In literal meaning, someone does not have a stomach indicates a low tolerant for foods, especially the food that others don’t have a problem to eat. But I’m not a foodie today, so let move on with a figurative meaning, in my understanding, that is the lack of courage to do something risky that puts yourself, either your name or your credential, on the defense line of your decision. One obvious safe choice is to stay put or indecision when some one does not have a stomach for changes. So is why this phrase related to the adaptive leadership?

First, this is a short primer of the Adaptive Leadership? There is no Wikipedia thread just yet. The phrase of adaptive leadership coined by Grashow and Heifetz (2009) who are the authors of the book with the identical name. According the Cambridge-leadership.com:

Adaptive Leadership is a practical leadership framework that helps individuals and organizations adapt and thrive in challenging environments. It is being able, both individually and collectively, to take on the gradual but meaningful process of change. It is about diagnosing the essential from the expendable and bringing about a real challenge to the status quo.

The first thing I experienced and others asked were what was the word ‘adaptive’ mean? Was the challenge of that change so fluid, so the leadership had to build in redundancies to deal with transient changes? Was the leadership style flexible so any change in reality can be accommodated? And I was wishing that some smart people can figure out at least a template, a silver bullet, for leadership that can deal with uncertainties and yet challenging problems. However, one way to describe the adaptive leadership in action is a gradual, small incremental implementation of change to learn and adjust for the next step. In numerical method, this approach is similar to the iteration process by trying a value, recalculation until the margin of errs is acceptable.

The course hosted by Acumen is scheduled for 5 weeks, and can be done within a week with 4–6 hours a day. Some key components of the class are: the difference between technical and adaptive leadership, describing Values, Loyalties and Losses (VLLs) model of yourself, and other stakeholders. The stakeholders are divided into 6 groups: Authority, Partners, Yourself, Oppositions, Trouble-makers and Causalities. The last module is experimentation, that is making a small change, learning and adjusting to suit the longer term goals. In production, this approach is analogous to the continuous improvement process (Plan-Do-Act-Check) or more statistical approach called Six Sigmas (DMAIC, Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control). The process itself is adaptive because there is no defined template, but rather a cycle of implementation, learning and improving.

My exercise with VLLs mapping to promote a fact-based report

So really, why I’m wasting your time for the phrase that has nothing do even now? The easy stage is collecting data, making complex analysis and recommending options. The next step is to choose one option and implement it. Now the word courage is suitable to put here. Courage is the choice to act in the face of uncertainty that can hurts yourself, your reputation, or your credential. A manager does not always act courageously and for a right reason. The role of manager is to coordinate and provide conditions for tasks implemented with defined procedure or SoPs (Standard of Procedures) by the department. Managers are not incentive for the process improvement because of the likelihood to rock the ship is real. When the crisis is eminent and the managers need to make a choice to do and leave, that is a different story. Some managers I know frequent use ducking for the hope that the heat will turn to another department, rather embracing the notion that only constant is change.

Making a small change or small experiment is actually a good way to build the confidence and experience or even a habit for new managers. New managers, young and ambitious, could pose themselves up against the wall trying to do something impressive and likely not to success, rather be patient, look for a small change and map a terrain. Map a terrain is my term for consulting six stakeholders related to the small change above. Using divide and conquer is a good approach because of less shear force at hand; it is more useful to map first, collect and see the road to get things done.

So, really what we are talking about now? The managing job is conservative to the defined procedure which can be called the technical leadership, and we are talking about the courage and bravery to step out of one’s comfort zone, to make change, to know that in defiance to traditional wisdom of being a manager, to look for change and make the change when the time is appropriate.

Here is a question that some should ask? Why we have to tie the manager and the leadership? I thought they are two different roles? You are right, the role of a manager and leader can be by two different people. Each person with a defined role was my model before I worked in a factory. The reality was below the surface, a manager needs to do two functions. The primary is managing, make sure the department carries out its job description, and the implied role is leading, experimenting with the change to reduce occurring problems such as disengaging, talent pipeline management and performance review. So yes, when the time come, you have to fight with yourself, should you duck or embrace the heat of change? And that is when you need a stomach for? I recommend a belly, fatty stomach. A technical observation indicates that fatty materials are more tolerant with heat shock or oxidation stress, such as beta-carotene. By the way, I am aware that many jobs today have the word manager in it but the position is mainly is technical or expertise and minimal in managing other direct reports. That position is less relevant with the context I presented here.

I am an engineer, so the first time someone told me about the adaptive leadership, my reaction was like, what? Now leadership needs to be adaptive, I thought it should be firm and solid consistent, determinant and perseverance. And I would be peace with myself and say, well, maybe one approach to lead the team is to take some heat, and know that we need to change. The manager can lead to change, but should not the agent of change. In the book by Grashow and Heifetz, they use the pressure cooker to explain change process, with raise the heat controllably, and not too much to blow the lid off, and let the change happens. This approach is similar to a chemical reaction. You can not burn the dried wood in open the atmosphere with fire and a sustained high temperature, but neither do you want to make a forest fire.

Photo by Crystal Kwok on Unsplash

A final thought is the difference of the perception of the leadership and what I ponder about the adaptive leadership. Do we need more that? Are there many types of leadership? Maybe, or like a normal consumer looks trademark name of the distilled waters, there is not much different with different brands. For those outside the business school, one could feels that leadership, management, authority, power are in a bundle of business-ish jargon. After completing the course, I have the feeling that the people insides the business school can see a small thing to differentiate different styles of leadership, while people from the outside want to sum up the similar traits of those schools of thought. Some wants to reduce the amount of memory and energy to store things; others, in contrast, want to make distinctions to earn a niche. And, here is the thing, the insiders are telling the outsiders the differences, and questioning why the outsiders are struggling and seems do not get it? Maybe we have different end goal in mind?

One answer is the outsiders don’t really care much about the name of the leadership rather how those tools are for solving their problems. Their concern is the outcomes of any approach. The insiders concern you should know my tool, which is more useful and proper. Sounds like a sale campaign, isn’t?

But just let say, some one knows better than others, the lesser knowledge people should be willing to learn, and here I am, feel like a dried sponge dying to soak up some water of knowledge at least, that was the reason took several online course, despite of ‘still learning?’ comments by acquaintances. Or maybe I do have my stomach of trading time of working for learning. Let put it that way.