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Who is a leader?

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What is leadership?

We live in a world where we are told everyday that “we are all leaders” – we are capable of leading and so we grow up with huge ambitions of wanting to be like the great “leaders” like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr.

But who is a leader? Is there such a thing as a leader anyway? So many times we confuse people in authority as leaders. We love to brand them, we love to look to them for answers. They should know what to do.
Let’s pause a minute – what happens if these people we call leaders are faced with a situation where they don’t know what to do? Or the challenge faced is a new one and they do not have all the answers to deal with the situation. What happens then?

What happens when you are faced with real life challenges that do not have a technical solution or fix, where the problems are adaptive and you have to think through a process to come to the solution? These are real time challenges that we face everyday. These kinds of realities require a new type of people – people who are able to exercise a new type of leadership called adaptive leadership.

Adaptive leadership requires re-organizing our values and norms and looking at the challenges at hand and involving people to push real issues forward. Leadership is an activity – it is not a title, it is the ability to mobilize people to address their own problems.

People need to know that they have the power to push their own change, all the great examples of such people who exercised great leadership that I mentioned above have one thing in common.
They had a cause, they believed in it, they mobilized people to be a part of their cause and tried to bring change that way.

People only take responsibility for what they help create – so we have to empower people to know that they have the power to create their own realities.

Adaptive leadership is a new way of tackling the world’s greatest challenges that we face in our workplaces everyday, It requires some character of people who will be vulnerable in acknowledging that you don’t always know the answers, it requires people who are ready to say, I don’t know how to tackle certain issues but believe in empowering the team to handle these issues collectively.

This type of leadership will require one to move to the balcony and observe the system as it is – and be courageous enough to learn from the realities of it, learn to interpret what your take is of the current situation and then plan an intervention.

So many of us in our organisations are faced with a lot of adaptive challenges, where there is no easy fix to the problems that need to be solved, and because our teams are built to look up to us for answers, we end up choking at the top because we believe we are supposed to have all the answers.

Adaptive Leadership is being able to realize that your greatest asset is your team, – give the power back to your team, pull the entire process back to the problem and let everybody focus on finding a collective solution. Mobilize the system in a way that it will allow you to give back the power to the people.

Adaptive leadership also means that you will be dealing with loss, because it is a new way of tackling issues people will resist it. Always remember, people do not resist change – people resist being forced to change. It is always a fear of what they might lose in the process of change, so you have to be aware of that and know how to include everyone in the process.

My greatest lesson was that there is no such thing as a leader, stop labeling people – the moment that happens, there is a shift from what needs to be done and the concentration becomes the leader.
If the system breaks down, people will look at you as the leader who needs to fix it and in the end this can destroy you, because no matter what you do – because of the label you have – you will be blamed for the downfall.

At the end of the day – you can’t learn on behalf of someone else, all you can do is be a resource and help people find their full potential.

So if we are not leaders what are we? Great people exercise great leadership skills, it is an action and not a position. Many of the people we think are leaders, maybe MDs, or CEOs just have positions of authority, they can use their power and resources to make things happen – that does not guarantee them as leaders.

Who is a leader?

Who is a leader?

Always remember, there are no easy fixes, but you have to believe in the process of solving adaptive challenges in an adaptive way.

Great lessons from my last Acumen East African fellows seminar on Adaptive Leadership. Credit for most of the material used in this article goes to Hugh O’Doherty from the Cambridge Leadership Associates.

Acumen is now accepting applications for the East Africa Fellows Program.  Applications are due September 23, so click here to learn more!

Note: this post originally appeared on Evelyn’s blog and has been reposted with permission.

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