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Leading like dolphins: the eight competencies of adaptive leaders

Look back – as they are so beautiful – once more… dolphins are truly inspiring. They are born leaders, examples ‘by doing’. They have a profound team culture and like team work. They are perfect communicators, very empathic and at the same time they love to make fun. They change leadership roles in an organic way, without suffering from their egos. So, let us translate their competencies to human leaders in adaptive organizations. In brief, there are eight skills we can set out that are essential for adaptive leaders.

Being inspirational

First, like said in an earlier whitepaper, a clear purpose is essential, as is the set of values your organization is propagating. Inspiration is the sum of purpose and values. Inspiring and passionate leaders want to have impact on the world surrounding them.

They are perfect storytellers who can inspire their people to be part of the impact creation. Inspiration has an immediate impact on all employees, clients, partners.

Being humble

Leadership is everybody’s obligation. Being a leader does not necessarily mean you know everything better than the others. Listen to your people, do not decide everything on your own. Only by listening to the others, shared leadership – like dolphins do – is possible. In practice? Look for ways to enable everybody in taking up personal responsibilities, let everybody notice where tensions are, let everybody propose ways to resolve potential trouble.

This shared responsibility also deals with your customers. Customers too can help you in taking the right decisions. Being humble to your customers is a strong signal of shared leadership. Humble leadership is the sum of shared leadership and customer focus.

Let’s have a little zoom on the customer focus. As a humble leader, you realize that changes often have external origins, where different ecosystems meet. Think of contacts with suppliers, customers, other stakeholders. This is where customer focus gets its origin. Customer focus is an ‘outside in’ movement, as opposed to the ‘inside out’ movement when propagating your purpose and values. The problem or the request from your customer is key: that is where you start. As an adaptive leader, you will focus on the question how to solve that customer’s need. Key here is to find ways to create value for your customers. By doing so, you also create value for your own organization.

Being constructive

Adaptive leaders are able to see exactly what organizational structure their company needs to be sufficiently innovative and responsive to change, with maximum support for cross-team collaboration.

They know how to make responsibilities visible in this structure and to define the right team and roles according to the value chain of their organization.

Being clarifying and alert

To be a good leader, you must be clear when communicating about strategies and goals. Yet, when it comes to team goals, let them be made by the team members. Give them ample room to collaborate, based on their autonomy. Make them alert as well, to continuously monitor their goals and – when needed – to adapt them.

It is wise to listen to your employees when clarifying strategies and goals. Often, they are faster than you are in detecting what is going on, and where adaptations are needed.

Key is to set up goals and strategies and doing so in a transparent, clear, clarifying way. Be alert to quickly discover the needs for change, and act accordingly.

Being transparent

No adaptive leadership without outspoken transparency. Transparency goes in two directions: from the leader to the teams (and their members) and vice versa. As a good leader, you must develop a context of open feedback. Your teams must make their realizations visible and transparent to all. They must discuss these realizations, evaluate and adapt where necessary.

Of course, as a good leader you must lead by example. Your own way of managing must be transparent and trust-building as well. Give open, honest feedback yourself and be open to listen to feedback from your people. There is nothing wrong with being wrong: if people say you made a mistake, agree when they are right.

Being focused on personal growth

Good leaders have by essence a focus on growth. To have your organization grow in a healthy, sustainable way, your team members are of utmost importance. Foster your people’s talents and strengths. Help them in their search for their personal talents. Talk to them about their personal aspirations and ambitions.

Here as well, you must self-reflect: what are your own growth ambitions? You need a specific mindset to be a growth-focused leader. Only when your own vision on growth is clear and transparent, you can adapt the mindset of your people.

So what does it take to have growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset? You need to like challenges, rather than being afraid of them. You never give up, even when things go wrong. You realize efforts are needed: they are just part of the game. You are open to feedback. You feel encouraged, rather than threatened by other people’s successes. You are convinced you can only grow by learning. Making mistakes is an integral part of this path.

Being a coach

Much has been written about the link between leading and coaching. Essential to be a good coach is having trust in your people, that they will use their passion to get the best out of themselves. Good leaders understand that their employees are the source of their success. That is why you must give your people enough space to help them building this success. Show them your appreciation, day after day, because they deserve it.

Good coaches will never underestimate the power of routine. It gives grip, it provides a certain rhythm in the daily work. A good example of a coaching routine is a regular one-on-one during you discuss the personal growth of your coachee.

Thirdly, you must respect the autonomy maturity level of your teams. They do not become self-steering or autonomous by themselves. They do so because they have a helping coach, a mentor. Smart and adaptive leaders understand the impact of these mentors: go and find them, and introduce them to your teams.

Being a care taker

Just like dolphins, good leaders take care of their people. There is a good reason to do so: in order to have your people perform to their best capacities, they must be able to concentrate, to focus. This is only possible if the leader takes care of their needs and sorrows.

When you really take care of your people, the employees will trust you. They will come to you when they have problems, feel tensions, have a lack of motivation, suffer from conflicts, do not see the focus. As a care taker, your task is to make the work floor of all your teams trouble-free. For you to stay on top of these obstacles, it is wise to visualize all processes leading to obstacles.

These eight basic competencies make good leaders, acting agile, and behaving like dolphins. No egos, team players ‘pur sang’, empathic, good communicators, and always in for some fun.