, ,

10 Adaptive Leadership Skills to Navigate Your Context

10 adaptive leadership skills transforming mission

Last week I shared that the first task of a leader is to identify the type of leadership challenge you are facing. We also introduced the idea that leaders attempt to address an adaptive issue with a tactical solution, leading to more challenges. Today, we’re exploring ten adaptive leadership skills you can learn, practice, and engage when you identify an adaptive challenge.

What leadership skills do you need to navigate an adaptive challenge in your local context?

Before I answer that question, let’s go to a familiar place…

You gather with other leaders around a meeting table. You are facing a decision. Together, you come face to face with the fact that something needs to change. And then someone speaks a familiar phrase. It’s a phrase that can become an opportunity for you as a leader. What’s the phrase?

“Things aren’t like they used to be.”

There are many variations of this phrase.

We’ve all said it at some point. I confess there are times I find myself irritated by that phrase. I know in the depths of my soul, “Get over it” is a less than gracious reply. Responding with a one-word question, “So?” doesn’t help move us forward. “That doesn’t help us” is a little too obvious. “Moving on…” dismisses the person who offered a truthful statement of current reality. But, the group is unsure what to do.

Yes, I’m being a bit dramatic to make a point. As a leader, it’s my place to help guide the conversation toward decision-making.

So what is a leader to do?

Seeing a New Way Forward

I’ve learned several skills that help me look at the conversation in a different way. Today, I see the statement “things are not like they used to be” as an opportunity. What’s the opportunity? To invite conversation about the competing values at play. Because if there are competing values, it’s likely I’ve spotted an adaptive challenge.

As you might remember from our previous post, the first task of a leader is to identify the type of challenge you are facing. If it’s an adaptive challenge, there are different skills needed to navigate a way forward. Each skill is isolated for clarity. You’ll use several at a time.

10 Adaptive Leadership Skills

Skill 1: Observing

Observing involves getting on the “balcony” and take a “higher” view of what is happening. This could be the most important skill of leadership. Look down on the “dance floor” and identify patterns. Here are examples of a few patterns we’ve noticed:

  • In 2014, it took an average of 26 worshippers to yield one new profession of faith in the West Ohio Conference
  • Since 2002, the UMC worship attendance decreased annually. Worship attendance decreased between 53,200 – 75,600 every year.
  • Rhetoric and actions around us are increasingly hateful, hurtful, and extreme
  • Division among theological perspectives, political ideologies, and social outlook continues to grow
  • We increasingly talk about the past and “the glory days.” We celebrate anniversaries of buildings and do not celebrate as many baptisms.

Skill 2: Identifying the competing values within an adaptive challenge

When there are multiple perspectives, you’ll likely find competing values. Use this leadership skill when you sense the verbal and non-verbal responses to an issue are conflicting, emotional, and/or extreme. It’s likely you’ve spotted competing values. In the example above, change draws out competing values. Here are examples of the competing values we see around us.

  • Guaranteed appointments AND pastoral accountability
  • Increasing rate of the boomer generation retiring from pastoral ministry AND fewer Gen X and Millennial Pastors
  • Personal needs, wants, and desires guiding choices AND proclaiming the kingdom of God
  • Kingdom priorities AND local church maintenance
  • Christendom mindset AND a post-Christian reality
  • Contextual ministry AND personal preferences
  • History/memories AND a future with hope

Skill 3: Interpreting

Listed below are two interpretations we hear, followed by an interpretation of reality that points to our purpose as a church. Pastors, you do this every week in preaching a sermon on Scripture. An ancient message is brought forward to the present time. This is what interpreting is about: translating information for understanding.

  • We’re telling ourselves a story that is division is near
  • The story we’re telling ourselves is there is not enough
  • The story we need to tell is about the love of God we know in Jesus Christ who has provided abundantly more than we could ever ask or imagine.

Skill 4: Intervening

Intervening is about taking action. Based on a hypothesis of what’s happening, lead. Intervening happens one step at a time. Interventions are also experiments. Don’t put more weight (or less) on the intervention than is necessary. You’re offering the best current guess to go forward. You’ll want to continue to observe, identify, and interpret. Doing so will mean continuing to collect “data” in all its forms. Here are a few examples of intervening:

  • Fewer middle school youth are attending Sunday School in the fall. You add a short-term, mid-week small group to explore a new time to focus on spiritual growth.
  • There are multiple deaths in a short period. You call on a care team to offer a monthly support group for grieving family members.
  • Several businesses have closed in a short period of time in your neighborhood/city. You explore with other leaders how to respond with short-term assistance and long-term community development.

Skill 5: Directing the focus.

This leadership skill is about focusing on the purpose (of the church, a ministry, and/or event). If our overarching purpose is to make disciples and transform the world, let’s keep our focus there. Ideas will come and go. Directing the focus is not about rigid adherence to longstanding traditions. It is about asking how you will live into the purpose in this time and place.

When it’s time for a new ministry experiment, start with the purpose. Then, “date” the ideas. Do not get married to the ideas when it first appears. We cannot be wedded to where you think we will end up. We must focus on our purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Here are a few questions to ask yourself about directing the focus:

  • What is our purpose for this ministry?
  • Is division, empathy, and/or nostalgia preventing us from focusing on our purpose?
  • Will we claim the reality of changing people and financial resources? Then, will we lead toward new ways of being in ministry?
  • Will the mission guide our focus and serve as a filter for what we do?

Skill 6: Regulating the stress.

You might think of this leadership skill as “regulating the temperature” in the room. This is where you’ll need to turn up or turn down the “heat” in your midst. If the stress level is getting high and impairing decision making, it may be time to lower the stress. If the anxiety among the leaders in the church is invisible, you may need to introduce tension/anxiety/stress to lead change. But first, you must regulate your own stress. Here are a few ideas to explore this leadership skill:

  • Leaders add anxiety to a team ONLY for the purpose of movement. Do not add anxiety when it reflects your emotional state.
  • Explore how the competing values listed above increase your anxiety. What will you do to manage the anxiety?
  • What tension/stress/anxiety needs to be introduced to elicit action?

Skill 7: (re)Framing the issue

If you’ve ever cropped a picture on your cell phone or with an application on your computer, you have reframed a picture. This skill is about looking at an issue in a new way. It involves naming the competing values so they can be explored.

For example, the Gap Assesment we use with churches involves rating the personal importance and congregational effectiveness of 25 items. One of the items relates to integrity in thought, word and action. Often, there is a large gap between how important integrity is to individuals (very important) and the effectiveness of the congregation (ineffective). When confronted with the reality that they are the church and the effectiveness of the church depends on their personal integrity, the conversation shifts. The conversation was reframed for understanding and engagement, moving leaders beyond “us/them” mentality.

Skill 8: Giving back the work

This leadership skill focuses on the “owner” of a leadership challenge. Pastors and chairpersons do not have to own the entirety of an adaptive challenge. Giving back the work invites participation. It also invites other people to own the challenge you are facing. Here are three ways you can give back the work:

  • Identify 2-3 people who can complete a task. Ask them to work together to bring it to completion.
  • Contact a homebound person to make phone calls to 5-6 people for an upcoming ministry.
  • Divide the responsibilities for hosting an event between 3-4 people.

Skill 9: Tolerating ambiguity

Get comfortable with what you know and what you don’t know. Then clearly communicate it. Don’t confuse hearsay with facts. We do not know what 2020 will bring. But the reality is we do not know what tomorrow will bring either!  We do know and believe in the God we know in Jesus. Here are a few reminders about the ambiguity we live with:

  • We do not know everything that is happening in the lives of the people in our church
  • You cannot predict local, national, or world events that can impact ministry
  • We can stand firmly with our mission and not be anxious or afraid of what will come

Skill 10: Providing a safe environment

This leadership skill focuses on the culture of the local church. The customs and unspoken expectations of a group often create a safe or unsafe environment. No, you can’t simply state “this is a safe environment” and it becomes so. Integrity in words and action are important in creating safe environments.

  • Ask yourself, “Is there space for people to risk, share, and be authentic?” Now ask other people. If anyone says “no” there is work to do.
  • Safety unfolds on emotional, spiritual, cognitive, and physical levels. All four are important.
  • Do you regularly experiment with new ideas, concepts, and challenges? Some experiments will fail. Failure can be a learning tool. When it is, it’s likely you’re creating a safe environment.
  • How do you provide ongoing feedback? Natural, ongoing feedback that is given and received with grace is a sign of a safe environment. Again, you can’t declare this. Ask and listen to how feedback is received.

Every day is an opportunity for you to lead. There are adaptive challenges in every local church. Practicing the above leadership skills will help you be and become a more effective leader.

Do not attempt to work all the leadership skills for every adaptive challenge you face. Instead, ask the question, “What skill do I need to practice in this leadership moment?”

In Christ,

Sara Thomas



0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *