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The Opportunity of Adaptive Leadership

“The Paradoxical Co-existence of Passionate Consistency and Meaningful Flexibility”

Organizations face key challenges as they try to become truly global. One such challenge is the highly astute distinction consultants draw between “technical” and “adaptive.”

Let’s consider a company that wants to improve communication across its global operations. In order for communication to improve substantially, current communication paradigms are likely to need challenging. Individuals and teams will need to learn to listen more acutely and to appreciate what they hear more expansively. Key leaders must be aware of all the ways communication takes place. They will have to check to make sure learnings are being shared and communicated horizontally, laterally, across geographical boundaries.

Given all the above, it is clear that the aspiration to improve communication requires significant adaptation in terms of mindset, “heartset,” and behavior from leaders, from teams, and from individuals throughout the organization.

However, it is highly tempting to treat the problem as “technical.” If we succumb to the temptation we are likely, for example, to improve our networking to ensure we’re all wired. We might run some cultural sensitivity courses. We may multiply the number of meetings or forums on the assumption that when we’re together, communication will somehow naturally happen (regardless of the stockpile of evidence to the contrary from all over the world). It is highly unlikely that the spirit of the aspiration will be fulfilled through this confection of frankly “symptomatic” remedies.

Despite the seduction of applying the simplistic solution of technical fixes to adaptive problems, I’ve had the pleasure, in a variety of global scenarios, of witnessing and participating in the alternative: namely adaptive solutions to adaptive problems. Let’s look at three of these.


Some years ago, 3M Gulf had a fairly cohesive Board, which was a mixed blessing, as many of the nationalities on the Board came from the same region. There was surface harmony but inadequate challenge between and among the members. The tempo and feel of the organization had become highly specific to the personalities in charge and some of the performance and innovation edge had become dulled.

3M opted to send in a very dynamic leader, Bill Schnier, who came from a sales and marketing background in the U.S. and did not have a lot of Middle Eastern experience. He was sent in to “internationalize” the culture and rekindle a more market-based orientation.

As we can see, this is an adaptive aspiration. There could have been such technical palliatives as just changing the nationalities around, so that on paper the Board would appear more “diverse;” or introducing more sales and marketing initiatives, without proper consideration of the business needs or customer aggravations or 3M’s own evolving global brand.

However, thankfully, Bill was far too pragmatic and value-oriented to go down that path.

As a first step, a more diverse Board was inducted with four or five different nationalities represented. Bill’s style was initially a jolt to members of the organization. They thought he brought a “Wild West,” “there’s a new sheriff in town” mentality with him. It seemed to them that he wanted to do too much of a clean sweep, potentially invalidating their past.

When we began our work together, Bill was clear that he first wanted to build unity at the senior team level. He wanted a team of various nationalities that could value their diversity, but transcend their barriers. He also wanted them to align on how the senior team could commit together, as well as what they would collectively target.

Bill was sensitive enough to understand that he needed insight into how he was coming across. He realized, as few leaders bother to do, that message intended and message received are frequently different, causing abundant and often recurring misunderstandings.

Bill had me interview and coach his senior leaders to get their unvarnished feedback on progress since our “catalyst” session, on Bill, and on the leadership culture. As I elicited their views, a number of perceptions emerged that I converted into “action steps” rather than laments or complaints and shared with Bill. It was intriguing to see how Bill’s desire to retain a balance between work and personal life was often seen as “country club leadership” by those who didn’t understand that focus and productivity are more important than just slogging away. Bill realized how sometimes his bombastic style was perceived by other cultures as disinterest in divergent viewpoints and that he also needed to be alerted as to various cultural tripwires.

Equally though, we wanted to ensure that Bill’s desire to produce a more meritocratic, results-and-market-based organization did not get derailed. So after each bit of feedback, we asked:

“how can we channel this new awareness to deliver your REAL message?”

Bill was extremely receptive to the feedback, and was grateful for the constructive focus we were giving it.

During his three year tenure, Bill helped deliver excellent business results. He liberated a true performance culture that has continued to flourish since his departure, he provided creative “provocation” to some of the stalemates of the past, and guided an organization that became highly respected within 3M as an exemplar in many practices (quite different from what he had earlier inherited).

Had Bill not been willing to adapt personally, had he not challenged each of his senior team members to do the same, the transformation was very unlikely to have succeeded.


My next example, Unilever Vietnam, belongs to a parent company that has been facing various global challenges during the last several years. A strong and capable company overall, Unilever’s growth had sputtered somewhat, and it had been seeking to not only restructure for greater effectiveness and efficiency (the technical aspect) but also to improve the quality of leadership and instill the spirit of enterprise throughout its global operations (the adaptive part).

Vietnam, as a country that has recently opened up its market, is intensely competitive with a high-growth market and a consumer base very much up for grabs. Everything has to be minted anew there.

Unilever Vietnam came under the Chairmanship of a dynamic and highly execution-oriented leader, Michel Dallemagne. A Belgian, he and an extremely diverse Board (made up of Dutch, Australian, Indian, Korean and Malaysian leaders) set out to deliver a high-growth company.

They produced meteoric growth, but with it came some casualties. Various Board Members weren’t performing as the organization had hoped they would. While execution was highly prized, some of the human dimensions weren’t being addressed and there was quite a bit of burn-out and disenchantment at the next-level of Vietnamese leaders. Because the high growth was coming at a human cost, there was also a question of sustainability. Moreover, competition from Proctor & Gamble (Unilever’s chief global rival) was heating up.

When we embarked on our work together I was grateful to learn that, despite a reputation for being a very difficult taskmaster and listening only selectively, Michel was open to ongoing adaptation as a leader. His head was in execution, but his heart really was with his people. His behavior sometimes did not relay that message effectively, driving some people “underground.” However, Michel has a highly developed “BS detector” and when people disengaged or went underground, it incensed him. He wanted people to engage, to prepare, to share their energy and passion, and even have the guts to take him on (no easy task!).

As with 3M, we began by building deep relationships between Michel and all the members of his senior leadership team. A Board Member had recently been sacked and this crisis gave us the opportunity to come together and decide what kind of culture we were going to build. The team spoke of their anger at each other, their pain, and their confusion. On the other hand, they spoke of their pride in their achievements, their passion to win, and their commitment to their own people and teams.

They first decided to work more as a team (and less as an assortment of individuals), to share ideas and build alignment early. They also chose to define what leadership would mean for them in this context. Finally, they gave each other challenging personal accountabilities to accomplish by a clearly specified time period. Everyone including Michel, relished the clarity, the “stretch,” and the commitment implied by these “mutual Wows,” as we called them.

With the senior team aligned, the Board led about 50 of their next-level leaders into a similar leadership journey with us. As we traveled around DaNang, living with villagers, doing community work, camping together, hiking, visiting a Unilever sponsored orphanage, and playing team games on the beach, something wonderful happened. The team, sensing a new unity at Board level, found the courage to ask Michel to create “more space” for sharing. They asked for the other Board Members to be heard. And these next-level leaders asked the senior leaders to listen to them, to hear them out. They told the Board what the team needed to grow, to thrive, and for individuals to feel both stimulated and important.

Given Unilever Vietnam’s execution focus, the follow-up on the initiatives to which they had committed during the Journey was excellent. Board Members took on coaches, the coaching culture became an area of commitment for the entire organization, and the newly found team spirit became even more sharply focused on world-class consumer connection and exceptional business results.

More than three years later, the team is healthier than ever. New leaders have come in, but the culture still survives. Over this period, Vietnam has been among the countries where Unilever has consistently outperformed Proctor & Gamble. Unilever Vietnam has been the fastest growing Unilever company in Asia. Michel has gone on to a bigger regional job, and his new regional team has been highly complimentary of his tenacity (his natural talent) as well as his openness and commitment to developing his team (his adaptive achievement).

We notice again, how the breakthrough came from huge personal evolution and adaptation by the senior leader and his team,

as well as the larger team once an opening had been created.


Let’s travel to Pakistan for our third example. Pakistan has had a challenging business environment for years, exacerbated by all the political and economic upheavals flowing from 9/11. Maersk Sealand is the world’s largest shipping company. Like the companies above, it has been an iconic company in its field for many decades. Despite global excellence, Maersk Sealand’s Pakistan operation had been floundering. The senior team was in disarray, suffering from severe personality clashes among the top three general managers. The company was losing money.

A highly charismatic and visionary leader, Jesper Lok, arrived on the scene. Jesper brought in breakthrough thinking and business rigor, but he knew that without innovation in how the senior team related together, and without building the management capabilities of the next-level, the company would always struggle. All the rigor and intellectual “visioning” in the world would be a “technical” teddy bear otherwise.

Beginning our work together, we explored in depth what a vision of success would entail, and how each senior team member would have to behave to enable it. In short, we personalized the challenge to each person. Jesper’s own commitment and possibility mind-set contributed a great deal. Flowing from our initial interactive session, the senior team began to communicate haltingly, but definitely.

Within a year, having experienced the benefits, the team voted for a 360 system of feedback. This was not in existence at the corporate level at Maersk globally at that time, so we designed one for them. It was based on 10 core management and leadership practices that emerged from the people themselves. We distilled these by engaging the entire management pool in a set of highly vigorous and energizing sessions. They have used that 360 system very powerfully for several years, and have even done “road shows” for other Maersk operations with it.

As a result of 360 feedback, the team also decided to expand their concept of leadership and, for the first time in their Pakistan operation, engage the entire management cadre not just for sessions, but overall, in all key initiatives. In their own Management meetings, they invited next-level leaders, and Jesper had me show up twice a year to challenge, stimulate, and share what was happening in the world of leadership and management. We looked at models and applied them to Maersk, we read books together and we took select members to global seminars. Each time Jesper did a “deep dive” with junior and senior leaders relative to what they had learned and their applications.

By the time Jesper left, the company was making profits and growing those profits at 20-30% each year. The senior team was much stronger, new business had been innovated and new markets created, even in the aftermath of 9/11.

When Jesper’s successor, Etienne Rocher came in, he faced a different challenge. Costs had to be contained and growth had to be balanced with this requirement. New strategies and acquisitions were in play globally and locally and had to be integrated. The senior team was communicating better, but still not as completely as necessary for them to take the company to the next level of performance and to become good coaches of their own direct reports. There was also a feeling that customer service could still be improved, and there was disaffection relative to salaries and other HR policies that dampened passion throughout the organization.

Etienne was quite different from Jesper. Not as fast-moving, not as charismatic, he was, however, very good at analyzing and understanding the root of a problem. He was as caring and concerned about his people as Jesper had been, and he was dedicated to driving and amplifying results, albeit in a more organized way.

Because Etienne’s style was more private, some of his team thought he didn’t trust them, or that he was hoarding information and decisions.

Etienne had us continue our work, using 360, and coaching both him and his senior team. At the same time, he re-imagined and reinvented the compensation structure. I helped him communicate this more openly, so that more people understood the audacity and sweep of what he was undertaking on their behalf. He helped create a compensation structure that had greater transparency than virtually all other Maersk operations worldwide. Maersk Pakistan was continuing to be a pioneer (as it had with 360 and other initiatives) in a market that so many people expect so little from, due to Pakistan’s state of overall development and its reputation in the global press. But leaders matter more than environment. That is the essence of what we learn when witnessing adaptive leadership.

As with Unilever, we took the senior leaders on a Journey in Sri Lanka. They lived together, ate with local villagers, painted a poor school, built rafts and rowed across rivers, hiked up to caves, and shared openly with each other the emotional impact of each person’s behavior on the team. Etienne learned how he was coming across, and his team discovered where his real heart was. Even ardent cynics said it was a “watershed,” and that the people present spoke truly and deeply in a way they would never have thought possible. Etienne enabled it by modeling the vulnerability and courage required for this to happen.

During Etienne’s tenure growth sharply accelerated further, the senior team delivered increasingly outstanding results, employee passion increased, costs were reduced, and Maersk Pakistan went from strength to strength, despite all kinds of challenges from regional bosses who couldn’t quite understand what this “people fascination” was all about.

The fear of the adaptive seems to rise as we get more remote from people and operations. Retaining this sense and remaining committed to it viscerally is what distinguishes truly great leaders. It’s certainly one of the reasons why so many still hang on Jack Welch’s words-because the essential message he distils from his highly adaptive years of leadership is about people, personal growth and an unshakeable commitment to helping the organization win by helping its people to win.


If we review all three case studies, we find some commonalities. First, we see a courageous facing of the adaptive challenges without any technical sugar-coating. Secondly, we find a willingness to be held personally accountable by senior leaders who, with genuine curiosity rather than defensiveness, take on the adventure of personal adaptation. Third, we find a clear awareness of the need to energize and engage team members and both invite and challenge them to live into the adaptation required. Finally, there is a desire to evaluate continually the credibility and quality of the adaptation against the stated vision and the organizational results of greatest priority to the organization.

Leadership is not a technical practice. It isn’t a primarily cerebral act.

A vision is proved only through action and focus. A strategy comes alive through the paradoxical co-existence of passionate consistency and meaningful flexibility. This in turn requires behaviors that endorse both as required.

Vision and strategy, however, as the case studies show, require a leadership culture to sustain them and to actualize them fully. A culture sponsors strategy and provides the soil for our vision to become manifest. This in turn requires us to grow and transform. Leaders can’t ask of others what they won’t have the guts or drive to go for themselves. The opportunity of adaptive leadership is, therefore, for leaders to embody the vision, be behaviorally stimulated by the strategy, and be willing to be personally challenged and enlarged by the culture needed to help their organizations win.

Originally published in Leader to Leader (2005)

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