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Navigating Through Darkness – The Essential Role Of Adaptive Leadership In Chaotic Times

Maya Niksic is a Belgrade-born, Harvard-educated Serbian-American women’s leadership expert. Welcome to Maya's world where unleashing your inner superstar is the daily agenda. Maya is the Founder and CEO of Adaptive Leadership Atelier.

Executive Contributor Maya Niksic

In a world characterized by relentless change and unpredictable challenges, the call for leaders equipped with the capacity to navigate complexity has never been louder. As we prepare to face the adaptive challenges of our era, this article embarks on an exploratory journey into adaptive leadership, tailored for a visionary leader ready to transform their antiquated narratives. Drawing from the deep well of adaptive leadership principles, this exploration illuminates the path for leaders seeking to navigate the complexities of our times. My work, underpinned by the teachings of renowned leadership authorities such as Ronald Heifetz of Harvard Kennedy School, highlights the importance of mobilizing individuals and organizations to tackle deep-seated, complex challenges.

Pink lotus flower on pond

The call for adaptive leadership

Adaptive leadership is about confronting the uncomfortable truths, challenging the status quo, and encouraging growth by stepping into the unknown. Adaptive leadership transcends traditional leadership schools of thought by equipping leaders with the ability to navigate the complexities and uncertainties of the postmodern world. This approach emphasizes learning, emotional resilience, and the capacity to mobilize meaningful change in the face of adaptive challenges  problems that cannot be addressed through standard solutions or existing knowledge alone. My journey led me to embrace this form of leadership that is not only responsive but also deeply transformative.

What is adaptive leadership?

In an epoch where the familiar contours of our world are increasingly blurred by turmoil, and a world as we know it perpetually on the brink, leaders are called upon to navigate not by the stars, as sailors once did, but by the shifting sands beneath their feet. This is the essence of adaptive leadership: the capacity to lead when the map changes, when the stars blink out, and when the desert winds erase the sand trails we have come to rely upon.

The heart of leadership: At its core, adaptive leadership is the process of mobilizing individuals and groups to tackle tough problems and thrive in the face of adversity. It is about orchestrating the confrontation of impediments to progress, fostering environments where difficult conversations catalyze inescapable changes.

Adaptive challenges: Our world overflows with adaptive challenges complex issues that cannot be solved by traditional fixes but require us to change, to grow, and to evolve. From my experiences leading through change, I have learned that the true measure of progress is not just in the solutions we find but in the journey of discovery we undertake, challenging our values, beliefs, and behaviors.

The adaptive challenge: Facing adaptive challenges is like navigating a ship through stormy seas. It requires a deep understanding of the dynamics at play within our organizations and communities, and the courage to steer toward a reality that aligns with our highest aspirations. Adaptive challenges are characterized by their complexity, requiring leaders to mobilize collective intelligence and foster an environment conducive to experimentation and learning. These challenges often involve confronting deeply held beliefs and values, necessitating a shift in behavior and mindset across the organization.

Technical challenges: Technical challenges are characterized by the clarity of both the problem and the solution, often requiring specific expertise or procedural knowledge to be addressed effectively. They do not necessitate a shift in underlying beliefs or systemic change, making them more straightforward to tackle than adaptive challenges. However, technical problems can evolve into adaptive ones if there is a lack of motivation, coordination, or resources within the group tasked with implementing the solution.

Embracing the adaptive work: Adaptive work demands creativity, persistence, and courage. It's about venturing into the unknown, armed with the understanding that the solutions we desperately seek lie in our willingness to question the status quo and to experiment with new approaches.

Authority and leadership: Authority, while a valuable resource, is distinct from leadership. Leadership transcends the traditional boundaries of authority by mobilizing individuals towards adaptive change and growth, focusing on the capacity to inspire and facilitate transformative work beyond compliance. While authority is often conferred based on position or role, providing protection, direction, and order, leadership thrives on the voluntary and collective engagement of individuals to address complex challenges.

Learning from failure is a cornerstone of adaptive leadership. The journey of adaptive leadership is deeply personal and unavoidably public. The ethos of adaptive leadership is rooted in embracing failure as a learning opportunity. It’s about making space for reflection, understanding the underlying currents at play, and redefining success in terms of learning and growth.

Towards a new paradigm of leadership

The pillars of my approach: adaptive leadership, immunity to change, vertical learning, compassionate inquiry, developmental coaching, and grief work.

Confronting the immunity to change: My work dives deep into the heart of why we resist change, even when we know it’s necessary. Drawing upon the insights of Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, I’ve seen firsthand how uncovering our hidden commitments can unlock doors to transformative growth.

The journey of vertical learning: Vertical learning is about expansion—not just acquiring new skills but fundamentally transforming our ways of thinking, relating, and being. It's a pathway to navigating complexity with a richer perspective, a journey I’ve navigated personally and professionally.

Embodying developmental coaching: Developmental coaching is where the essence of my work comes to life. It’s about partnering with leaders and visionaries to navigate the stories we tell ourselves, to challenge our perceptions, and to cultivate the capacity to thrive amidst the paradoxes and polarities of our lives.

Integrating mindfulness and embodiment: Inspired by the ancient wisdom of Kundalini yoga and somatic practices, my approach underscores the importance of being fully present—in body, mind, and spirit. It’s about creating spaces where leaders can connect with their innermost selves, leading from a place of centered strength and clarity.

Compassionate inquiry: Compassionate Inquiry is a therapeutic approach pioneered by Dr. Gabor Mate that delicately unravels the layers of one's emotional landscape and underlying narratives through gentle, empathetic questioning. It aims to uncover hidden beliefs, traumas, and unconscious patterns that inhibit personal growth and healing. This method fosters a profound connection to the self, empowering leaders to transform their inner dialogue and embrace their truth with kindness and compassion.

Embracing wholeness in grief and soul work: Grief work, as illuminated by Francis Weller, is a profound journey into the heart of our sorrow, acknowledging and honoring our pain as a crucial step towards healing and wholeness. It invites us into communal spaces where our grief is not only shared but also serves as a gateway to deeper connections with ourselves and others. Soul work, intertwined with grief work, is the exploration and cultivation of our innermost being, guiding us to live more authentically and fully in the acknowledgment of our true selves and the acceptance of life's impermanence and beauty.

Concluding thoughts

My journey into the realms of adaptive leadership, vertical learning and griefwork has been deeply transformative, not just for me but for those I've had the privilege to work with. These concepts aren't just theoretical; they are sensible resources that can help anyone navigate the complexities of the modern world with grace, resilience, and effectiveness.

Conclusion: A call to transformation

As we stand at the threshold of a new era of leadership, the invitation is open: to step into the arena with courage, to lead not just with strategies and solutions, but with our whole selves. This is the essence of adaptive leadership—the journey I invite you to embark on, guided by the principles of resilience, transformation, and a deep, unwavering commitment to growth.

Let’s connect! Come with me on a year-long journey at Brainz Magazine as we explore each of these topics in more depth. Join my tribe by signing up for my newsletter here and be the first one to know when Adaptive Leadership Atelier goes live later this year! Follow us on a transformational exploration across Instagram, LinkedIn, X, and uncover more treasures on my website!

Finisterre, from David Whyte’s collection, Pilgrim

The road in the end taking the path the sun had taken, into the western sea, and the moon rising behind you as you stood where ground turned to ocean: no way to your future now but the way your shadow could take, walking before you across water, going where shadows go, no way to make sense of a world that wouldn’t let you pass except to call an end to the way you had come, to take out each frayed letter you brought and light their illumined corners, and to read them as they drifted through the western light; to empty your bags; to sort this and to leave that; to promise what you needed to promise all along, and to abandon the shoes that had brought you here right at the water’s edge, not because you had given up but because now, you would find a different way to tread, and because, through it all, part of you could still walk on, no matter how, over the waves.


Read more from Maya Niksic


Maya Niksic, Leadership Coach

A dynamo in the world of leadership development, Maya Niksic has taken the leap from the heights of NYC's investment banks to the frontlines of women's leadership coaching. Belgrade-born and Harvard-polished, she moves through life's complexities with resilience shaped by conflict and crisis. Maya is a blend of mystic and alchemist, turning personal and professional battlegrounds into extraordinary growth with each inquiry. Maya is not just coaching she is revolutionizing the way we lead and live. Welcome to Maya’s world where unleashing your inner superstar is the daily agenda. Maya is the Founder CEO of Adaptive Leadership Atelier. Her favorite things include black tea and suede boots.





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