Adaptive Leadership and a Mother



In Datio we trust people. We genuinely believe that people do the best they can and it’s a fact that we have verified by collecting the results from this kind of horizontal organization. Our consolidated teams are actually self-organized and they do not need anymore that complex hierarchy so common in traditional organizational structures.

However, leaders are needed in every step of our way: not one, but many. In this post, we will try to explain what kind of leaders we need and why.

The inspiration comes from the last Agile Open Space 2016 (AOS2K16), one of the most recognized events among the members of the Agile community in Spain, that took place in Santiago de Compostela last July. There, I particularly enjoyed the session about Adaptive Leadership, based on the Ronald Heifetz’s courses, because we all seem to know the definition of the word “leader” but, however, each one of our versions is probably different. Moreover, nobody want to be surrounded just by “leaders”. Instead, we need adaptive leaders and a good example of that kind of leadership could be my mother -although it could have been my father too.


The authority

First, we should start by defining the word Authority. A person, it does not matter how hard he tries, cannot become an authority by itself. In most cases he or she would obtain the opposite result and would not work out fine. It is the group, conformed by the rest of the people, the one giving the power to the potential authority, and it will do it through trust. A person becomes an authority once his “followers” trust him, and he reaches this goal by providing them with an order, a direction and/or protection.

The authority can be formal or informal. The formal authority context is mostly hierarchical or professional, while the informal authority comes out normally in a more natural way from a collective of people with similar interests (that can be professional goals). This informal authority will provide the order, direction and protection required and needed to cover those interests.



And now is the moment to introduce the one that I consider the most important leader in everyone’s life, the mother. Obviously the father role could be analyzed too in this topic, but I would like to emphasize the mother role as it is normally forgotten and taken for granted.

The relationship between the mother and the children evolves during their lives and we will see the different phases.

When they are babies or children they need an authority able to provide and to give example. Also they need to be educated in a context with rules. Then, the mother adopts the role of a formal authority -formality that exists just by the fact that there is a family hierarchy.


The good leader and the challenges

In order to understand why the good leader should be an adaptive one, we will review the different challenges that people confront daily in their personal and professional lives.

Every challenge is composed by:

the problem we are trying to resolve

the solution we find to solve the problem

the resources we need to implement the solution


These challenges can be classified into two different groups: technical and adaptive. challenges

A technical challenge is the one that comes out and no one wonder or discuss about the problem or the solution. The problem and the solution are clear for everyone. Once the solution is clear there might be enough resources or not, that will depend on the situation.

For example, coming back to the mother example, if a child comes home with a small wound the problem is identified. Then, the mother does not doubt the solution, which is cleaning the wound, or the resources, such as water and some band aids.

An adaptive challenge is the one that creates discussion. The problem and/or the solution is not clear, there are different visions of them, creating factions in the group. The different factions need to learn about the other visions and adapt, there is a conflict. An adaptive challenge does not require major efforts in this adaption, small efforts coming from the different sides should be normally enough to resolve the conflicts, although not everybody will agree easily on the terms. The resources, as with technical challenges, are optional, we might have or not have enough resources.

Now that we know enough about authority and groups and about the challenges they might face, it is the time to wonder, what is an adaptive leader? What is the true leadership?

Leadership is the process of mobilisation of a group so they can confront an uncertain and unclear reality and develop new capabilities to ensure their progress and well-being.

The important points to remember about this definition are:

  • The leadership is not about giving already decided answers or solutions to the group, is about making the group realize the reality and the need to develop new skills. They need to develop them and this situation will lead to the well-being they are looking for.
  • Leadership is not about satisfying the ego of the adaptive leader.


Leaving the authorization comfort zone

The leader admits not knowing the solution, what creates a sensation of imbalance in the group that can generate different reactions in the group. The leader challenges the group and by accepting certain level of incompetence, risks its own authority. This is why authority and leader are the opposite by definition, leadership is not anymore about given direct orders and an authority can only become a leader by coming out of his authorization comfort zone.

Once the child grows up and becomes more autonomous, when he or she becomes a teenager, the mother keeps that authority role, but evolves too. This phase is very important as the mother tries to provide the teenager with the tools (mainly psychological ones) to make decisions, to detect the problems and come out with good solutions. We can say that in this phase the mother keeps being the formal authority but starts being an adaptive leader too. It is not anymore about order and rules, but about warranting the well-being of the teenager through his own decisions, it is all about encouragement. It is obvious that in this phase conflict is well present. During this transition phase, the mother comes out of her authorization comfort zone.

Then there is a last phase, the son or daughter becomes an adult and independent. He does not depend directly on his parents resources anymore. However, the mother (and father) becomes normally a 100% adaptive leader.

There are thousands of examples in this phase where we can see clearly why the mother becomes the perfect leader, but probably the most obvious is the one when the son leaves the nest and goes to leave by his own. There are a lot of things both, the mother and the son, need to adapt to and a huge level of uncertainty. However, the mother will encourage the son to find a way to overcome the problems, and she will need to find a way to cope with the new situation, potential distance, new way of communications, etc.

Because of all this reasons, coming back to square one, I would like to find this true kind of leadership in every aspect of my life, but specially in the professional area, as it would encourage us to go on improving and learn from mistakes, plus it would encourage us to encourage others.






Sara Diez Castellanos

When I was 17 I came to Madrid to study what was going to mark my path for the rest of my life: Computer Science and Engineering. After some years in Madrid and Paris, I moved to UK where I could develop myself personally and professionally. I worked there in several companies. It was then when I learnt to love the Agile Methodologies world and I must say, I am not an easy to convince person. I learnt them, hands on, practising them and I was amazed by their capacity to improve the quality of life of the teams as well as the deliverable products. Nowadays I live in Madrid and work here in Datio, trying -as much as I can- to extend my knowledge of Agile, within the IT world and in other sectors.

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