Adaptive leadership presentation by Sina Retzlaff


A presentation by Sina Retzlaff, Samoa country representative for the Pacific Leadership Program and previously the first woman in the country to ever head the Samoa Chamber of Commerce. Sina is a leader focused on the economic development of Samoa and has a particular interest in addressing gender-based violence. She is the daughter of Misa Telefoni Retzlaff, who had a long political career, including serving as Deputy Prime Minister.

In August 2017, Sina Retzlaff gave an outstanding presentation at the annual conference of the Pacific Water and Wastewater Association in Samoa to the Pacific Young Water Professionals. It covers her reflections about leadership, the difference between technical and adaptive challenges, and the importance of ‘getting on the balcony’ to see the bigger picture when undertaking any change management process.

Her presentation is based on Ron Heifitz’s groundbreaking book, ‘Leadership without easy answers‘. We have broken Sina’s presentation down into separate sections, with a transcript of her presentation provided below. For each of the video segments, you will find a summary of her presentation in the pop-down menu, ‘Presentation transcript’.

Presentation topics

  • Leading change through adaptive leadership, and what it means
  • Adaptive change is harder than technical change
  • Care about losses during change, and take an overview
  • Delays, being attacked, and thinking politically
  • Look after yourself

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Leading change through adaptive leadership

Changes to social attitudes and behaviours is a deep and daunting challenge. There will be resistance to be overcome. We will need to get ‘buy-in’ and we will need to achieve community engagement and community ‘ownership’ of the change.

When we use adaptive leadership, we tackle the challenges and enjoy tackling them — as if we are playing rugby.

Change is a journey. We are moving towards an aspiration, a goal and it is different from the current reality. There will be some trial and error, some testing and some lessons learnt. There will be some small failures along the way.


First, we need to understand the current situation: where we are now. We have to recognise at the outset that some things are going to be expendable. There will be some losses. We have to look at the situation and choose what is expendable and what we are going to keep.

Second, we have to identify the potential resistance to change, right at the start. Why? Because the most common thing that happens is people say, “we want change”, but then everyone just embraces what they have and actually don’t want to change any of it. When you recognise that and expect resistance, you can smile through it and carry on quietly and firmly.

Third, we need to take some smart risks: experiment; remember there will be some failures. Expect them and do not think it’s all over. Hang on. Have some tolerance for a bit of failure. Keep your long-term vision in view, your shared purpose — it allows a tolerance of failure.

Adaptive part and technical part to the challenge

The challenge of change has a technical part and an adaptive part. In the Pacific, we are good at achieving the technical part — the legal and policy and physical infrastructure — thanks to our awesome development partners, who have helped in that. But we fall short when we forget that there is also an adaptive part of the solution.

For the adaptive part, we need community engagement. The adaptive part is where we work with people’s behaviours, their habits, their mindsets, their social norms that are deeply enrooted in the Pacific. Unless we deal with those as well as installing technical solutions, our progress will be limited and we will not make as much change we set out to make.

Purpose of change

We want to make a change. Have we thought about ‘why’? What is the purpose of the change? What do we keep? What do we abandon? What do we need to learn? We need to answer these questions when we are leading change. These adaptive KPIs will take longer to achieve than the technical KPIs.

Consider the gap between our aspirations and our reality. When we deal with the technical part we are often just tackling with symptoms. But to lead ‘real’ change we need to know the difference between the symptoms and the cause, and we have to tackle the cause. Unless we do that, the problem is likely to come back in a worse form.

So to tackle the cause we have to address people’s mindsets, their behaviours, their habits. Technically the solution may be good, and it may be easy, but it is also important to look at the adaptive part that deals with habits, mindsets and behaviours.

Also, we have to recognise that while people are the problem, they are also the solution. This is why nowadays we always talk about involving stakeholders. That takes community engagement. We have to bring in people, the community, as part of the solution. It will be experimental. It will involve risks. There are leaders who are very careful and conservative and that is good, but to achieve change we will have to break through the boundaries of ‘the norm’. We will have to be experimental, and take risks.


Leading change is fun and games until someone loses something. That person may be ourselves — our status, our job. So part of adaptive leadership is understanding that there will be losses.

Please observe the losses. When we are leading change, whether it’s early in our careers, whether it’s a little change in our little group, whether it’s a change in our division, or even if we are the CEO and changing entire systems in the organisation, people around us will be experiencing losses, and they are the leader’s problem as much as the sufferer’s problem. We need to understand what those losses are. Some are obvious — time, money, job security, power. But sometimes people are missing out on getting skills and knowledge and experience if we are not careful in leading change.

Interpretation: taking an overview

Imagine yourself on a balcony overlooking a scene. This is another part of adaptive leadership. We need to observe. We need to interpret what we observe. We don’t want to make assumptions or to interpret a situation in a way that upsets people. We want to make smart interpretations and then we want to intervene. ‘Getting on the balcony’ is a way of saying we need to take time out to make some smart interpretations of our observations. We observe something: what does it mean? We observe something: what’s going on there? What’s going on beneath?

This is different from the leader who observes and leaps into action. That person is fantastic and a real mover and shaker. They are recreating the patterns of the past. They are zooming the organisation along; everyone’s happy, the ministers are happy, all the KPIs are happy, the development partners are happy. We’re moving along. Making observations as we go. Taking action. The action was taken. Good.

But adaptive leaders get up on the balcony and gain a perspective that’s going to generate a new future. However, we have remembered there are expectations, and they need to be managed.

Limit of tolerance

Adaptive leadership recognises the limit of tolerance to change. Sometimes, the technical fix is a way of avoiding the ‘real work’, the adaptive part of the job. The technical fix makes us look busy and makes it look as if we are achieving goals, spending the aid money and so on, but we are actually avoiding the real work, avoiding tackling the mindset, avoiding the deeply rooted culture that we work in, avoiding all the norms that are around us that other people won’t or don’t want to change. So adaptive leaders need to know the limit of tolerance.

Another form of work avoidance happens when people attack the change agent, the messenger. They start looking for a scapegoat. They blame another group, another person, another ministry for their own inaction or lack of progress in making a change.

To be adaptive leaders, leading change, you will be the messengers and you will be the people who are attacked. Know these things are happening. Be the leader of the movers and shakers, and push through the attacks. Recognise them for what they are. Smile through them. You’re in authority, so you are being attacked. That’s fine. That is what people do. This is normal.

Don’t deny it. Don’t avoid it. People love to make drama. Recognise it as a smokescreen and work avoidance. It will take a toll on your emotional energy but actually is not worth all the drama.

Thinking politically

If you are leading change and not thinking politically, you will not get very far. Politics is a fundamental part of every little community. You have to learn to think politically. There will be factions. Identify them. Put yourself ‘on the balcony’ and identify the factions: which ones are conservative and which ones are the movers and shakers. But don’t cave in. Factions and different points of view are normal. It is awesome to have different points of view around the room when you are moving change. They will all expect different benefits and they will all have different perceived losses. You need to understand that.

However, you need to protect yourself. Each of us has only one brain, and we can only take on certain amounts of responsibilities and roles, and only meet some of all the expectations that are on us. Therefore, you will have to prioritise.

In summary

Be young professionals who understand the adaptive parts of your challenge, and mobilise others by creating the motivation. Find the difference between the will to do it and the skill to do it. You can always teach a skill, but people need to have a will to achieve.

Be young professionals that will motivate others to take up tough challenges. Add bravery to your knowledge. Allow your experiments and make your small failures big successes, and thrive on it.

Don’t just take the responsibility of doing something. Take the ownership of doing it. Say “I own this problem”, and then embrace it.


This interview and related content was originally part of the Kini Interview Series. Kini is a retired brand of the AWP and IWCAN

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