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COVID-19: Why an ‘Enabling Leadership’ Style is Needed for Innovation, Spread and Adoption

Q community member, Diane Ketley discusses a recent conversation with Mary Uhl-Bien and Matthew Mezey, and shares her insights on why 'Enabling Leadership' is needed for innovation, spread and adoption.

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‘Enabling leadership’ is very different from the normal order-driven operational leadership style. Enabling leadership requires a mindset shift such that ‘my role is to think about how I can facilitate and enable adaptation, emergence and change’, rather than directing people what to do.

Enabling leadership style is about complexity thinking (COVID-19 – A Complexity Leadership Response) and creating the conditions for emergence and therefore for adaptation to allow for change (The Importance of Local Adaptation in Innovation Spread and Adoption to enable change). It requires thinking about how to open up adaptive space (COVID-19 Crisis: Creating Adaptive Spaces and Enabling the Spread and Adoption of Innovation), how to operate in adaptive space, knowing when adaptation and change is needed through looking at trends, being agile and ready to bring change in.

The wall of resistance

Mary Uhl-Bien recently joined Matthew Mezey and me, via Zoom, to share her insights on the current complex challenges COVID-19 brings and illustrate these insights with examples from the USA and UK.

Mary shared an example of a US training programme where physicians and administrators work together combining clinical and operational aspects to create a pull for an innovation into the system rather than a push.

The wall of resistance to change can come from both sides i.e. the administrator or clinicians, innovators or business as usual.  A mindset shift is needed for all involved, in different ways for different groups. In the US training programme example, the administrators are focused on the health of the organisation, but also need new ideas to come into the system. This means they need to be flexible to accommodate the change. The physicians are focused on patient health but also need to consider the organisation’s business strategy. There is the need to align interests, rewards and incentives so all can work together. With the walls of resistance down, the recipients of the change (administrators/business as usual) partner with the individuals who are trying to champion the change (physicians / entrepreneurs).

The mindset shift opens up the system for adaptive space which is where people come together with different ideas, work together on those ideas and refine them.

Diagram of enable leadership in a molecular model

How Does Enabling Leadership Work?

Enabling leadership is focused on enabling spread and adoption and to enable spread and adoption adaptive space is needed. Enabling leadership is knowing when and where adaptive space is needed and working to open that up. The aim is to take down the wall of resistance, create the adaptive space which creates the opportunity for people to connect and engage in different ways around a shared purpose and accomplish something of benefit.

Enabling leadership is creating the conditions that allow the spread to happen

An enabling leader understands how to open up adaptive space, knows where and when it’s needed and that operational systems that are flexible and accommodating of adaptive change are also needed.

Other blogs in the series based on this conversation with Mary Uhl-Bien explore:

If you’re interested in how to enable the spread and adoption of innovations in healthcare, there are previous blogs and further blogs to follow.

Subscribe to this blog and follow @DianeKetley @HorizonsNHS, #nhsspread.

Further information and reading

NHS Horizons’ work on spread and adoption of innovation, and forthcoming online publication, is informed by Mary’s work. NHS Horizons identify the need for a new mindset with an increased understanding of complexity and interdependencies, the need to create a pull of innovation alongside the traditional push approach with attention to relationships and the impact of asking people to change their routines and behaviour.

M. Uhl-Bien. How ‘Adaptive Spaces’ enable innovation in healthcare and beyond. 2019. Q community webinar.

M. Uhl-Bien. How to master the art of creating ‘Adaptive Spaces’. 2019 Q community webinar.

M J Arena, M Uhl-Bien. Complexity Leadership Theory: Shifting from Human Capital to Social Capital in People + Strategy, 2016 – open access

M Arena, R Cross, J Sims, M Uhl-Bien. How to Catalyse Innovation in Your Organisation in Sloan Management Review, 2017

Professor Mary Uhl-Bien, Ph.D. is BNSF Railway Endowed Professor of Leadership at Neeley School of Business at TCU, Texas, USA.

This blog is one in a series and was originally posted on the NHS Horizons website.


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