During the month of July I had the opportunity to take both some vacation and some study time. The vacation time was spent largely in shuffling the kids and the dog to summer camps, programs at PVCC, lawncare jobs, and "doggy daycare." That long list of movies I was going to finally cut down to size? Not so much.
As for the study time, I had two primary objectives. The first was to make some headway on the book that's been burbling up for the past year or so. (Its working title is, What If We Really Shared the Ministry? a challenge to clergy and an invitation to the laity.) I'm happy to say that I've got something down in each chapter, and a couple are fairly near to completion. There's still a lot of work ahead, but I am grateful to have this opportunity to dedicate some time to laying the foundation.
The other project on which I focused my attention was beginning what will probably be a multi-year self-directed study of some of the more current literature on leadership. I began with The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. It was published in 2009, and written by Ronals Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky. Hefetz had written the groundbreaking 1998 book, Leadership Without Easy Answers, and he and Linsky co-wrote the 2002, Leadership on the Line: staying alive through the dangers of leading. The three work together at Cambridge Leadership Associates, a global leadership development practice.
In their preface to The Practice of Adaptive Leadership they write, "Our previously published work had been focused on developing the conceptual framework and practical basis for adaptive leadership, but as we talked together that night, we realized that we knew a lot more about the operational nitty-gritty, how to actually do adaptive leadership, than we had written before." This book is their attempt to show how -- clearly and directly -- how to put their theories into practice.
A little about that theory -- they write:
"The practice of leadership, like the practice of medicine, involves two core processes: diagnosis first and then action. And those two processes unfold in two dimensions: toward the organizational or social system you are operating in and toward yourself. That is, you diagnose what is happening in your organization or community and take action to address the problems you have identified. But to lead effectively, you also have to examine and take action toward yourself in the context of the challenge. In the midst of action, you have to be able to reflect on your own attitudes and behavior to better calibrate your interventions into the complex dynamics of organizations and communities. You need perspective on yourself as well as on the systemic context in which you operate." (p.6)This two-part process in their two dimensions is reflected in the book's organization. The second section (the first is is introductory materials) looks at how to diagnose the system, while the third looks at how to "mobilize" the system or, in other words, how to act to deal with adaptive challenges. The fourth section looks at how, essentially, to diagnose yourself as a system and then, in the fifth and last part, how to "deploy" yourself. And true to their word, the authors share concrete specific questions to ask, challenges that will undoubtedly be encountered, and ways to respond to both.
Early on Heifetz, et al. provide a very simple definition: "Adaptive leadership is the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive." It's simple, but there's a lot there. Throughout the book they make clear that adaptive leadership is a practice. It is, in many ways, a mind-set more than a set of prescribed measures to be taken. Each situation needs to be seen as the unique entity that it is -- something which builds on the past yet is also totally new. Because of this, no one can claim to be an expert adaptive leader -- the best we can do is to keep practicing the art.
Next, adaptive leadership is about mobilizing people. This is not simply about "getting the job done," but about helping the organization or community to work together so that the job gets done. They write:
"Too many people in authority work to make those under them dependent on them. The more dependent the followers, the more indispensable the authority figure feels. Your job in exercising adaptive leadership is to make yourself dispensable. The only way you can do that is to constantly give work back to others so you can develop their abilities and calibrate their current and potential talent for skills such as critical thinking and smart decision making." (p. 169) [And you can bet that paragraph is going to be in my book on shared ministry!]Then, the goal of adaptive leadership is the tackling of tough challenges, and this is one of the shifts of thinking that is critical to understanding this approach to leadership. The authors note that some of the problems organizations face are technical in nature. Many, in fact. These problems can be fairly clearly defined, and their solution(s) are generally clear as well. Not everyone may agree on any particular proposed solution, but solutions are clear. "While technical problems may be very complex and critically important (like replacing a faulty heart valve during cardiac surgery), they have known solutions that can be implemented by current know-how. They can be resolved through the application of authoritative expertise and through the organization's current structures, procedures, and ways of doing things." (p. 19) Even if the organization or community does not currently have the needed expertise in-house to address the problem, such experts do exist and can be brought in to help find solutions.
Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, "can only be addressed through changes in people's priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties. Making progress requires going beyond any authoritative expertise to mobilize discovery, shedding certain entrenched ways, tolerating losses, and generating the new capacity to thrive anew." (p. 19) The authors note that "the most common cause of failure in leadership" is when adaptive challenges are addressed as if they were technical problems. And this happens all to often because addressing the adaptive challenge is almost always going to be harder, more threatening to the status quo, then simply trying to solve a problem.
"When leading adaptive change, you will be courting resistance by stirring the pot, upsetting the status quo, and creating disequilibrium." In fact, they talk about the importance of maintaining a productive zone of disequilibrium wherein, "enough heat [is] generated by your intervention to gain attention, engagement, and forward motion, but not so much that the organization (or your part of it) explodes." (p. 29)
Looking back through my copy of the book there is almost more highlighting then clean type, with lots of pages dogeared and lots of arrows and exclamation points to indicate important ideas I want to return to. It is both something to read to educate oneself, but also a guide to look back at while engaged in the practice of adaptive leadership itself. It is full of ideas that are worth learning and important to remember.
One practical example: throughout the book there are specific questions to consider, and actions to take, in order to explore the ideas in one's own context. The way these sections are framed is, itself, one of the tools the recommend. The metaphor they use for the diagnosis, questioning, phase is, "getting on the balcony." Imagine a dance hall. While on the dance floor you have a very limited view of all that's going on, but if you go up to the balcony you have a different vantage point from which to observe everything. At the same time, if you only stayed up on the balcony you'd have no real interactions and so it's necessary to also be able to "get down on the practice field." The practice of Adaptive Leadership requires the skillful movement between these two perspectives. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership is a trustworthy guide.