Harvard – The Art and Practice of Adaptive Leadership – A Debrief

Image‘Where do we begin?’. The week started with a question and ended with many, which was very appropriate considering we were there to learn how to tackle leadership development in the face of adaptive challenges.

We were a class of 62 from 20 different counties and 5 different continents. We were in a leadership laboratory where we were our very own guinea pigs! If an outsider stepped into our world last week, they might have seen a group engaged in heated debates (as might be expected) or they might have seen something less conventional e.g. a group engaged in a shared singing experience with everyone singing different tunes at the same time and importantly with not a consonant within ear-shot. There was not a dull day in the entire experience.

I will take many things away from the week. I will share just three of the themes here and I hope to elaborate on these and others in the coming weeks and months.

The first is one of leadership terminology. During the course of the week we became accustomed to talking about leadership as an activity rather than a position. Individuals can be in roles of authority and may or may not engage in acts of leadership from that position. Individuals equally may exercise leadership without any formal authority at all.

An approach to leadership challenges: we each arrived on the programme with a leadership challenge which we faced. We worked in teams over three days to tackle each leadership challenge. Day by day we were equipped with new thinking which dramatically increased our effectiveness in real time. The approach involved putting the problem at the centre, identifying factions/ interest groups relating to the issue at hand, what motivates them and what potential losses they would face should the challenge be resolved. This approach is something which I can see as beneficial to my coaching practice immediately.

The third big concept which I took away was  necessity to manage the heat in the system: I had read the book Leadership on the Line in advance of the programme (written by 2 of the faculty Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz) and I had become familiar with the notion of there being a ‘productive zone of disequilibrium’ in order to make change happen. Reading the theory however was very different to experiencing it first-hand. We encountered the challenges of  both too much and too little heat in the different groups and whilst both yielded the same result (a lack of progress), both felt very different and different strategies were required to move the group forward  in each case.

This programme used many different pedagogies in order to maximise the learning experience. It has been finely tuned over 14 years to deliver as they term it ‘above and below the neck learning’. We were warned to make a quiet re-entry into our work environments. I have some concrete ideas of how to take the experience forward but I have many other thoughts and areas to explore over the longer term. Watch this space!

Image 1: The library.

Image 2: Eadine touching the foot of John Harvard (which apparently brings good luck!).

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