Imagine a big room in the attic of a rural hotel in the Swiss mountains. There are 8 people, 2 facilitators (clown/ consultants) and 6 participants diverse in terms of age and country of origin. This is a leadership lab run by AZck! Learning and Development in conjunction with Tom Greder.
I went to this programme as a participant really unsure what leadership can learn from clowning but open to finding out. The journey over the 3 days brought us out of our comfort zones (with our permission) and helped us each to address areas of development we wanted to explore. I have never before seen a programme so tailored to the needs of the individual.
Like many leadership programmes, we explored the areas of self-awareness and our impact on others. However in contrast to the usual programmes, we really entered unknown territory. Our journey mirrored some of the challenges of life outside the lab: leading in ambiguous situations, with limited resources and having to improvise in the spotlight (although in this case, there really was a spotlight!)
We often learn a lot from times when we are stretched… and this was one of those occasions – a very special one indeed! We learnt and laughed so much!
So I ask myself the question in hindsight what has leadership got to learn from clowning? Surprisingly for me, quite a lot! So many of the regular leadership themes emerged in the act of clowning: presence, vulnerability, connection with others, leadership and followership, adaptability and so much more. But instead of reading it from a textbook or listening to theory, we were in a laboratory, and we ourselves were the subject of our own experiments. I can’t think of a more engaging way to learn.
A recent article in the FT by Maxime Boersma entitled ‘We want coaching,’ say high-fliers shows how perceptions of coaching have changed dramatically over recent years.
The Head of Learning and Development at a UK organisation describes how “Executive coaching is increasingly sought by senior leaders as a space where they can have reflective conversations about their work and be challenged on their thinking and approach.”
Facing up to an adaptive challenge requires us to put the problem at the centre, depersonalise it and then look at the various the various stakeholders and where they sit in relation to the problem. That all sounds very logical and depersonalised, however it gets interesting when we look at the part that we ourselves have in creating the problem or as Linksy and Heifetz put acknowledging ‘our part of the mess’.
The benefits of doing this are (a) setting a good example for accountability and (b) we can then step up and fix part of the problem. Fixing our part of the problem though will often require us to challenge our values and loyalties and might require behavioural change on our part which is easier said than done.
I recently watched a movie called ’12 o’ clock high’ which illustrated this challenge really well. The movie is about an American bomber pilot unit in World War II which at the start of the movie are taking heavy losses. The pilots are incredibly loyal to their commander and him to them, but this gets in the way of the mission (the adaptive challenge). He is replaced by Brigadier Savage who takes a firm hand on the pilot unit and starts clocking up successes. Ultimately however he gets so close to the men that he begins to develop the same loyalties as his predecessor and loses perspective.
The movie illustrates the challenges of ‘being in the action’ and ‘on the balcony’ at the same time and particularly the challenge of looking at the part that we play in proceedings from ‘the balcony’. Commander General Pritchard brought the risk of ‘over-identifying with his men’ to Savages’s attention, but despite this he did not change his ways. Knowing we need to change is necessary but insufficient if we are to effect change.
So how can we more successfully do this? Heifetz, Linksy and Grashow bring this to life in their book ‘The Practice of Adaptive Leadership’. They link their work on adaptive leadership with that of their colleagues Robert Keegan and Lisa Lahey on ‘immunity to change’. It requires a diagnostic mind-set and an ability to step back from the action to reflect on deep-seated loyalties and values that we probably don’t advertise.
I will walk through this process with this movie in mind. The first step is to identify the behaviours that we would like to see more or less of in order to make progress on the adaptive challenge (e.g. provide leadership opportunities to the pilots in the pilot unit so that they might ultimately lead their own successful missions and enable Savage to return to his role and increase chances of overall success against the enemy). Secondly we should identify the loyalties and values that underlie the need for this change (e.g. loyalty to country, commanding officer and own career path). Then we should identify things that we are doing or not doing that keeps us from honouring this commitment i.e. what behaviours are we demonstrating that fly in the face of the behaviours we identified in step 1? (e.g. continuing to personally lead bombing missions). What then are the conflicting values or loyalties that drive this behaviour? (e.g. loyalty to and over-identification with pilot unit that Savage is commanding). The question then is that by continuing these behaviours, what am I protecting myself against? (e.g. losses in the air which I would feel responsible for if I do not take a part in the action?).
By peeling back the layers of the onion we might start to challenge some of our assumptions and values that work against what we are ultimately trying to achieve. By taking some initial low-risk experiments we can hopefully bit by bit put aside some of the inhibiting loyalties and values we hold, in service of achieving our ultimate goal. Consider doing this with the support of a partner. They can provide insights we might ourselves miss and can challenge us to stay the course.
Adaptive Leadership is ‘the practice of mobilising people to tackle tough challenges and thrive’ (source: The Practice of Adaptive Leadership; Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky). The ‘tough’ challenges referred to are adaptive challenges… challenges which have unclear definitions and unclear solutions. New ground is being covered and there are no obvious solutions to the challenge at hand. Examples of such a challenges include the debt crisis facing many countries currently, poverty, drug abuse etc and on an organisational level they might include finding ways to deliver a service or product when funding has been cut or transforming an out-dated product line to compete in a dynamic industry where innovation is key.
Ronald Heifetz states that the most common mistake in leadership is to mis-diagnose an issue as technical rather than adaptive. In doing so, some time might be bought and there might be a short term reprieve but the more fundamental issue is not resolved. In fact it might be counter-productive as stakeholders might feel that the pressure is off and postpone tackling the tough issues. As constituents we often put pressure on authority figure’s to offer a clear diagnosis and solution thereby putting pressure on them to mis-diagnose problems as technical. Withstanding this pressure and acknowledging the complexity and ambiguity is one of the challenges of adaptive leadership.
I recently watched the movie ‘Moneyball’ which is a fascinating example where the pressure was on to diagnose the problem as technical. Billy Beane (acted by Brad Pitt) took on the system fearlessly. Having lost to the New York Yankees in 2001, Oakland Athletic faced the loss of key players and significant budget challenges to replace them. When all around them looked to find the best they could afford, Billy Beane looked to adapt. In his words he said we will ‘adapt or die’. It is said that adaptive leadership requires will and skill. Billy Beane had the will and hired in the skill. He accepted that there would be losses and he distributed those losses at a rate that could be absorbed.
So the key challenges we face in adaptive leadership are to recognise adaptive challenges when we see them, to with-stand the pressures to diagnose them as technical and to be courageous in our attempts to solve them. ‘Adaptive leadership is specifically about change that enables the capacity to thrive’ (The Art and Practice of Adaptive Leadership; Grashow, Linsky and Heiftez). The terminology used here is no accident. Thriving in a biological sense requires some DNA to be discarded, some DNA to be conserved and some to be adapted. Our challenge is to identify the parts of our organisational or personal DNA to be discarded and adapted in order to thrive in new, challenging and complex situations.
‘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!).
This is an incredible story by the Center of Creative Leadership. It paints the picture of how a Swedish Executive, Ingar Skaug, took on the CEO role at Scandinavian Air after the top two layers of management had been wiped out by a plane crash.
From Grief to Growth
I have just finished reading John Kotter’s book ‘Leading Change’. After finishing the book, I went back to the start to see when it was written and was amazed to see the year 1996 mentioned. Many business books are written and remain relevant for a year… this one is as relevant now as it was in 1996.
The chapter that captured my attention most was the final one entitled ‘Leadership and Lifelong Learning’. It is clear that as complexity increases, the need for learning increases. Furthermore, in order to deal with adaptive challenges we can no longer rely on off-the-shelf solutions to problems but rather need to learn to make connections and come up with creative solutions to the new challenges we face.
I have always been stimulated by change and the learning associated with it. In my corporate life I constantly sought challenging assignments at home and abroad. I remember a manager asking me once ‘Eadine, what is going to happen when you have to keep the same role for more than a couple of years?’ Well, I guess for the first time that has now happened as I am running my own business and interestingly it is in the ‘learning’ space. On the surface level I am doing the same thing as 3 or 4 years ago, but the variety and challenges I am presented with reflect the marketplace and the opportunity for learning and personal growth for both myself and client’s is immense.
Kotter suggests some mental habits that support lifelong learning:
- Humble self-reflection
- Solicitation of opinions
- Careful listening
- Openness to new ideas.
I have a wonderful opportunity in May to attend a Leadership programme in Harvard. I have no doubt that this experience will be uncomfortable and include all of the above elements but I am confident that it will be a worth-while experience. If you wish to hear about this experience in due course, feel free to sign up to my blog.
Image Source: http://artnews.org/artist.php?i=5491