Adaptive Leadership: Smart Risks in Smart Ways

Adaptive leadership… the new black

Complex Adaptive System

I am still in absolute awe and fascination after attending a session for Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) consultants last night in Canberra with Marty Linsky (@martylinsky) from Harvard University (@Harvard) on Adaptive Leadership. I like many others had expected a presentation on Adaptive Leadership where we learnt some principles and took away some acronyms or models.

On the contrary I had one of the most profound and deep experiences of my career to date. Marty started the session saying what if if I left you (a circular group of about 20 consultants and 5 APSC staff) to come up with what you want out of the session. He then stayed silent for 20 minutes and ignored all attempts of questions and invitations into the conversation. We had been abandoned by our authority, what was the next available option?

There was confusion, tension, nervousness, uncertainness. It was interesting observing the group and peoples’ different ways of becoming comfortable in the high tension situation. There were varying tolerances for the silence, some had to fill it whilst others like myself were quite comfortable observing a fascinating adaptive system in action.

Activity included a gentleman who had a eight hour round trip from Sydney stating in a confused manner that he hoped he would get some value from the session, another tried to break the circle into smaller groups to explore adaptive leadership and another was perplexed by the APSC staff who were staying quiet – was it a secret pact with Marty to discomfort us?

What Marty was artfully doing was gathering important data for the session. A key point being we look at authority at having all the answers and in this complex, ever changing world how can they? 

After his 20 minutes of silence Marty’s two key pieces of data from his observation were:

  1. Why did all the varying suggestions from consultants for action fail?
  2. Why did a member of the APSC team seem invisible after she spoke and later there were three comments on why no one from the APSC had spoken?

During the debrief conversation that followed here were my key insights which align with the IECL’s Connected Leadership work:

  • We shouldn’t be using the word leader but leadership which is a behaviour or activity 
  • Just because a Senior Exec has a big job it doesn’t mean they exhibit leadership
  • We often tell ourselves our own stories and testimony which are untrue, being heroes of our own stories, we need to take ownership. If we take a risk and it fails, own it
  • We assume people in leadership know what they’re doing, in reality in this ever changing, fast paced, technological world how do we prepare followers they can have no idea and are responding to pressure to pretend they know. Can we be brave in the face of this less comfortable interpretation and trust the system? 

Adaptive Leadership Wordle

When asked about his definition of Adaptive Leadership Marty shared some thoughts from his vast experience:

  • Leadership with purpose – risks on behalf of something you care deeply about
  • Smart risks on behalf of purpose to change the current reality for greater good using the filter of changing society for the better
  • Smart risks in smart ways 
  • Marty’s favourite definition of leadership: Disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb 
  • Leadership is about the distribution of loss, in win – win situations, nothing important will happen although it may be nice. This was an aha moment for me as I often try and find a win, win solution

So what skills or technique practices are required to exercise Adaptive Leadership? I think the Four M’s of Connected leadership I mentioned in my last post are a great reference here, Membership, Mobilising, Moderating and Mindfulness focusing on the betweeness and relationships versus the individual.

Marty challenged us as consultants to think big and define where we’d like the state of Australian leadership to be. To achieve this we will need to take risks together. He said to do this it will require challenge and tension, our client sponsors are used to 4.5/5 on the program happy sheets, to take a risk and raise the tension we may be ranked lower with 3/5’s but it will be better for the greater progression of the nation. The challenge is getting people to think systemically when their investment in own autonomy is huge.

Two examples of adaptive leadership that Marty shared:

  • Obama campaign trail – One of Obama’s speeches where he acknowledged small business owner entrepreneurs are reliant on so many others for their successes not their own autonomy
  • Kennedy school – An Executive Director of a NFP came to one of Marty’s programs with her leadership challenge: she couldn’t find enough people to benefit from their NFP services with her budget available – half way through the program she left. Marty then facilitated a conversation around this- the first response was it was her own fault and responsibility for leaving, then Marty’s, at the end of the conversation the group took responsibility for her leaving. The key learning like with the social network analysis we’re using, the person on the outside is not always the problem, it’s a problem in the system, we are all interrelated

Adaptive Leadership

Marty drew us a flip chart to show where we need to move people in leadership positions, from the left to the right side of the table below:

Technical Adaptive
Individual Systemic
Benign Conflict

We were fortunate to have been given an experience of the right side, it’s hard to imagine this. We’re often ingrained in our left hand side thinking, to fix a problem we can get rid of bad leader, get rid of that one person, that thinking doesn’t get you over on the right side of chart.

Trying to push us to the right hand side of chart is very hard with our sense of our own agency, it is emotionally complicated not intellectually complicated to shift to the right.

Unresolved value conflict holds organisations in place, we need to orchestrate conflict, one way we’re practicing that at the IECL is through constructive argumentation practices in our workshops.

We need to be comfortable that in order to progress people will follow our proposals for different reasons and not the same reason we go for – at the IECL we talk about passionate intent. How can we align our individual passions with the organisation’s strategic destination?

Adaptive leadership requires you to be optimistic you can change the world and brutally realistic about what it’s going to take. I love this quote from Marty: “Realism prevents the optimism from becoming naive, optimism stops realism becoming cynical.” Mission driven people can hold the two in tension, can you?

During a powerful follow up conversation with a colleague one of my key insights was Adaptive Leadership starts with us, how can we take smart risks in smart ways? Like Marty did I challenge you to disrupt your weekend and do something that’s not on your to do list, even if it means being accountable to someone for changing your schedule. I will continue to absorb this concept and reconvene with a small group from the event in Canberra in a few weeks to socialise our learning. I am truly inspired and would love to go to Harvard Kennedy School one day and experience the full program!  


Check out Marty’s TedX St Charles talk ‘Adaptive Leadership-Leading Change’ here:

Recommended read ‘The Practice of Adaptive Leadership’ by Ronald A. Heifetz Marty LinskyAlexander Grashow

2 Comments on “Adaptive Leadership: Smart Risks in Smart Ways”

  1. Hi Dani – great post. It was indeed an inspiring session. There was so much I could comment on about the inspiration we gained from the session on Adaptive Leadership, and it was immediately practical (a good measure of a great session). However, on reflecting a few days later while reading your blog, I noticed this: Leadership is about “disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb”, and “Leadership is about the distribution of loss”. There was lots of hope and encouragement in Marty Linsky’s session, yet these two quotes paint a dismal picture of leadership. Do leaders set out to disappoint people and to distribute losses? Perhaps if the words were rearranged, the intent and reality would be still be there, but would set a different intention for leadership.


    • I like your thinking Amanda and found Marty’s comments about disappointing and loss interesting. I actually quite find it refreshing. I’m reminded of something that has stuck in my mind from David Whyte’s keynote at the London ICF Conference last year (also a good indication of a great session when you still remember it a year down the track!). He said, “there is no path where your heart will not be broken. Once we accept this fact, relationships become much easier” I think Marty was referring to something similar in an organisational sense that disappointment and loss will be part of your experience at work, and therefore part of the leader’s job is to help moderate this experience.

      just a reflection 🙂

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