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

It’s not who you know, it’s who they know!

I wanted to write a blog on a subject I’m incredibly passionate about, the power of connection. Human beings are wired for it and now we have evidence that it’s crucial for business success.


Networking has been a buzz word for a while and there is lots of talk currently that it should be replaced by connecting. This implies purposeful conversation versus meaningless small talk. I love this quote from Carolyn Tate’s blog post on this subject which can be read in full here:

“Connecting is about getting to know, like and trust someone by asking meaningful questions and actually listening to the answers. It’s about sharing your story thereby giving the other person the courage to share theirs. It’s about following up your conversation with some valuable information or a trusted connection to others.  In short, it’s about making friends.”

A useful way to view our professional network is through LinkedIn Labs In Maps. I’ve presented mine below, which is categorised by colours. The dense blue connections on the left shows my London sports marketing network and the orange on the right my Sydney leadership and coaching network. Other categories include university friends and triathletes from my club. Of great interest from a network perspective are the brokers between my network areas and those on the periphery who are most likely to disrupt my thinking or introduce me to someone outside of my network. I would encourage you to map your network and have a look! To make real connections with key members of your network I recommend you reach out and arrange a face to face meeting or skype with a mutual purpose to build rapport.


Now, let’s look at connection in a leadership sense….

At the recent Change Management Institute (CMI) Conference I attended Dr Hilary Armstrong our Director of Education at the IECL explored the notion of Connected Leadership which I have had the pleasure and fortune of working with her closely on. The key here is that leadership in the modern world is not about the individual hero leader, it is about mobilising the network of relationships (connections) within and without. The traditional formal hierarchy org charts that nearly all companies have do not reflect the informal network and the way the work really gets done in organisations (fun graphic below!). I know in my work one of my greatest working efficiencies is with a colleague John who I would not be connected to on a formal org chart, have a think about the 5 key people you work with and whether you are connected on an org chat?

Informal Network

Some key insights from Hilary’s presentation:

  • How work gets done in organisations is through informal networks of reciprocal (two-way) relationships
  • These networks of relationships can be mapped and the data made transparent
  • Connection is key for innovation, efficiency and effectiveness 
  • The four M’s of Connected Leadership are Mobilising, Mindfulness, Membership and Moderating

I’ve created a storify of the twitter action during Hilary’s presentation:

The method of measuring connections and collaboration patterns is achieved through evidence based Social Network Analysis (SNA) software. The IECL have partnered with connection and SNA software experts Optimice in the leadership and coaching space to bring this to life for organisations. Cai Kjear, a partner at Optimice is featured in this great HR Monthly Article You Need a Map for those who are interested in reading more (highly recommended!).

Below is an example of an SNA map to show collaboration patterns across different business units (different coloured nodes) in a part of a well known organisation. The live map is dynamic and can be filtered many ways including to show intact team connections and for the idea and energy networks in organisations,  fascinating stuff! In this example, after Optimice mapped the data the IECL worked closely with the network through insight and action workshops and collaboration forums to find motivators to create membership and mobilise the network during a period of transformation. The results have been highly impressive including a 15% increase in employee engagement this year. 


I’m excited to start Optimice’s Organisational Network Analysis online course this week and am eager to explore this area of passion further which I truly believe has the potential to change organisations for the future!

Useful references for further reading:

The Network Secrets of Great Change Agents
(HBR – July 2013)

Don’t Let Your Best-Connected People Become Bottlenecks
(HBR blog post –  July 2013)

Find Your Digital Disruption Change Agents (Disrupt Sydney blog post September 2013)

I Need a Map
(HR Monthly October 2013)

“Follow the Leader – Leadership Development for the Future”
(IECL White Paper)

Getting to Change Agility – Creativity

Today I was fortunate to attend the Change Management Institute (@ChangeMgtIns) 2013 conference on ‘Getting to Change Agility’ (#changemanagement) at Doltone House in scenic Pyrmont. Here is the first in a series of blogs sharing summaries of the sessions I attended including my key takeaways.

Keynote: Todd Sampson (@toddsampsonOz) ‘A celebration of the power of creativity in solving any problem’

I was highly anticipating this keynote from Todd having watched him in action on ABC’s, The Gruen Transfer and he did not disappoint! His session describing creativity as one of the last remaining competitive advantages companies have today was practical and inspiring for all. Todd started with a story of a 2006 breakfast meeting at the Hilton in Sydney where the creative idea of earth hour was conceived. Seven years later the event has become a global movement with 135 countries participating reaching over 1 billion people!

earth hour

He shared how the most successful leaders in his vast experience balance creativity and fear and that creativity can solve any business problem. This links to Brene Brown’s research on vulnerability being at the core of creativity and innovation. Organisations need to be looking internally for creativity and not just at the top of organisations but looking down. The average age at Todd’s agency Leo Bunett is 26!

Todd’s own approach to leadership hires enthusiasm over experience and qualifications which I would highly advocate. His process in order is People (first), Product then Profit. This has seen employee engagement increase from 42-88%.

My key session insight was that creative leaders have the ability to be braver for a little bit longer than others the audience were challenged, can you be brave for 5 minutes longer? Todd shared a personal and professional example of this which I reflected on from my own experience:

  • Personal: Mountain climbing alone in Alaska, after being stationary for four days due to a Blizzard Todd had a decision to continue to the mountain summit or retreat down the mountain. He embraced fear which led to amazing clarity at the summit. I resonated with this thinking back to the world age group triathlon champs in Auckland last year. I was still very new to swimming and got completely disoriented by the rough incoming tide with a lack of open water experience. In that moment where I felt like I was going nowhere I could have held onto a lifesaver board and be taken in or battle through to complete the swim. I was brave fro 5 minutes longer and had a great experience on the bike and the run to complete the race in my GB colours. 
  • Professional: Todd took the step up to CEO after being a number 2 for years and utilised fear to be brave to change the poor organisational culture. A recent example of embracing fear in my professional life to balance creativity is taking a risk and starting a network of young professionals, IECL NEXGEN which has been very well received so far. 

We learnt the optimum duration for a creative stream is 20 minutes and were encouraged to try this on a problem we’re trying to solve. The good news is creativity can be learnedone tip is to ‘rent a head’ and borrow someone else’s perspective, i.e. think how would Apple or Richard Branson approach this? Learning to be creative requires a mindset switch. Todd explores this in episode two of his show Redesign my Brain, ‘Make me Creative’ which is available on iview here


Todd shared his concern and passion area about the current education system which teaches children to magically memorise vs thinking for themselves. He describes the importance of thinking laterally and references Dr Edward de Bono’s six thinking hats.  A TED talk for those interested in this topic is Ken Robertson on how schools kill creativity.

As a final comment linking back to my key insight bravery is acknowledging fear (not an absence) and pushing through, I challenge myself and readers to be brave for 5 minutes longer.

Thank you Todd for sharing your stories and encouraging us all to embrace creativity as the last competitive edge!

Lean In

On a recent vacation in Hawaii I finally got round to reading “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. This had been on my reading list since attending Avril Henry’s ‘Great Leaders are Made’ program earlier in the year. The book described as “The business manual of the year” by the Times has received a multitude of media coverage and testimonials from key figures including Sir Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg and Chelsea Clinton.

I’ve summarised my top ten takeaways below and would love to hear from others who have read the book and your insights!:

1. Honesty and authenticity are key leadership attributes. These are attributes we talk to leaders about frequently at my workplace, the IECL. Sheryl talks about exploring this with Fred Kofman, founder of the conscious business model to make her a better leader.

2. Mentorship and sponsorship are key for success in business. I can testament to this from recent business success supported by a powerful mentoring relationship.

3. Having a supportive life partner who supports you and doesn’t compete is a great benefit. My husband Owain has been one of the biggest supporters of my career and always encourages me to be the best I can be.

4. Women need to lean in, sit at the table and take risks – I have seen this first hand in board room meetings where women can have less presence because of their voice. I love seeing an assertive woman make a positive impact.

5. Lean in until childbirth – not years before! Sheryl talks about not leaving a job before you leave having seen experienced women leaning back from opportunities due to wanting a family in the future even a decade before this is reality. She encourages us this is the time to lean in, continue to add value, seize opportunities and ensure you come back to a job you will enjoy!

6. Think of your career path as a jungle gym and not a ladder where you can step down and across in order to climb higher. I love this analogy and that challenging yourselves with a sideways move into a new can be just as constructive as taking a step up the traditional ladder.

7. Be champions of other women in leadership! Sheryl quotes a former secretary of state Madeleine Albright who once said “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” which I cannot agree we more. We need to work together and pay our success forward to the next generation.

8. Importance of open feedback and receptiveness to learn. The best leaders are the ones who are open to feedback and continually learning. Sheryl describes a successful negotiation from a colleague who then asked what they could have done better. If we only believe our own truth we lack self awareness and mindfulness, key attributes of inspirational leaders.

9. Success and likeability. When a woman excels at her job, Sheryl writes about her experience of hearing remarks such as she may be accomplishing a lot but is “not as well-liked by her peers.” as male coworkers and is probably “too aggressive”, “not a team player”, “difficult” etc. I have come across such hostility and do not feel the need to be liked but respect is key. I also happen to think that being nice is one of the most underrated positive business traits, we’re all human after all!

10. Speak your truth – like young children do Sheryl encourages us to speak our truth for a more authentic leadership style. I have the pleasure of currently collaborating with a leader who does this remarkably, always in a mindful, calm and collected state.

I think women and men need to work together to make the workplace more balanced and that we such all take a lesson from Sheryl and lean in to opportunities and challenge ourselves!

I encourage you to view Sheryl’s TEDtalk ‘Why we have too few women leaders’ and join the lean in community at and