Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Living Adaptive Leadership

Harder than I expected to stay focused on work while looking out over rolling farmland, gently ascending up to the town of Collevecchio here in the province of Lazio about an hour northeast of Rome.

But here I am, following the Red Sox and the Celtics, reading newspapers online, and trying to stay current and make connections, as if the world would stop if I did not know what was going on.

For example, in Tuesday's Boston Globe, Paula D. Broadwell wrote an op-ed piece extolling General David Petraeus as the embodiment of someone practicing adaptive leadership. The piece is worth reading. (Full disclosure: Broadwell, a major in the US Army, is now a pre-doctoral Research Fellow at the Center for Public Leadership (CPL) at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). My colleague Ron Heifetz and I teach leadership at HKS, and Ron was the founding director of CPL. But we do not know her.)

Broadwell accurately identifies some of the core assumptions of adaptive leadership. The first is that leadership is about skills that can be learned by anyone.

The issue of whether leadership can be learned, or more precisely, whether it can be taught, is the subject of this week's debate on the Washington Post's On Leadership blog. The question was stimulated by the provocative piece that Thomas Ricks, the Post's military correspondent, published on Sunday suggesting that the service academies be abolished.

Despite my making a living teaching and consulting on leadership, I am much more convinced that leadership can be learned than that it can be taught.

The resistance to that idea typically comes from two sometimes overlapping sources: (1) people who think they've "got it" and (2) people in positions of senior authority who fear loss of control and diminishing the deference of subordinates that they enjoy so much if there really were to be a culture of leadership throughout the organization, if leadership was the responsibility of everyone.

Broadwell's second core idea from adaptive leadership that Petraeus embodies is that the capacity of organizations to adapt to new realities depends on whether the culture expects leadership throughout the organization, not just at the top.

Petraeus and many others in the military have realized that in a rapidly-changing situation, where people on the ground are constantly having to adapt to new and unanticipated external and internal realities, the creativity, judgment, and experimentation that are elements of leadership must be the province of everyone in the organization.

Petraeus and the military are not alone. Last weekend I spent some time with Lee Baca, the innovative elected Sheriff of Los Angeles County. Baca, too, believes in leadership throughout the organization and has run experiments that have challenged and shocked his colleagues in the law enforcement community. For example, Baca has developed a program offering gang members education as an alternative to incarceration. And instead of being sued by advocates for fairer treatment of people in jail, he has partnered with them. Take a look at his website. Everyone of the 14,500 people who work in his Department signs on to a value statement that begins, "As a leader in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department....". Not bad.

So, how is it in your organization, your family, your company, your non-profit, your community? where does the responsibility lie for leadership How prepared are your people with the skills necessary to adapt, to survive and thrive, in the face of accelerated pace of change and continuing uncertainty?

It will be interesting to see whether the challenge of coping with the current turmoil and foggy future will generate a similar commitment to adaptive and disseminated leadership in the private sector where, in my experience and observation, hierarchical responsibility for leadership usually still prevails.

This afternoon I go to Milan for meetings with senior corporate folks from Italian-based companies. I'll let you know how it goes.


Peter O'Connor said...

Marty, as you know I am working in an environment undergoing tremendous uncertainty and change. As I've been reading your blog, and thinking about who will adapt and who won't, not just here but in the rest of the world where the same uncertainty and change is now the normal state of affairs, I've starting focussing on education and "training." You've cautioned leaders in the past about relying on "experts." So I'm wondering, who has the right education or training to not only practice adaptive leadership, but simply adapt at all? When I, as the child of a blue collar family, opted to go to a small liberal arts college instead of getting a degree in accounting or engineering, my parents and the community I came from generally were skeptical. Now, as a 50 year old doing what feels like trying to help an organization steer a car going 90mph with no brakes and a loose steering wheel, headed for a cliff (while changing the tires), I'm finding once again in my life that a liberal arts education seems to have provided me with skills I need in a crisis. Any thoughts on that?

BTW, enjoy Italy. I'm insanely jealous.

Marty Linsky said...

Nice, Peter. Poignant and perceptive, as usual. It is not about technical expertise. It is about being optimistic and brutally realistic at the same time. It is about courage and skill at delivering bad news, or at least uncomfortable news. And it is abotu realizing that being right on the issue doesn't get you very far in a world of human beings with stakes, loyalties, and competing commitments.

Peter O'Connor said...

Hmm. It sounds like you're describing character traits as opposed to skills. Just sayin'.

Ingenuity Arts said...

Good post. I too share your sense that the conditions and context of leadership today require a different approach. It isn't so much that adaptive forms of leadership are novel, i.e. they cannot be found in any prior context, but rather that they are beginning to be needed more and more by mainstream institutions that formerly relied on a philosophy of control/mastery.

This could be compared to the phase change of thawing ice where the difference between zero degrees = ice and zero degrees = water isn't much on a thermometer but in terms of the water, it is a radically different thing. The properties of ice are much different than the properties of liquid water and so organizations of the future will still be collections of people pursuing some end but they will do so in very different ways when compared to late-twentieth century institutions.

Fascinating possibilities to think about.

Marty Linsky said...

nice metaphor - mind if I "borrow" it? - yes, after Aristotle, there are no new ideas,but there is re-packaging of them and different levels of timeliness....

Marty Linsky said...

Peter - traits? nah. Those are all learnable skills....

Peter O'Connor said...

So let's assume they are in fact learnable skills. I agree but think not everyone can learn them.

My question (which you deftly avoided but I'm not as easy to shake off as you think) remains: Where does one learn these skills? Although the folks at Cambridge Leadership do it better than anyone, as I've learned from personal experience, surely these skills have been learned, and transmitted or taught, formally and informally, by others over the years.

Business schools (especially Harvard), for instance, are coming under alot of fire lately for turning out a generation of "leaders" who crashed and burned the world economy. Law schools I am quite certain, again from personal experience, are not teaching adaptive leadership skills. So my original question, somewhat refined, remains: Assuming everyone can't go to KSG or hire Cambridge Leadership, and assuming adaptive leadership is something that's been going on for a while, where does anyone else learn adaptive leadership skills - Small New England liberal arts college? Engineering school? Recess? Sports team? At the foot of a Hindu sage?

I'd love to hear more from you on this.

P@ola said...

"Harder than I expected to stay focused on work while looking out over rolling farmland..."
I'd have loved to offer you a day trip on a boat on Como lake and calmly talking, may be discussing, about Leadership...
If only I had known earlier about your plans...anyway I suppose You come quite often to Italy, do You ?

P@ola said...

A "connection" has just come to mind.
What you report about Lee Baca remembers me some paragraphs of "What life should mean to you" by Alfred Adler.
(That same book I presented to my nephew, Federico, 23, on his way to become a lawyer.)
Have a nice day.
Enjoy Italy.

Jack Beach said...

Well, it’s near 90 degree outside. The May flies have decided to get an early start and I managed to knick a rock with my chain saw as I was clearing some dead and excess trees from my property in my efforts to improve its appearance and more importantly, to give the new growth a better chance to become some one else’s pleasure in the future.

Unfortunately, racing chains which were constructed to be easily victorious over wood’s weak resistance was instantly out matched by the rock’s solid resolve and responded by flying off the blade. And, a bit blinded by sweat, fatigued, and frustrated by an easily avoidable accident, I managed to lose one of the two blade retaining nuts in the underbrush as I dissembled the saw to return the chain to the blade. So, now forced to put my time to some other purpose, I decided to keep my commitment to Kristin von Donop, a former colleague at IBM to read this blog. She thought that as person who had spent 30 years in the Army, the references to Major Broadwell’s op-ed and General Petraeus would be of interest to me—and correctly so. The allusions to Sheriff Lee Baca and Tom Ricks, however, also caught my eye and the seemingly endless and age-worn controversy over whether leaders are born, or whether leadership can be learned/ developed or taught, propels me to not only read but respond.

Both the reading and responding to a blog are a first for me. So where to start? Maybe with Sheriff Baca, that is the quickest comment. I am proud to say that in 2000, at Sheriff Baca’s request, I led a team of IBM Leadership Consultants who went to LA to work (pro bono) with him and his department as they charted their course to 2030. It was exciting. Similarly, in the early 90’s following the Rodney King incident and subsequent riots, I was part of a four man team, from the Military Academy, at West Point, that the Chief of the LA Police Commission asked to come work with the LA Police Department (again, pro bono). As a result they have a leadership program in their Police Academy which other department’s and agencies benefit from as well. Getting to work closely with these folks gave me a new sense of respect for them and what they do and try to do. Sheriff Baca clearly is forward looking and innovative. As they anticipated the future, considered their role and what they wanted to be as a department, it often seemed like a gathering of social workers than law enforcement officers. They came out firmly committed to be proactive, and not just reactive, in making the county they serve a better place for all the citizens.

Tom Ricks is a different story. In 1996, the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the United States Military Academy (West Point), in which I was a professor for nearly two decades, was the subject of an ill-informed and poorly investigated front page Tom Ricks column in the Wall Street Journal. [ Maybe that is why, since the early 70s when they started leadership polls, while military leaders have always been the most respected and trusted, the press has consistently been near the bottom, below Congress and local politicians. (Sorry, although now in my mid-60s, and taking some pride in not holding grudges, I still lack the maturity to not take advantage of my first opportunity to take a swipe at Mr. Ricks. Let’s say, the article was not up to his reputed reporting capabilities.)]

However, my involvement with the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership is what informs my comments on the source of leadership capabilities. As John Gardner once put it, all leaders are born; they are just not born leaders! Most will agree that leadership does not happen at the point of conception—though, some come into the world with gifts others don’t and won’t possess, which may make the development of leadership easier.

West Point is generally seen as the premier institution for leadership development. It may be of interest to know that in 1946, General Eisenhower, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and displeased with the leadership he observed during WWII, wrote the Superintendent of the Military Academy, General Maxwell Taylor noting “the training of leaders is a primary mission of the Military Academy, yet nowhere in the curriculum is there a course which has the announced intention of teaching leadership” and he directed that a course in “practical and applied psychology” be added to the curriculum to “awaken the majority of Cadets to the necessity of handling human problems on a human basis and do much to improve leadership and personnel handling in the Army at large.” The Academic Board responded by refusing. In their view, “One can only learn to lead in troop units, after graduation.”

Despite the urging of the nation’s top military leader and the Academy’s Superintendent to create an academic department focusing on leadership, the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, did not come into being unit 1978--thirty-two years later. And it did not come in the world gently. In fact, it was the forced outcome of a major institutional upheaval—a cheating scandal and the removal of the Superintendent for his role in the cover-up of the Mai Lai massacre. Because of these incidents, in 1976 a “Blue Ribbon Commission” chaired by Neil Borman was established and one of the many recommendations that came out of that was to create an academic department dedicated to the understanding of leadership. (This is not intended to be a history lesson but to illustrate the persistence of this controversy.)

The first Head of the Department of Behavioral Science and Leadership is now, Brigadier General (ret) Howard Prince. At the time he was thirty-five years old Major, a true war hero, scholar, and visionary. Howard and I met as clinical psychology interns soon after our returns from Vietnam. I was a very disgruntled former enlisted draftee and combat medic; he a former Infantry company commander, forced to leave the infantry because of severe wounds that ended that career and caused him to have to fight just to be allowed to remain on active duty (becoming an Army psychologist was the compromise). After separating from the Army, I had, with great personal turmoil, accepted a commission and re-entered two years later as a means of paying for my graduate education. What kept me in the Army and focused my life’s mission, however, was a conversation I had with Howard over lunch one day when I was railing at him for the poor leadership I thought his fellow officers had displayed in Vietnam.

Making what is becoming an all too long story a bit shorter, he explained to me his fundamental and what turned out unwavering belief that leadership could be developed and more important, the primary purpose and obligation of leaders was to develop those entrusted to them. And it was this firm conviction that formed the foundation upon which he, and those of us who worked with him, built the department. But it wasn’t ever easy. We were constantly referred to as “touch-feely.” Frankly, we never could figure out exactly what that meant—though there was no denying the pejorative connation. Howard’s response to it, however, was “if it means we care about troops, we should be proud of it.” And, we were—though sad many others didn’t understand. But the inhospitable environment forced us to continually reflect on just who we were as a department and what our mission was. It also strengthened our resolve to “establish a department that [was] academically excellent in the instruction and study of the behavioral sciences and leadership” (mission given to then Lieutenant Colonel Prince by the Dean of the Academic Board).

So, can leadership be learned? Yes. You develop leaders by feeding young people responsibility, coaching them, and holding them accountable. Can leadership be taught? Yes. We learn a lot from experience but we learn a lot more by reflecting on that experience. Moreover, we can accelerate our development by anticipating, planning and practicing for the future. That can be done in the classroom. Furthermore, we know a fair amount about the science of human behavior and the classroom is an appropriate place to gain an understanding of that and how to apply those principles to the performance of leadership. One of the key concepts in them core course in Military Leadership all juniors took was the leadership thought process. Among other things it taught the cadets to reflect on the past to gain from lessons learned and to anticipate the future as best they could to facilitate adaptation.

So, the answer, in my mind anyway, is not either/or—can leadership be learned or taught? It is both. Great athletes, artist and musicians dedicate themselves not only to the practice of their art but to gaining understanding from instruction by the masters. Louis Gerstner, IBM’s iconic former Chairman and CEO, is fond of telling participants in that company’s various leadership development programs that he knows many of them and their managers questioned if they had time to take out from work to attend the program. He goes on to tell them, “This will be the most important thing you do this year….I know people who spend a great deal of money getting better at golf, bridge or to become gourmet cooks but I know of too few who realize they need to learn about and practice leadership. I am older than you are and have had a fair amount of success—but there is still a lot I don’t know. I still have a lot to learn. You do too and this is where you start.”

Again, the question is not either/or. Nor do I mean to imply they are of equal weight. The question is do we want the learning and development of leadership be haphazard, left to chance and the province of a gifted few or do we want it to be conscious, intentional and open to all? Teaching increases the chances of the latter—though experience is more important. You can’t learn to swim if you don’t get in the water. But getting into the pool without having some out-of-water instruction is almost certain disaster. Teaching is the catalyst that accelerates learning. It also makes it more likely to occur at all. As leaders we must give people responsibility but as important, we need to ensure they can be successful when they get it.

Two additional comments in closing, I’ve thrown the word development around a few times. It’s important to understand I don’t see that as a synonym for learning. There is much more to becoming a leader than learning leadership skills and understanding human behavior. The other ingredient is personal development. Coming to terms with who you are, your social role, sense of purpose—and the realization these will continue to change is essential. So, you may, for example, be able to learn active listening skills, to reflect and paraphrase but still not be secure enough to display the vulnerability required to create an environment in which the other feels safe to be really open and in which you can be non-defensive and exhibit resilience in the face of setbacks. So, in the classroom instruction should not just fill gaps but create them and facilitate the processing of the disequilibrium provoked.

Finally, the role circumstances play in leadership. Would we be taking about General Petraeus if he were a few years younger or older? What if he had been the General on the ground in the early years in Iraq? Or had reached his mandatory retirement and retired in 2002? Or what if the past administrating had not authorized the surge? To paraphrase what I heard a Marine gunnery sergeant once say, “You don’t rise to the occasion in combat; you sink to your level of training.” Leaders need to see that the people they are entrusted with are ready when the circumstances arise.

For those of you who actually read all this, thanks and I am aware I have probably done little more than validate what you already know and think. Now, I need to go to the hardware store and get a blade retaining nut.

Peter O'Connor said...

Jack -

I read your comment all the way through, and was struck by what you say at the end - that you thought your comment only validated what the reader already thought. It surprised me, because I totally disagree with what you are saying.

I've worked in or with government bureaucracies for over 25 years now, an environment where leadership is in short supply. I think the military, about which you write in your comment, is much the same, and I imagine it's probably much worse. I'm disappointed that you don't provide one single example of anyone exercising leadership, and how we might trace it's exercise to learning, training, teaching or the program you taught in. There are people in the military obviously who exhibit tremendous bravery and self-sacrifice; but that does not make them leaders. It makes them brave and self-sacrificing.

I'm really interested in Sec'y Gates attempt to remake the military for modern times and conflicts. Now, THAT is leadership (and bravery), although you and I both know that he will be unsuccessful (indeed, self-sacrificing). What he says needs to be accomplished we all know really does need to be accomplished, but the military will destroy him if he attempts it, and they will destroy him probably for merely saying it. And the next Secretary will also go down trying, and the next one, until finally someone succeeds.

I suppose someone like Marty might say that he will have then failed as a leader, and I wouldn't agree with that. The kind of cultural change (call it adaptive leadership if you like) that Gates is going to attempt takes time, in some cases the time span of more that one career, and it may be that a person can "lead" part of that change without being there to see it through to the end, simply because it is not possible to make some change that quickly. What makes it leadership to me is that he is doing it because he has a vision, which he knows to be true, and which he knows needs to be implemented for the good of the military, the country, and the prospects for world peace and freedom. If we really stopped to think about it the way he has, I am certain we would all in the end agree with him. But the change he is proposing will be painful, it will strike at the heart of the institution, it will seem to invalidate the careers of the people that you obviously, and for good reason, admire and respect. It will create an entirely new model, and in the process necessarily destroy the old one. He is doing it with little or no support from others. And he is doing it knowing that the military will destroy his career and he may well resign or be fired in ignominy, when he would be justified in simply retiring from a distinguished career and playing golf.

Lots of wonderful behaviors, and knowledge, can be taught and learned. People have been doing it since there were people. But personally I think true leadership comes from somewhere else. If there's a course being taught about it at a university or military academy, it's not leadership. Because to lead means to go outside of the course syllabus, indeed outside of the academy, and outside of the "understood" ways of doing things.

I was having dinner with a friend of mine on Friday who is a very prominent poet. He teaches at a graduate creative writing program. I asked him if it "worked." Could creativity (which I think is either a type of leadership or at least a necessary component of leadership) be taught? I used the example of James Joyce, who was taught the basics of literature, philosophy, religion and science by Jesuits in Catholic schools, at one of the great European academies, and then proceeded to blow the f*&king roof off of all of it, changing Western civilization, irreversibly and forever. That, to me is leadership. Eventually my friend the poet responded: "James Joyce would not have been nutured in a graduate writing program."

P@ola said...

Peter O'Connor,
please what do you mean by
"That, to me is leadership" (referred to James Joyce)

Jack Beach said...

Hi Peter,

First of all, thank you so much for making your way through what was probably a too long and too rambling a comment and then taking the time to respond. However, there seems to be what is tritely phrased, “a failure to communicate.” So let me try again. (Remember, I was writing only because the activity I had planned was brought to an end by an accident caused by fatigue—the fatigue and frustration did not end when I sat down to write, so it may well have resulted in me not expressing my thoughts clearly.)

My reference to what I thought there was probably general agreement to, was that leadership is likely some combination, and by no means in equal proportions, of genetic inheritance, teaching, learning, development and circumstances. (Or if not agreement, I wasn’t saying anything people had not heard before. Maybe that is what I should have said.). The main theme, I was addressing was that I do think that both teaching and learning increase the likelihood one can and will lead effectively. And that those along with personal development are probably the major ingredients—not something that occurred at the point of conception. That is what I perceived Marty to be musing about. I was also indicating that it seems the issue is one that never dies. That is what brought on the bit of a history lesson.

The reference to the military, LA Sheriff’s Department, etc. were also taken from the text of the blog and since they related to my own experience, that was the context I used. Marty was referring to Major Broadwell’s op-ed on General Petraeus and saying that he was more convinced than ever that leadership could be learned but seemed to be questing the role of teaching. My comment was not to argue that the military was or was not lacking in leaders. We could all have that discussion—but that was not the one I was making—or at least intending to make. You state that bravery and self-sacrifice does not a leader make. I don’t disagree. In fact, I frequently distinguish between being a hero and being a leader—but I would challenge you to find me a leader who does not exhibit some degree of courage and selflessness.

You declare, “Lots of wonderful behaviors, and knowledge, can be taught and learned. People have been doing it since there were people. But personally I think trust leadership comes from somewhere else.” This is what I would like to hear more of your thoughts on. Where do you think leadership comes from? Do you think it comes from conception—the random meeting of genes? There certainly are those out there who would agree. If not, however; and it happens after you took your first breath and let out your first cry, where did it come from? If not from learning, being taught, personal development, circumstances or some combination of them, where? This is what the discussion was intended to be about. I sense my reference to the military may have taken your mind (and emotions) to a different place. That was unintended—at least on my part. So, forgive me for taking you on that ride; however, if you have the time and desire, I would really be interested in what you think the source (or sources) of leadership is (are).

Peter O'Connor said...

Paola -

What I mean is that James Joyce gave the English language the "bitch slap" of a century, and thereby woke up new ways of writing, of thinking, of creating, and expanded our views of what is art and even how the human mind works. He gave other writers and artists the permission to break out of the old ways of doing things. He is one of the people who "led" western civilization into the modern era.

Maybe this line of discussion is all getting too far afield of the points Marty is trying to make here, but for me it's important. And maybe I'm confusing the terms "change agent" and "leader" though I, for one, cannot distinguish them. It goes back to my original question. How did James Joyce learn to become a leader in the field of writing fiction? How did Martin Luther King, or (to refer back to another Marty posting) Harvey Milk, learn to become civil rights leaders? Where did Barack Obama learn to become a political leader? Or Lenin, for that matter? Jackson Pollack blew the doors off painting as the world had understood it up to that point, and since him nothing has been the same. Where did that come from?

P@ola said...

Thanks for explanation,Peter.
Now I understand.
When You ask "Where" Martin Luther King, Barak Obama and so on have learnt I guess you have a specific place in mind.
I think they have not learnt in a specific Institution (for a tot Nr. of years) but that have made connections all along their lifes...
If you are interested in a subject you keep searching, you listen more carefully, you look for those special books or paper's articles, you ask around, you look for answers and put good questions all the also find interesting Blogs and Bloggers...
...I guess this was - and still IS - their way of learning.
Did I explain myself ?
Hope so, not being an English mothertongue person.

Jack Beach said...


I’m new to bloging and I do not assert that I know the etiquette but the metaphor you choose to use to describe the impact you feel James Joyce had on the English language would not seem appropriate and I find it offensive. Much of what you say seems generated more by emotion than a genuine intellectual curiosity. And the only reason I post this publicly is I want to apologize to all for any part I may have had in taking Marty’s blog in this direction. I had no intent to hijack a thoughtful conversation.

This isn’t about parsing the difference between “change agent” and “leader.” It is about the question you ask: “How did the Joyces, Milks, Kings, Obamas, etc. of the world become leaders?” Answering that, would provide us information that could better society and the world. That’s why most of us ask it and search for better answers.

The good news is, for all those you mentioned you should be able to find a lot of answers, if not the answer. Study their lives. What were some of their personal experiences and significant events in their lives? All had (or in Obama’s case, have) people they learned from and consulted. All had role models. Who were they? Determine who they looked to and who they reacted against—and why? All had good educations. What did they study? Think about what else was going on at the particular time in history that influenced their acts of leadership and the outcome. (Do you think if Martin Luther King had given his I Have a Dream Speech in 1763 it would have had the same impact as 1963?) You can find a lot of exciting insights to share. I’d like to hear them. I think you would find a great deal of satisfaction as well.

Peter O'Connor said...

Jack -

I am sorry if you found my language offensive. In the gay community, I think the term "bitch slap" has a completely different connotation than it might have in the straight world. I'd never thought about what offense it might give to others, and I, again, apologize for any offense given.

Having said that, you restate the question: It is about the question you ask: “How did the Joyces, Milks, Kings, Obamas, etc. of the world become leaders?” Answering that, would provide us information that could better society and the world. That’s why most of us ask it and search for better answers.

We completely agree on this, and I am asking you, Paola, Marty, and others to offer up specifics. That's what I'm looking for, and I think you are too. Emotion and intellectual curiosity are not mutually exclusive, by the way.

David Panagore said...

Wandering around the web, my friend Peter O'Connor suggested I might be interested in this dialogue, and yup I'm sucked in. Like many of us, the question of organizational leadership, that thing that is inspiring, optimistic and brutally honest as our host Marty Linsky indicates, that reveals the capacity to deliver bad news with grace and yet stir the heart to move forward.

In my recipe, borne of scars on my back and maybe a little understanding having worked and struggled for the cities of Chelsea, Boston, San Jose, Springfield and now Hartford, I've picked up maybe a few things.

1. Start with adaptivity. Being thrown into a position of leadership and being willing to adapt and learn, that I think is the crucial element. A willingness to adapt. I think its innate, and rarely commonly able to be learned but for perhaps somewhere like a military academy with its rigors, only that could be sufficient to break someone down enough to get past the barriers.Leadership taught ? No, I have not found that to be the case, but the exception and for the run of the mill would not commonly perceive military based organizations to stir group wide leadership. Strangely I think leaderless organizations like theater technicans and stage hands where every membe of a crew needs to act for the whole build leadership over top down, command and control instances.

2. Leadership is experienced and developed by experience. Often I think learning is not about choosing the right piece of pizza, but over time tasting and tossing away all the wrong ones, and what gets left is the one to incorporate. It is mentored and experienced and anything before you can be a mentor or be an experience, if you have the willingness to adapt.

3. Leadership is about being optimistic and brutally honest. I think the stoics of ancient greece and rome had the right approach to achieve Marty's these. They said keep death before you every day, and focus on the reality of your days. Heavy handed in our modern medicalization, sterilization of death, yet the these still holds. If we are all that we have and only the now in which to achieve it, then relentless optimistic honest leadership is a possibility, not the only choice, but one clear possible. Let us also not forgot what power and pain lies in the necessary ability to be brutally honest, while invigorating, is to the sensitive reflective soul (only the reflective life is worth living or capable of leadership ( all others are accidents of luck) ) troubling, and painful, yet you do it because what choice do you have. As Yoda said do or do not there is no try, things are or they are not, even if circumstances are all about nuance (see any Obama commentary).

In closing I'm encouraged by the dialogue about Sheriff Baca, and recognize that the challenge of instituting change like that comes not form your opponents or his clients, but from his supporters. Bringing people out on the limb, recognizing when it is the right time to move boldly, and recognizing when a society or group is ready for the jump. Last Sunday Delores Kearns Goodwin commented on Meet the Press that after 1964, LBJ did not relent after the voting rights act, but pushed on and on, believing the country was ready for change and that Obama right now is attempting the same. And what is that, I think the hardest part of Leadership imparting optimism and the belief we can succeed.

Being from New England, I think I know a bit about clinging to the comfort of failure and diminishing returns. The Americans of the West descended from those who thought the move would better them, while New Englander we descend from those who stayed.

And knowing Peter, don't take offense Mr. Beach, it only encourages him. Dame Edna would agree.

Unknown said...

Hi, Marty--I am in the process of working on my dissertation focused on adaptive leaders who confront undiscussables in the workplace, systemic issues that employees discuss but do not resolve with the people in authority. I need assistance in identifying adaptive leaders who do manage undiscussables. I want to explore how they identify and select undiscussables to manage, what intra and interpersonal processes come into play and what outcomes result. Any thoughts?

P@ola said...

I remember to have read an article by Martin about the ability to put “elephants on the table” but I have not it at hand at the moment (sorry).
have a look at

Jack Beach said...

I am sorry if you found my language offensive. In the gay community, I think the term "bitch slap" has a completely different connotation than it might have in the straight world. I'd never thought about what offense it might give to others, and I, again, apologize for any offense given.

Having said that, you restate the question: It is about the question you ask: “How did the Joyces, Milks, Kings, Obamas, etc. of the world become leaders?” Answering that, would provide us information that could better society and the world. That’s why most of us ask it and search for better answers.

We completely agree on this, and I am asking you, Paola, Marty, and others to offer up specifics. That's what I'm looking for, and I think you are too. Emotion and intellectual curiosity are not mutually exclusive, by the way.

Post a comment.

I have no insight into the phrase and am not aware it is an idiom peculiar and acceptable to any particular community. It still seems like a demeaning adjective and an act of humiliation. But, if it is an innocuous phrase and I am the only one who found it offensive, you have no need to apologize. The problem would lie with me. (Though I would be greatly dismayed at the state of our culture if any group finds the phrase appropriate public discourse—but that is just me.)

Also, I agree that emotion and intellectual curiosity are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I would go further and say that intellectual curiosity often is propelled by passion. The emotion, however, is more one of excitement than anger. I am not detecting a positive affect. I could have been clearer.

In terms of specifics to answering your question, I think I and others have offered their ideas. I shared my thoughts that leadership emerges from a combination of factors: genetic inheritance, personal experiences, role models, circumstances occurring in the community, society or the world, etc. The sum is not made up of equal measures of each component and it is likely the weight given to any component varies from person to person. However, I believe experience is generally of greatest importance and that we can intervene by instruction or coaching to both enhance the likelihood leadership will occur and to accelerate its development if it does. (Obviously, my job security depends on others thinking the same—so, I am not unbiased.)

I gave you some avenues you could go down to find answers to your question about the specific people you mentioned. I gave you a rudimentary map but it is your journey to take—I see little evidence you are a person who will be satisfied by others’ ideas. Elucidating the causes of the leadership in James Joyce or President Obama is a dissertation you can write—and it is a dissertation I believe can be written with some authority—but not proof—not yet.

Jack Beach said...


Isn’t it amazing what kind of trouble you can get into when you have time on your hands and you are just out wandering around! Of course, then the folks you choose to hang around with can get you into trouble too. I’m sure Peter meant well. And it is probably pretty obvious by now that it doesn’t take much to encourage either Peter or me to share what is on our minds and in our hearts.

You put forth a few thoughts and not surprisingly, I have some agreement and some questions—not necessarily disagreements. You start with adaptability—which seems to be being rediscovered. You assert that it is mostly innate but under some circumstances can be learned—and you use the military as an example. This rouses a number of comments and questions—which I think are all connected, though it may not be obvious.

What is of particular interest to me is you focus on the willingness to adapt as being innate and not the ability to adapt. First I am happy you make the distinction between being able to adapt and being willing to. In my work with senior executives at IBM I too make the distinctions between ability and a willingness to adapt. Humans by nature adapt to survive, at least as living creatures, but also as social creatures. Social/Cultural adaptation may involve more intentional learning and willingness. Of course, we must also learn when to adapt and when to persist.

But my question is why the willingness would be innate? I would see it as a capability that is achieved through personal development—perhaps more than just learning. But it would not have occurred to me it would be innate—however, just like introversion and extraversion, there may well be an innate aspect to it. It would be interesting to see what other traits correlate with a willingness to adapt. And if it is innate, how malleable is it? Is it like a baby rattle snake that has all the venom it will have even as an adult snake—is it a given that doesn’t change? Or can that too be developed—and if so, can everyone develop it further or just folks lucky enough to have the gene?

You also refer to the rigors of the military which in a sense break people down and rebuild them so they can “get passed the barriers.” I think development is about getting passed the barriers—the narrow and rigid perspectives that limit our experience. And I do think there is some of that in the military. Though it is likely there would be less physicality, in the end, it is the mental barriers that are toughest to get passed—and my view is the classroom can assist here.

There is little question that initiation into the military, whether it be boot camp, the academies, OCS, does involve a bit of thought reform. But in the Army, we believe you learn to adapt by adapting. And in a sense when you say “Being thrown into a position of leadership” as you were, apparently in city government (and thank you for taking on that tough job) you are saying the same or something very similar.

I can’t leave this without also commenting on leadership in the military. I went from a drafted enlisted Private to a Colonel in my 30 years of service. I got into the work I am in because of my dissatisfaction with the leadership I experienced in the 1960s. However, my perception is that no organization looks more closely at leadership or has made as great strides over the decades. Today, I believe it is the most “leader-full” organization there is (okay, include the Marines). Find me any organization where 18 and 22 year olds have the variety and significant responsibilities as a soldier or an officer. But they not only are given responsibilities, they are continually being prepared to take them on and given tool such as in progress reviews (IPRs) and after action reviews (AARs). These are tools for the reflection, you also say is so crucial.

P@ola said...

To your question, Jack,
"why the willingness would be innate?"
I personally found some explanations while reading Karen Horney Books.
I do not mean You "have" to follow, you can just have a look at

Peter O'Connor said...

Jack -

This seems an unnecessary attack on me: "I see little evidence you are a person who will be satisfied by others’ ideas."


Elizabeth Abbot said...

Saluti da Roma.

I have just finished reading your interview in the Italian financial newspaper, "Sole 24 Ore" and noticed that we share Williams College in our backgrounds (class '80 for me). Then I googled "adaptive leadership Linsky" and found that you have actually been in my neighborhood these days (Rome). Hope you enjoyed your stay!

I have only recently run into adaptive leadership and enjoy exploring the connections between this approach to leadership and the field of cross-cultural communications (which is all about adapting to new cultural environments while managing complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty). Have you worked with global leaders and their particular experiences in also adapting in to new cultural environments?

I also see a connection between adaptive leadership and complexity / systems theories (and living on the edge of chaos -- which I love both as an idea in itself and how it also relates to the experience of entering new cultural environments).

Having moved from cross-cultural training to coaching -- I also appreciate helping people learn instead of teaching as a much more effective approach.

Thanks for your interesting work and insights. Will look out for your upcoming book.

David Panagore said...

jack -
Back among the living here and not much time to reply this Am, but you have hit on a key thought of mine. I beleive all humans have the ability to adapt, it is a core composite ability of the specie, but willingess, unless innate in upbringing is challenging to be learned. For example, as Hawkeye Piece once said - a hero is nothing but a coward too tired to take it anymore. So there is the breakign point when a person is up against it they will adapt but my experience is that they will do anythign , on average to avoid adapting, rather than embracing change. I have seen it in every muncipality I have worked the unwillingness to believe that the sunk costs, poor decision maing, infighting and failed policies shoudl be changed, that change in pursuit of principle is often necessary, adaptive leadership is scary, stability is the norm, even when taking on water. Its easy to quote roosevelt's what to do in any given circumstance, but teachable, rarely. The human, this object at rest wants all change time to stop, things to stay the same, that is what I believe life teaches so it takes some pretty strong mojo to counteract that tendancy.

P@ola said...

Nevertheless when an human being wants to change his/her life he/she falls in love...

Ale Rossi said...

Thank you for sharing such a great information on leadership skills. Everyone should have good leadership skills to handle client or operate business.
Ale Rossi

Unknown said...

Thank you for the wonderful session....