Expanding the Imagination of Leadership

August 23, 2023 – Approximate Read Time: ~12 minutes

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by Tom Klaus

The Takeaway: Principal leaders in sexual health organizations and others caught in today’s cultural conflicts need to increase their comfort and competency for working in such complex adaptive contexts. Rather than simply responding to the conflict, they need to be willing to expand their imaginations of leadership by learning and practicing an adaptive leadership approach. Adaptive leadership can be learned, and not just by principal leaders. It can be learned and used by others in their organizations who practice leadership, regardless of their designated roles.

Understanding this second activity is critical to differentiating between the adaptation practiced by leaders in this study from adaptive leadership. Day and Vance (2004) observed that adaptability does not rely on success in similar previous situations to acquire the answer for a current problem. Leaders in this study learned to adapt to changing conditions but they did so reactively and mostly to hold on to what they already had (the status quo). That is, they learned to adapt after the change occurred. In this regard, adaptation, when it works at all, will, at best, only stem losses. “Status quo functions elegantly to solve a stream of problems and opportunities” that occurred in the past (Heifetz et al., 2009, p. 49).

Adaptive leadership, however, is focused on forecasting and addressing emergent situations (Heifetz et al., 2009; M.D. Mumford et al., 2007). The strategy of consulting peers used by leaders in this study is a valid one for using the experience of veteran leaders to inform the current situation, not address it. Yes, we can learn from past experience, however, it can be risky if we simply replicate past solutions in the current situation. The practice of adaptive leadership, however, analyzes current situations in order to effectively forecast and implement the necessary strategy (Heifetz et al., 2009).

Interpretation and analysis of the situation begins on the balcony. Then the solutions are tried back down on the floor. Which leads us to the third activity.

3) Try the innovation. The innovation is introduced on the floor and once it is adopted and being implemented, leaders return to the balcony to see what happens. They observe how the organization is now responding to the adaptive challenge and as needed, they adjust. If necessary, they will scrap their innovation altogether and try again with a new one. Observing, interpreting, analyzing, and innovating; trying the innovation; and returning to the balcony to observe is an iterative process.

This sounds a lot like a “trial and error” method, but it is more than that. Unlike simple trial and error methods, leaders practicing adaptive leadership employ a variety of strategies designed to test and assess their ideas for innovation (Heifetz et al., 2009). For example, they may work alongside colleagues within and outside their organization to co-design interventions and prototype them before fully deploying them.

The practice of adaptive leadership is not as simple as this brief description suggests. Indeed, M. D. Mumford et al. (2009) include these three activities within the nine or so they propose in their model of leader cognition. Most importantly, whether three or nine activities, adaptive leadership can be learned. Indeed, the process suggests the importance for leaders to possess social, cognitive, and behavior complexity in order to be most effective in practicing adaptive leadership (Hooijberg et al., 1997).

One of the things about adaptive leadership we like most at Tenacious Change is that it can be learned and used by anyone at any level in any organization that welcomes all to practice leadership. We believe in the benefit and power of leadership when it is practiced by everyone in a group, organization, or whole community. It happens when people, regardless of their title or role, step up and provide leadership to help their group achieve its vision, mission, or aspirational goal. For this reason, we argue that principal leaders should not go to the balcony alone but with others who have lots of experience on the floor and who can provide insights from that experience. As noted last week, principal leaders of organizations bear a heavy load under normal conditions, and it is made even heavier in times of cultural conflict. When others in the organization are permitted and empowered to practice leadership, not just follow, it can make a difference.  

Next week we’ll consider the next insight and recommendation from the study, Pursuing a Third Way.

Do you have a question about something you are reading in this series? Send it to us at info@tenaciouschange.us. We’ll address it at the end of the series. Thanks!

  • Day, D. V. &Vance, C. E. (2004). Understanding the development of leadership complexity through latent growth modeling.  In D. V. Day, S. J. Zaccaro, & S. M. Halpin (Eds.), Leader development for transforming organizations: Growing leaders for tomorrow (pp. 41-69). New York, NY: Psychology Press.
  • De Meuse, K. P., Dai, G., & Hallenbeck, G.S. (2010). Learning agility: A construct whose time has come. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62(2),119-130. doi: 10.1037/a0019988
  • Hannah, S. T., Waldman, D. A., Balthazard, P.A., Jennings, P. L., & Thatcher, R. W. (2013). The psychological and neurological bases of leader self-complexity and effects on adaptive decision-making. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98(3), 393-411.
  • Heifetz, R. A., Kania, J. V., & Kramer, M. R. (2004, Winter). Leading boldly: Foundation can move past traditional approaches to create social change through imaginative – and even controversial – leadership.  Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter, 20-31. Retrieved fromhttp://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/leading_boldly
  • Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009).  The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world.  Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.
  • Hooijberg, R., Hunt, J. G., & Dodge, G. E. (1997). Leadership complexity and development of the leaderplex model.  Journal of Management, 23(3), 375-408.doi: 10.1177/014920639702300305
  • Mumford, T. V., Campion, M. A., &Morgeson, F. P. (2007). The leadership skills strataplex: Leadership skill requirements across organizational levels. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(2),154-166. doi: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2007.01.005
  • Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Ospina, S. & Sorenson, G. L. J. (2006). A constructionist lens on leadership: Charting new territory. In G. R. Goethals & G. L. J. Sorenson (Eds.), The quest for a general theory of leadership (188-204). Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

The DAD is happening Wednesday, September 13, 2023, at 4:00 PM Eastern via Zoom. There is no cost…this is a free, complimentary event from Tenacious Change.

This is an interactive event. It is not a seminar or webinar, but a facilitated conversation using both small group, large group, and whiteboard exercises.

Participation will be virtual via Zoom, and to make for a more authentic engagement, we respectfully ask that participants join by audio and video using a computer and earbuds or headset (not by cellphone or tablet). Because we’ll be using a virtual whiteboard, you will need to be on a computer to fully participate.

Seats are limited and pre-registration by August 31 is required. Seating is on a Southwest Airlines basis (first in, first seated).

Registrants will need to do a small amount of prep work prior to the event, beginning on September 1. The prep work is to ensure participants have a common language and understanding of some key ideas related to dialogue. It won’t be heavy…you’ll be asked to watch one or two brief videos and read a couple of blog postings.

Agenda highlights: Introductions, agenda overview, small group conversations in Zoom rooms, large group conversation and debrief on Zoom whiteboard, and closing.

The DAD is scheduled to last 90 minutes. It may end early but it will not go over time. Participants need to plan to attend the full 90 minutes.

If you register, you also need to show up with a desire to listen, hear, learn, and speak without judgment or fear of judgment.

Registration is simple…just click on this link or on the button below and you’ll be taken to a secure registration form.

Tenacious Change IS on Substack

We are still putting some test posts on Substack to get used to working with the site and we invite you to check them out at this link. Please know, though, that at this time we are only re-running recently past posts so we can get accustomed to posting there. We are continuing to learn the formatting but when we are fully ready to start publishing there, we’ll let you know!

Scheduling for Fall 2023 and Winter 2024

We are currently scheduling consultations, workshops, and training events for late summer and early Fall as well as for this upcoming Winter. Visit our website to learn more about everything we offer. You can even download and share this handout with your colleagues. Then schedule a time to talk to us.

Now Available!

Preparing for Controversy in the Fog of (Culture) War does not hold all the answers but it has some that will be helpful. It will help you understand:

  • the difference between a controversy and a conflict
  • the stages of conflict
  • the cycle of intractable conflict
  • the value and importance of Strategic Controversy Management
  • when to intervene so that a controversy does not become a conflict
  • how to slow or stop a controversy, even a conflict, when it occurs

Ninety-one percent (91%) of people completing the evaluation after the live April 2023 seminar told us they felt more confident in their ability to manage controversy as a result of participating in the seminar. Specifically, here’s what they told us how they benefited most from it:

  • Five big steps in controversy management.
  • The rules of civil conversation.
  • Understanding how controversy and conflict are different now from the 90’s and understanding where and how conflict can be deterred.
  • Learning about when more people are likely to “get on-board” with your issue. This helped me think about where my energy and efforts can be used more effectively.
  • Tom’s historical observations about the Culture War and how things have changed…or not changed.
  • The cycle of intractable conflict.

In addition to the video, there are downloadable PDF resources. All are available at no cost, though you will be asked to sign a guest book before accessing the video and downloads.

Click on the link below to see a brief trailer video and then access the full video and all resources.

What Controversy Could be Brewing In Your World?

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Please follow this link (or click on the button below) to complete a brief Google form where you can tell us.

  • What controversies are emerging that you might be able to head off?
  • What controversies are you actually facing at this time?
  • Can you share a situation with us that we can turn into an anonymous “case study” and explore in an upcoming blog?
  • What specific questions do you have about getting prepared for controversy or managing controversy?

Remember, you can also access our video Preparing for Controversy inthe Fog of (Culture) War on our website and we also offer a day-long training event on managing controversy – on-site or online.

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