Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Practice of Adaptive Leadership

Ron Heifetz' new book (with co-authors Linsky and Grashow) applies the concept of adaptive leadership to the real world in which 21st century leaders will have to engage. In the case of Education City, we are dealing with western educational models, adapted in an Arab cultural context, engaging students from 75 countries throughout the world, and tackling the capacity building challenges of a growing knowledge-based society. Bottom line - there are no easy answers and perhaps no answers at all about how to do this. Under these conditions, the challenge of leadership becomes one of connecting to the values, beliefs, and anxieties of all of those involved in the experiment of higher education in the Arabian Gulf. And the greater challenge in connecting our values is that it frequently requires sacrificing some of our own values, beliefs, or self-interests.

An example - Western education presumes that students are able and need to make their own choices about career (an idea borne of the individualistic belief that, if young people are to be successful, they will have to take charge of their own destinies) yet in the Arab world, Asia, and many other places, the choice of one's career is frequently dictated by family, by business sponsors who fund educational opportunity, or out of beliefs that specific careers are more lucrative or carry greater prestige. The paradox for educators becomes one of responding to family/student demand or preference, all the time knowing that the "choices" students make may not be the best fit for their talents or convictions. Managing the individualism involved in free choice in contrast with the collectivist idea of obligation to family and community has no predictable answer. For some students taking the risk to contradict family expectations may be the best path while for others maintaining the commitment to the family and community is best. Educators cannot be effective in working with students unless the potential legitimacy of both choices (originating from different values systems) is embraced.

Some of us in the Gulf are here as managers or as experts in processes of technical change. However, those who make the greatest difference are the ones who recognize that the most exciting work in higher education in this area of the world is adaptive and that maintaining a focus on the bigger picture of change and the possibilities it poses is worth the negotiations, hard work, and risk. As Ron and his colleagues say, "Adaptive leadership is not about meeting or exceeding your authorizers' expectations; it is about challenging some of the expectations, finding a way to disappoint people without pushing them completely over the edge. And it requires managing the resistance you will inevitably trigger." (p.26)

The "authorizers" are sometimes our bosses. Sometimes they are our colleagues or followers/collaborators. But we all have authorizers who grant us the authority to act. Naturally, authorizers want the easiest and quickest way to a solution. But if there is no known solution, who will provide the holding environment for shared work to be undertaken and who will be responsible for the outcome? One response to who will create the holding environment is that it will be the organization itself, of course fostered by insightful leaders. In Chapter 7, Ron and his colleagues identify five characteristics of an adaptive organization which include: 1. Elephants in the room are named, 2. Responsibility for the organization's future is shared, 3. Independent judgment is expected, 4. Leadership capacity is developed, and 5. Reflection and continuous learning are institutionalized. (pp. 101-108) By fostering these attributes, leadership then joins with various authorizers to establish and sustain a holding environment that is capable of negotiating the adaptive challenges of its environment.

Through reading Ron's new book and observing the dynamics of many of the questions I face each day, I have a much greater appreciation and dedication to the work I am privileged to pursue with my colleagues here. And, the work is clearly adaptive and shared.