For the past 16 years, I have been working with Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Marty and Ron are on the forefront of leadership theory, traveling the world to consult and educate folks in government, industry, and academia. They are also the authors of several seminal books — Leadership Without Easy Answers, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, and The Practice of Adaptive Leadership.
Their paradigm, called Adaptive Leadership, is a radical way of looking at what it means to be in the act of leading. They talk about the differences between leadership and authority and how we typically conflate the two words. They discuss what it means to solve technical problems versus facing adaptive challenges. They work on how to mobilize across factions, yet continually emphasize how complicit we are in the problems we face. At the core of their work is the word “adaptive”.
Ron speaks about how nature promotes adaptation. When an organism needs to evolve due to changing environmental circumstances, most of its DNA is saved. The new DNA that allows the organism to survive is just a fractional part of the biological pattern. It’s a conservative process — saving what’s useful and discarding those parts that no longer work.
He expands on this metaphor. “The American Revolution wasn’t a revolution,” he says, “but evolution.” Daily life for the colonists wasn’t radically altered by the new constitution. States remained autonomous. The founding fathers based the system on what was working (the British parliamentary and judicial structure), altered what wasn’t (the monarchy), and created a hybrid (a social contract that authorized the polity) that has been functional for more than two centuries. They even built in a process for incremental evolution via legislation and constitutional amendment.
The act of leadership, then, is to mobilize people to have the agency to change. “Adaptive situations demand that people discover, invent, and take responsibility,” Heifetz writes in Leadership Without Easy Answers. “Sifting through the old and fashioning something new takes emotional work.” One danger is in asking for too much change, too quickly. It’s essential to be smart about how much adaptation is manageable, pay attention when there is too much stress in the system, and understand that casualties might be necessary to keep evolution moving forward.
I’ve been wondering about Adaptive Leadership in a personal context: how do you lead yourself forward? I am currently facing a huge evolution in my life — leaving the world of the theater, which I have inhabited for four decades, for the world of consulting and coaching in a broader sphere. Every day I’m faced with the questions of what do I keep and what do I let go of.
This is both a metaphoric and a literal process as I prepare for a three thousand mile cross country move. I have collected shelves and shelves of professionally “important” books, binders full of resource materials and course notes, file folders documenting my students and classes, and scores of theater programs, reviews and photographs. In a moldy box stored in the basement, I found my grade reports from grammar school, a shank of my baby hair saved by my mother, and hundred of letters, from when we actually wrote to each other on paper.
Each piece can be seen as a fractional signifier of who I am. One response would be, “Save it all, you’ll want to have this someday.” On the other extreme, “Chuck it all — why carry around these pieces of paper? Start afresh!” My challenge is to remain in the adaptive mode: what DNA is useful versus what DNA have you already lost or need to lose?
I began with books. Books about leadership. Save. Shakespeare. Save. Let go of books about voice and books about acting that have been decorating my shelves. Let go of monologue compilations, books of scenes, and scripts. Let go of books that aren’t very well written or interesting. Let go of duplicate books. If my identify is visually manifested by the volumes on my shelves, I can see how my DNA is changing. How do I feel? Both nervous and relieved.
What about the articles and syllabi and handouts that document my teaching and learning for the past four decades? I opened a binder stuffed with notes on every class I took during my actor training at the American Conservatory Theater in the mid-1970s. As I read through them, I had a pleasing discovery. The concepts I so carefully logged have become an integral part of me. I will not lose those ideas if I lose the pieces of paper. Into the recycle bin they go. Classes and courses that I’ll never teach again? Gone as well. Again, the odd combination of anxiety and relief.
Then I came to the moldy box. My question at every artifact was this: “If I no longer have this object, will I still know who I am?” Out go grade reports, cards from people whose faces I don’t remember, letters that chronicle minutia, empty pages of journals. On Christmas Day, listening to carols on my headphones, I read a packet of letters from me that my mother had stored. They are a potent chronicle of another DNA adaptation. Saved.
Some days during this process, my discomfort increases almost to panic. My upcoming new environmental conditions are an opportunity for evolution, but I can’t go too fast. I imagine a farewell to my theater identity. Then I realize that’s the fundamental DNA I’m conserving. It’s the basis for my evolution. I will continue using what I have embodied on stage and behind the scenes, discarding the parts that aren’t functional anymore. And I can feel new DNA growing as I expand into a wider arena.
“Ring out the old, ring in the new” is a cultural mantra for most of us on December 31st. We try to start the year afresh on the morning of January 1st thinking of the technical things we’d like to fix — go to the gym more often, eat more green and leafy vegetables, see more friends.
With a big thank you to Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky for their Adaptive Leadership model, I’d like to change that phrase to “save some old, add a little new” as we begin another year. First, cherish the DNA that that’s fundamental to your evolution. Celebrate who you are. Second, identify the DNA that’s outlived its usefulness. Mourn its loss and let it go. Third, begin to build new DNA as you adapt to your changing environment. You will not only survive, you will thrive as we enter into the exciting times of 2014!