Leadership, Love, Loss and Learning

Last month, I had lunch with Diane Paulus. Diane had just been named by Time Magazine as one of the one hundred most influential people in the world. She has transformed the American Repertory Theater from a cutting edge regional theater with a fragile budget into a powerhouse incubator of Tony Award winning Broadway productions. The A.R.T. had just been given a significant endowment by the Doris Duke Foundation to reward this shift, which included a meeting with Ron Heifetz of Harvard’s Kennedy School. Diane was intrigued when I told her about the work in Adaptive Leadership that I had been doing with Heifetz.

I described the basic concepts of his framework to her: in the Adaptive Leadership model, the function of authority is to provide direction (where are we going?), protection (how do we get there safely?), and order (how do we maintain the rules along the way?). Leadership, on the other hand, is an action, not a position. To lead means helping people manage the losses that come with big adaptive challenges.

Diane was curious if Heifetz might do some work with the staff of the theater and wondered what kind of changes Heifetz might bring to the A.R.T. She thought his work might be useful for the senior staff. I responded, “Why not include everyone? Leadership can happen from any level of an organization. You’d have to be willing, though, to learn something from that third spear carrier on the left.”

Right after lunch I walked over to the Kennedy School to join the faculty of an eight-day workshop called The Art and Practice of Leadership Development. As the week progressed, I saw the complex relationship between leadership, love, loss and learning unfold.

Seventy participants from various countries packed the semi-circular classroom. Most of the program members taught, coached, or consulted to people in authority. The stated goal was to learn both how to teach and how to exercise Adaptive Leadership. It was clear from the first evening’s introductions that the participants were already jockeying for authority and status.

The tension in the room increased each day of the program. Eight people spoke most of the time; others remained silent. These eight typically talked about their own knowledge, not about learning something new. One person would jump in; the next person would speak on a different point. If someone interjected with passion, others would negate the comment. A faction arose that wanted all discourse to remain calm, comfortable and uncritical.

One faculty member publicly proposed to a participant that she would be more effective if she spoke more succinctly. The group pounced on him with ferocity. Participants critiqued his style, his words, his timing, his stories. He didn’t protect himself with an intellectual defense. Instead, he used the attacks to demonstrate how to be open to learning.

I could see how the group, instead of examining their own resistance to learning, focused their attention on the person who had been challenging their expertise. This was a diversion from facing their own adaptive challenge, the challenge of giving up a little bit of their own authority in order to grow.

At the end of the week, I led a session on storytelling. The last person to come to the front of the room told a story about the final days of caring for his dying wife. He spoke about how he no longer resented the things that she asked him to do. He willingly and eagerly fulfilled even the most arcane details of any task she wanted. The two were planning her funeral service with their minister, who said to him, “Your wife told me that she never knew how much you loved her until now.” There are many ways to understand this story. I view it this way: it is a story of regret that love had never been fully expressed prior to the moment of separation.

This story rose up at the last session for a reason. The participants were about to leave and most would never connect again. The losses in the room loomed large and regret was palpable. They had failed each other by not speaking with honesty. They had not grasped that to exercise leadership is an act of love. They had only a few hours left to help each other accept the loss that is a necessary part of learning.

Back to the American Repertory Theater. The five year transition from a regional repertory theater housing a resident company of actors to a pre-Broadway tryout house has been a huge adaptive challenge. Unfortunately, this challenge was managed solely with technical solutions, both big and small: new accounting procedures, casting only in New York, choosing a season of musical theater, getting a liquor license. There was lip service to listening; early on an outside facilitator created internal focus groups. It was clear, though, that by force of her charisma and authority, Diane Paulus was creating a new organization dedicated to what she called “my vision.”

The losses were huge. The core group of actors was dismantled. The founder of the theater heartbroken. The administration gutted. The offices now house a rotating cast of employees. I often hear “just keeping my head down,” “just doin’ my job,” “what’s the next thing to go?” The high flying success of the theater, both financially and in reputation, created a cascade of casualties. I might actually be one of them.

What if the Adaptive Leadership model had been used instead? The process might have been messier, for leadership, love, loss, and learning are intimately entwined. When a person leading change helps her constituents manage their losses, this is love. This could have altered the current culture. It would have taken a willingness to really listen and learn, a willingness to embrace her own adaptive challenges. Who knows what the end result would have been.

I’m curious to see if Diane Paulus does bring Ron Heifetz into the A.R.T. I’m also curious to see if the ideas he offers will take hold. It would be interesting to see if Diane might helm the theater in a different way, one that models love and learning in the face of loss. For learning is an essential part of moving an organization forward, for everyone, from the lowest person of the hierarchy to the highest. And if the person in charge can provide a model of love, learning and leadership, a new kind of system might emerge and thrive.