Tag Archives: adaptive leadership

Chameleon Leadership

Looking at the sidebar of “recent entries”, you might assume that I’ve been somewhat absent from the volunteer world lately.  And, well…in a way you’d be right.  I spent a couple weeks travelling abroad and have also been taking time away from normal life to engage in a program all about civic leadership.  Every month, I spend two whole days with a fantastic group of 30 civic leaders – people who, like me, probably spend way too much time giving back.  So, these days are spent connecting and reflecting.  Most recently, our session revolved around the topics of adaptive and facilitative leadership.  While I can’t claim to have a complete grasp of either, there are some things worth thinking about (I’m going to focus on the adaptive leadership part).

Ok.  We all know what it means to be adaptive, and most of us have some concept of what a leader is, but the term “adaptive leadership” is probably much less clear.  Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government are the gurus of adaptive leadership, which Heifetz likes to call “disappointing people at a tolerable rate”.  The basic idea being that adaptive leaders work to inspire change in others – leadership is an activity, not a person.  And for an adaptive leader, the solution (or ultimate goal) is often unclear, requiring work or feedback from stakeholders.  Unfortunately, as you’ve probably heard before, people don’t generally like change and, they usually take out their insecurities about the change on the person leading them through it.  Great.

So where is the incentive for civic leaders – people who may be volunteers, or leaders in unstable times…why should we spend time coming up with new modes of operating rather than accepting the status quo? And how will we ever know that the new way of doing things, once it becomes the norm, is any better than what we had before?  To be honest, I don’t know the answers, and in fact barely even have suggestions.  Perhaps it has to do with our human nature – some innate drive toward idealism and that rare, beautiful moment when an unexpected solution is formed by a group of people, and actually works.

In my lifetime (admittedly, a relatively short period of time), I can’t recall an outstanding instance of something I could call true adaptive leadership.  I’ve seen attempts for sure (Obama?).  And I’ve heard examples – some point to Dave Eggers’ 826 storefronts or Shacketon’s leadership on the Endurance – but those don’t resonate with me. So, today I’m left with only questions.  What are the tools of an adaptive leader? Is there really any way to incite a group to be innovative? Is there a way to move beyond the theory of adaptive leadership to put it into practice?

If only I were a chameleon, the king of adaptive change…maybe I could teach others how to subtly and beautifully create and accept new things.  Or, maybe I’d be even more frustrated by the fact that I possessed a completely unteachable skill.  Who knows.  Well, maybe you do – help me out here, if you can.


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