What I Learned at Harvard About Leadership

Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Teaching Adaptive Leadership Panel Discussion


I expected ego. I expected challenge. I thought I had a target on my head. And I was wrong.

This year, for the first time, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government permitted a small percentage of non-Harvard scholars to participate in Ron Heifetz’s Adaptive Leadership Network. It was humbling to be included, and when the invitation to speak at their conference arrived, I must admit to being a bit shocked. I later learned that the act of including ‘outsiders’, required the group to move the conference off the Harvard campus. The gravity and implications of that, along with the acknowledgment that the discipline has grown to be bigger than it’s creators, was not lost on me.

Adaptive Leadership: A Critical Need in Unsettling Times

The Adaptive Leadership Network is a community who teach and practice a groundbreaking leadership framework pioneered by Harvard Professor (and founder of Cambridge Leadership Associates), Ron Heifetz. The practice is designed to mobilize stakeholders and provides a practical framework to make progress on challenges that require breakthrough thinking. The approach equips leaders at all levels to face and address rapid, disruptive change in unsettling times. There simply cannot be a more critical need for leaders in today’s world or a better way to approach it.

The invitation to speak at the conference, themed, ‘To Hold or Disrupt: Leading In Unsettling Times,’ came on the heels of our (LeaderShift Insights®) realization that our corporate clients had greater success in implementing adaptive leadership skills after they attended our Resilience Workshop. We discovered that the self-awareness that comes with building resilience is essential to equipping leaders to deal with adaptive challenges. Essentially, mobilizing diverse stakeholders requires an openness, vulnerability and willingness to collaborate.

In disruptive environments, stress is rampant and these are things that highly stressed people do not do well. ‘Change fatigue’ shows up as defensiveness, desire to control, personal agendas, and ‘every man for himself’ behavior. This flies in the face of the ability to mobilize people to solve challenges that require breakthrough thinking. At LeaderShift®, we have a point of view that equipping leaders to increase their resilience (by discovering how and who they are as a person drives who they are as a leader) better prepares them to be adaptive.

I was asked to share this perspective, along with my experience educating and working with corporate leaders on adaptive leadership over the last 10 years, with leaders and alumni of the Kennedy School… even though I was not originally exposed to it there. We use the Adaptive Leadership approach both as a means to equip leaders AND to work with executives in in our consulting practice. This often involves large transformative corporate projects such as restructuring, merger integration or driving organizational change.

Do You Speak Our Language?

I came to Adaptive Leadership through corporate training many years ago and while I had been invited to contribute, I couldn’t help but wonder if my point of view would be welcome at this conference. One person I spoke to in advance politely asked if I was sure I spoke their language. And initially, I wasn’t. I was pretty sure that 10 years of ‘adapting adaptive leadership’ to meet the needs of everything from illiterate factory workers to Fortune 500 CEOs had required me to change a few words to make it work. I frantically did the research to see how close I was and discovered that the language I used to frame the concepts in our practice were rock solid. Ironically, there was a refreshing consensus at the conference that semantics must take second place to learning.

And so I dove into a 3-day conversation with a group of world-changers working on issues that make the most complex corporate adaptive challenges pale in comparison:

  • The chairman of the Democratic party struggling to rebuild and restore hope
  • The second most powerful member of parliament for an Eastern European country clinging to democracy as neighboring non-democratic nations encroach
  • A political prisoner in exile working to influence the environment in his country from afar
  • A state governor with an economy in radical transition
  • A film-maker trying desperately to contribute to solving opiate abuse and getting support for veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • A Speaker of the House working to balance a budget with an opposing party in every position of power in her State
  • Professors working to influence dictators and spread democracy in places I couldn’t point to on a map
  • A very well-known political commentator working hard to spark debate
  • Leaders in agriculture, the military, corporations, consulting and non-profit groups, and countless foreign governments working against all odds to turn passion into real change and the growth of democracy

For some, these issues separate life and death. For all, Adaptive Leadership provides hope, commitment, and the best chance of progress on complex, ambiguous challenges in an uncertain and often volatile environment. For me, the profound success demonstrated on huge global issues creates momentum and encouragement for the corporate leaders I work with to become more resilient and effective in dealing with all manner of complex change.

While we may not all agree on how to get there politically (The Kennedy School is, after all, an academic institution), I left this experience with hope restored that there is common ground if we listen long enough to find it. The incredible welcome, inclusion, and support I felt at Harvard demonstrated that in spades. The fact that an entire conference was relocated to include a broader audience sets a profound example of outreach that leaders everywhere can emulate to drive more sustainable solutions.

In a polarized world, it is easy to cling to your end of the spectrum and isolate the reasons we are different. Adaptive Leadership teaches us that this ‘work avoidance’ precludes us from the difficult work of uniting to craft solutions. Even in corporations, this work requires deep thinking and often painful trade-offs. It is only by digging into the work that leaders will create the alignment required for meaningful change.

LeaderShift Insights® equips and aligns leaders and organizations to thrive in the face of rapid, disruptive change. If you would like to talk about equipping your leaders to deal with complex adaptive challenges in your organization or your little corner of it, call us. It’s what we do

…and if you want to change a government, I know some people who can help.

Thank you, Ron Heifetz, Michael Koehler, and the Adaptive Leadership Network for your very existence and commitment to this work. The world owes you a debt of gratitude.

Also thank you to the other experts on the Teaching Adaptive Leadership Peer Panel, Axelle Bagot (Harvard), Elizabeth Heid (KONU Berlin), Marilyn Bugenhagen (Federal Executive Institute) and Linda Lausell Bryant (NYU Silver School of Social Work).