A Handful of Lessons on Adaptive Leadership

Cambridge Leadership Associates will be at the N.C. Center for Nonprofits’ 2014 Statewide Conference Nonprofits Front and Center on Friday to present an intensive workshop “Learn to Lead Adaptively.” I encourage you to bring a team of at least two people from your organization to get the most out of this learning opportunity.

Without the benefit of a backstory, let me share with you a few notable lessons we’ve learned in our work. They’ll assist us in beginning the conversation we’ll have in September. 

Embrace change, but understand loss. Change is inevitable and necessary for progress. This work teaches us that people don’t generally resist change. Rather, they resist the losses they perceive might result from the change. Equipping people to lead in a way that surfaces and acknowledges losses and keeps the system moving past the status quo is critical.

Fix the “right” challenge. Folks in the nonprofit sector are driven by passion and purpose.  You want to do the right thing and make a difference. Not everyone is lucky enough to have those strong values underpinning their work. However, this motivation, combined with numerous systemic pressures, can result in applying a “technical” fix to what is actually a complex, adaptive challenge. 

Hone diagnostic skills. In a culture of limited resources, crises, and reaction-driven responses, it becomes even more important to slow down, step back, and consider purposefully the challenge, stakeholders, values, preferred outcomes, and the potential losses that are all part of a potential change. Oftentimes, how we look at the problem can be part of the problem. Without making time for deep diagnostic work, we risk solving the wrong problem perfectly. 

Practice smart risk-taking and experiments. Words like “risk-taking” and “experiments” have their place in nonprofits, but aren’t necessarily encouraged by the sector’s current philanthropic structure. It takes strong leadership commitment (by both funders and operating nonprofits) and support to create a culture that celebrates and supports this approach to learning, understanding, and implementing system change. It’s hard, but sticking with it will create the kind of change we all wish for. 

We look forward to providing a framework and set of ideas that will enable you to tackle tough challenges and thrive, in the way we’ve seen so many organizations do. 

Tara Hickey will lead the workshop at the Center’s 2014 Statewide Conference. She is a staff consultant with Cambridge Leadership Associates, an international leadership development practice. CLA grew out of the work of Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, who have spent more than 30 years examining and teaching the practice of leadership at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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