Authored by Marty Linsky on Wednesday, April 22, 2009 at 2:07 PM | 27 Comments
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Harder than I expected to stay focused on work while looking out over rolling farmland, gently ascending up to the town of Collevecchio here in the province of Lazio about an hour northeast of Rome.
But here I am, following the Red Sox and the Celtics, reading newspapers online, and trying to stay current and make connections, as if the world would stop if I did not know what was going on.
For example, in Tuesday’s Boston Globe, Paula D. Broadwell wrote an op-ed piece extolling General David Petraeus as the embodiment of someone practicing adaptive leadership. The piece is worth reading. (Full disclosure: Broadwell, a major in the US Army, is now a pre-doctoral Research Fellow at the Center for Public Leadership (CPL) at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). My colleague Ron Heifetz and I teach leadership at HKS, and Ron was the founding director of CPL. But we do not know her.)
Broadwell accurately identifies some of the core assumptions of adaptive leadership. The first is that leadership is about skills that can be learned by anyone.
The issue of whether leadership can be learned, or more precisely, whether it can be taught, is the subject of this week’s debate on the Washington Post’s On Leadership blog. The question was stimulated by the provocative piece that Thomas Ricks, the Post’s military correspondent, published on Sunday suggesting that the service academies be abolished.
Despite my making a living teaching and consulting on leadership, I am much more convinced that leadership can be learned than that it can be taught.
The resistance to that idea typically comes from two sometimes overlapping sources: (1) people who think they’ve “got it” and (2) people in positions of senior authority who fear loss of control and diminishing the deference of subordinates that they enjoy so much if there really were to be a culture of leadership throughout the organization, if leadership was the responsibility of everyone.
Broadwell’s second core idea from adaptive leadership that Petraeus embodies is that the capacity of organizations to adapt to new realities depends on whether the culture expects leadership throughout the organization, not just at the top.
Petraeus and many others in the military have realized that in a rapidly-changing situation, where people on the ground are constantly having to adapt to new and unanticipated external and internal realities, the creativity, judgment, and experimentation that are elements of leadership must be the province of everyone in the organization.
Petraeus and the military are not alone. Last weekend I spent some time with Lee Baca, the innovative elected Sheriff of Los Angeles County. Baca, too, believes in leadership throughout the organization and has run experiments that have challenged and shocked his colleagues in the law enforcement community. For example, Baca has developed a program offering gang members education as an alternative to incarceration. And instead of being sued by advocates for fairer treatment of people in jail, he has partnered with them. Take a look at his website. Everyone of the 14,500 people who work in his Department signs on to a value statement that begins, “As a leader in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department…”. Not bad.
So, how is it in your organization, your family, your company, your non-profit, your community? where does the responsibility lie for leadership How prepared are your people with the skills necessary to adapt, to survive and thrive, in the face of accelerated pace of change and continuing uncertainty?
It will be interesting to see whether the challenge of coping with the current turmoil and foggy future will generate a similar commitment to adaptive and disseminated leadership in the private sector where, in my experience and observation, hierarchical responsibility for leadership usually still prevails.
This afternoon I go to Milan for meetings with senior corporate folks from Italian-based companies. I’ll let you know how it goes.