When everyone agrees on where the future is headed – especially when that destination is so far from our current reality – that’s not a sign of inevitability; it’s a sign that people have stopped thinking.  A good time, perhaps, to hike out to some awkward, sideways headland where we can look things over from a contrary angle.  (Lee Simons, Wired)

Last week I was hugely privileged to attend the Harvard Kennedy School to participate in their Leadership for the 21st Century programme, Chaos, Conflict and Courage.

I have long wanted to attend a Kennedy School course, particularly as ANZSOG (with whom I taught and researched for a number of years) follows the Harvard pedagogy, with the intimate format, case-based analysis, and working groups.  The course was facilitated by Dr Tim O’Brien, himself a Harvard Alumni, who very ably crafted a safe learning space within which the 77 of us were able to both get to know each other as individuals, as well as to understand ourselves a little better.

The course builds on the Adaptive Leadership model developed by Professor Ronald Heifetz which articulates the difference between technical problems and adaptive challenges, and from there describes a set of strategies, tools and tactics to address each.  It also incorporates numerous elements of the Tavistock Institute’s Group Relations to enable individuals to understand their respective roles within the a broader organisational system, both in smaller teams and the plenary.

Four external presenters were brought in, each with their own unique perspectives drawn from the world of experience:  Farayi Chipungu described her consulting experience with McKinsey; Dr Donna Hicks shared her work based on leading with dignity; Shannon McAuliffe told the story of her work with Roca Inc, and Hugh O’Doherty took us on a journey through the work he has done in peace negotiations globally.

I went to Harvard to soak up the experience of attending one of the world’s leading academic institutions, but also to learn as much as I could from every source that presented itself – the facilitators and presenters, my fellow classmates (one of who was Negar Tayyar, our first Intersticia Leadership Scholar), and of course, myself.

There was much I found extremely familiar about the course – how it was taught, the framing of exercises, the use of cases, and the exploration of individual as well as broader human issues.  What made the Harvard experience special were two things:  firstly, the calibre of highly intelligent, self-motivated and senior people from all walks of life and virtually every continent around the world; and, secondly the very safe container that Tim O’Brien created and held for us all to work in over the course of the five days.

As we explored the concept of Adaptive Leadership people gradually disconnected from their daily work roles and began to more reflectively explore themselves as leaders – they began to move from the dance to the balcony – one of my favourite coaching phrases!  With this came the ability to unpack and more fully understand both the context and any personal stuck issues.

Each person had their own Aha! moment last week, some more profound than others, but regardless of how far along the personal learning journey each of us were, there were salient lessons for everyone as a 21C Leader.

Most people were from the public sector, but there were a number from the Third Sector, which, as I have written in numerous posts, I believe to crucial in championing the human in the world at the moment.  Regardless, everyone was struggling with the complexity of the world around them, and the need for adaptability, agility and improvisation.  This is where Adaptive Leadership comes in to its own, and where the skills taught at courses like this will be invaluable to all leaders.

However, as with so much of any education in the leadership space, and particularly for senior people, there was only a passing mention of technology (including data and digital) in its own right, let alone the socio-technical challenges which underpin so much of what is happening in the digital age.

As I found at ANZSOG this seems to stem from two things:

  1. there seems to be a tendency to regard technology issues as separate from the human and social issues, or at least secondary in some way; and
  2. many academics who teach leadership (and indeed most of the social-sciences) are ill equipped to address the socio-technical issues because they do not themselves understand them, at least this has been my experience up to date.

This is not a criticism, in fact it is a challenge, but one that needs to be addressed immediately.

Whilst we are focusing on giving the next generation the skills for tomorrow it is just as, if not more important, to help the leaders of today who are too often focusing on industrial age problems, often missing, or neglecting, the techtonic shifts that are happening underneath them.  All industries, businesses and enterprises are changing, but we don’t necessarily know what that change will mean, and the more we take time out to sit in some awkward sideways headland and reflect and think, the better equipped we will be to meet what is coming at us.

This is the core of our Web Science challenge and why Web Science, in itself, is crucially important, but also unique.  It is precisely because in Web Science we understand that

the Web is changing the World, and the World is changing the Web – we live in the age of the Social Machine where there are no boundaries between humans and our technologies.

As Marshall McLuhan said, way before the days of the ubiquitous internet and the Web,

We become what we behold.  We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.

Our tools and technologies are extensions of who and what we are, but most importantly

as the boundaries between our physical and digital existence increasingly blur, the need to understand, analyse and address the socio-technical challenges will be at the heart of the work of all leaders.

Therefore I believe that the first step for every 21C Leader – regardless of age or stage – is to much more proactively take it upon themselves to study the technologies which are now all around us, to understand where they have come from, and begin to articulate, or at least, explore, where they might be taking us.  I had hoped that Harvard might be a little more advanced in this, but sadly not.  They are not on their own however.

The second step for every 21C Leader follows on from what I wrote about in my last blog, and that is to figure out how to lead in new and different ways.  Much of this is about standing aside and allowing the Web Generation to take the lead, whilst mentoring, coaching and moderating with the benefit of wisdom and experience, and maintaining the authority that is so important.  In this they need to hold the space within which the important work needs to happen.

This is where I believe that Adaptive Leadership is ideally suited precisely because

  • it sees leadership as a practice not a position
  • it recognises that ongoing nature of the challenge of leading, not the problem
  • it differentiates between leadership and authority
  • it stresses the need to observe and interpret before any intervention
  • it recognises the fluidity and ongoing evolution of the systems within which it exists
  • it connects with purpose.

It also links to Robert Greenleaf’s ideas around moral authority and Servant Leadership.

Moral authority is another way to define servant leadership because it represents a reciprocal choice between leader and follower.  If the leader is principle centered, he or she will develop moral authority.  If the follower is principle centered, he or she will follow the leader.  In this sense, both leaders and followers are followers.  Why?  They follow truth. They follow natural law.  They follow principles.  They follow a common, agreed-upon vision.  They share values.  They grow to trust one another.

The Leadership for the 21C programme went a long way towards articulating how this moral authority can flow from the Adaptive Leadership framework, and the course was of great value in many other ways.

However,

I would like to challenge the Harvard Kennedy School to itself take the lead and by stepping in to their own authority recognise and integrate the Social Machine into all of their leadership courses, particularly this one.

In a world where we are continually being forced to assert our human values whilst we are bombarded by our screens the most important thing that any leader can do is to protect them with all of the moral authority they can muster, for all of our sakes.