Development in Action

Does leadership development need to be put on hold while we are managing through crisis?

Doesn’t my leadership development need to be put on hold while we are managing through this crisis?  

Actually, this crisis is a valuable opportunity to continue to develop your leadership via what one of my colleagues calls development in action. Making thoughtful sense of us at our best – and worst – as we deal with this crisis will enable us to stretch and expand into better versions of ourselves.  Development in action means to thoughtfully observe, apply and adapt what we are learning day to day to the challenges we face day to day. (thanks, Z.A.!)

The articles and suggestions this month are opportunities for development in action and continue to focus on the unique challenges of leading in a time of disruption. My colleague, Andrew Stevens, has offered a mini-development opportunity with a short video on the concept of adaptive capacity.  Articles by Adam Kahane and Robbie Macpherson offer ideas on the limits of authority and strategies for leading your team past a crisis, respectively. There’s an interesting article about leaders’ blind spots.  The book review is on a book with a provocative title that you will want to read!  You can scan these titles quickly, read my short summaries, and/or delve more fully in places but there are some really good articles I would encourage you to read in their entirety.  Finally, there are a few submissions from last month’s survey about examples of inspiring actions of leaders in this time.


“A short introduction to adaptive capacity,” 

by Andrew Stevens.

Some on this distribution list will know Andrew Stevens through one or more of the leadership programs he and I have co-facilitated over the years.  Andrew is co-founder and director of Uncharted Leadership Institute, Australia.  He has graciously provided this month’s ‘mini-development’ piece on introducing the concept of adaptive capacity and why it is so critical to individuals and organizations grappling with complex challenges.  What Andrew introduces in this 7-minute video is one of the cornerstones for the work he and I do with leaders and organizations. Enjoy!

Useful Resources

“Authority Alone Won’t Get Leaders Very Far” 

(Adam Kahane, Strategy+Business, August 20, 2019).

Comment: This short article by Adam Kahane (also the author of this month’s reviewed book) reminds us that our authority doesn’t extend far without the trust of those we lead.  He relays a story of time when, in his role as facilitator of a project, his authority was challenged by a participant speaking up to say “I don’t trust you.”  What would you do in that situation? One could argue that, as an outside facilitator, Adam didn’t have formal authority in this situation, but Adam’s comment that “there’s a difference in having followers and having subordinates” is just as true for those in formal organizational roles of authority. There is a difference, too, in having authority and exercising leadership, and Adam suggests in this article some different ways of exercising leadership.  It’s especially important in a complex world to be the kind of leader others will willingly follow.

“Leading in a Crisis; Using adaptive leadership to shape the COVID-19 crisis response” 

(Robbie Macpherson and Paul ‘t Hart, April 17, 2020 in ANZOG).

Comment: I liked this article from Australia because of its focus on Ron Heifetz’ adaptive leadership approach to leading in a crisis. (A Ron Heifetz video was a recommendation in last month’s newsletter).  Heifetz differentiates between exercising authority and exercising leadership (as does Kahane in the article above), arguing that the traditional work of authority – providing direction, protection and order – is critically needed in the early stages of a crisis.  The next stages of a crisis, though, call for exercising leadership to help people come to terms with what has been lost and then to determine what to discard, conserve, embrace, reinforce and/or invent.  Practices for helping people grapple with these tough issues include the following:

  1. Step back from the fray – even in the absence of a crisis, many leaders spend too much time doing and not enough time thinking, reflecting, and diagnosing. It is critical to find a way to step back from the intensity of action to see the big-picture dynamics and challenges unfolding.
  2. Teach reality and frame the adaptive challenges – adaptive work requires figuring out what in the system will have to shift in order to thrive in a new environment. Such shifts almost always involve changes in mindsets, practices and habits – those changes don’t come easily.
  3. Acknowledge emotion and loss – the COVID-19 crisis generates losses at a scale rarely experienced in our history, and people need time, support and understanding to work through those losses, grieve, and transition to a new normal. Leaders must lead with heart – there is no shortcut or quick fix.
  4. Generate meaning and learning – create working groups across boundaries to tackle the adaptive challenges that have been identified; resource and protect new thinking, disruption, and experimentation; use your power to frame and set the agenda to stay focused on the key issues.
  5. Pace the work and support the effort – leaders must look after their own well-being, celebrate effort and success, and be consistent and authentic with people.

“Revealing Leaders’ Blind Spots” 

(John Shafer, Adam Bryant, and David Reimer, April 29, 2020, Strategy+Business).

Comment: How good are we at seeing ourselves the way others do?  It turns out that we have blind spots.  Collecting self-assessment data from 500 leaders and then 10,000 of their peers over a 15-year period led these authors to this conclusion: leaders are mostly oblivious to the way their colleagues view their weaknesses. There is very little overlap between the management areas leaders think they need to improve and the weaknesses identified by those they lead.  These disconnects have consequences. Some of the interesting findings indicated by the authors’ data:

  • The most common areas of agreement by the leader being assessed and the assessors were EQ/people skills and time management – both at 28% overlap – and executive presence – 26% overlap.  28% is not that big of an overlap!
  • The biggest blind spots for leaders are their troubles with visibility and accessibility, development of teams and upcoming leaders, vision, strategy, and organizational priorities.

Of course, these authors’ findings are not necessarily true for any one individual – any of us could be in that 1% whose priorities for improvement exactly match your organization’s perception of them.  On the other hand, acknowledging that I might have blind spots about my needed development areas could be the first step I take in trying to identify what those are.  Methods for doing so range from comprehensive multi-rater assessments to something as simple as seeking feedback on the three things I do best and the three things if I were to improve would have the biggest impact on my effectiveness.  For the latter method, of course, it is necessary that there be a high degree of psychological safety among those from whom you ask feedback (but exploring psychological safety will have to wait for another newsletter!).

Book Review

​”Collaborating with the Enemy: How to work with people you don’t agree with or like or trust,”

(Adam Kahane, 2017).

Comment: I first learned of Adam Kahane’s work in one of his earlier books “Transformative Scenario Planning.”  Adam was part of the historic Mont Fluer scenario exercise in 1991 that brought together current and potential leaders from across the whole of the emerging South African social-political-economic system to imagine a different future for South Africa post-Apartheid. Invited to that exercise were black and white, from the left and the right, and from the opposition and the establishment. Some in the room were sworn enemies.  In the almost 30 years since then, he has worked with groups and countries around the world in similar efforts, bringing together equally diverse groups in each case. 

One of the tenets in learning to lead in complexity is that you have to have voices at the table who effect – and are affected by – that system. One of the biggest challenges in learning to lead in complexity is that those voices aren’t always willing to work together. In this book, Adam brings his three decades of experience to propose an alternative to typical collaboration.  The voices around the issues you face may not be quite as polarized as some of the examples in this book, but I truly believe these ideas and practices will be helpful in your exercise of leadership.

Key ideas in the book:

Conventional strategies for addressing stubborn change are often based on two, mostly-unexamined premises: that there is an elite circle of people who know what is best for others and the world; and that we can problem-solve our way into the future. The nature of complex problems calls for a different set of premises.  Adam coins the term ’stretch collaboration’ as “….a process whereby those with long histories of distrust, incompatible goals and embedded stories of not liking each other can create an alternative future without reaching major agreements.”  This type of collaboration calls for three fundamental shifts in how we work, which require us to do the opposite of what seems natural:

  1. We must stretch away from focusing narrowly on the collective goals and harmony of our team and move toward embracing both conflict and connection within and beyond our team – dialogue is not enough. We must recognize that there is no one “good of the whole” – there is the “good of the whole that matters to me.”  The enemyfying syndrome – acting as if the people we are dealing with are our enemies who are the cause of our problems and are hurting us – narrows the space for problem solving and creativity and distracts us from the real work we need to do.
  2. To advance our work, we must stretch away from insisting on clear agreements about the problem, the solution, and the plan, and move toward experimenting systematically with different perspectives and possibilities.  We cannot control the future but we can influence it.
  3. The third stretch is to step into the game ourselves.  We must stretch away from trying to change what other people are doing, recognize our role in the system, and move toward entering fully into the action willing to change ourselves.  A good quote from this section: “If you are not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.”

Executive Presence Tip of the Month

[In addition to subject matter expertise, organizational acumen, and higher-level thinking skills, effective executive leadership requires the sometimes-hard-to-define practices and skills that are embodied in ‘executive presence.’   Executive presence is an elusive concept, but we know it when we see it….and one can grow her executive presence.]

“Lead by example – always.”  

The basis for leadership credibility, “walking the talk” is one of the most important actions/practices a leader can do.  People are always watching their leaders, and they have finely-tuned “authenticity” detectors to spot when one’s actions don’t match one’s words.  We all have flaws and make errors.  Followers don’t expect their leaders to be perfect or to have all the answers – to pretend otherwise is to risk one’s authenticity.  What examples do your followers need to see you model this week?


Last month’s question: “What action(s) taken in these COVID-19 times have you seen by someone in a leadership role that inspired you, encouraged you, and/or raised that person in your esteem?”

We only had a few submissions to this survey poll, but I know there are hundreds more you could share.  I personally know of people on this distribution list who have exhibited the kinds of leadership that, to me, warrant such recognition.
I believe it’s important to recognize people who do inspiring acts of leadership.  AND I know there are always others who will have different views about those same people’s actions I find inspiring or who will have examples of times those same people’s actions did not live up to that standard.  Those “yes, but…” perspectives/examples do not negate my own nor do mine negate theirs. 

My encouragement is to “see it, say it” – when you see the kinds of leadership actions from direct reports, peers and your boss that inspire/encourage you, tell them “thank you!” and describe how what they did inspired or encouraged you.  Maybe your actions have inspired or encouraged someone who will do the same for you! Here are the stories for this month:

Fire Chief Brent Batla 

Fire Chief Brent Batla of Horseshoe Bay, Texas, came across a short video clip of a Fire Department in the northeast that had made a mass decontamination device out of a paint spray gun and their breathing apparatus. The firefighter was able to decontaminate and stay safe on breathing air at the same time. Inspired by this example of firefighters rising to the challenge and inventing new ways of doing things better, Chief Batla shared this video with the crew that was just coming on for their 48-hour shift.  About 30 hours into that shift, his firefighters proudly presented their device, having created custom connections for their particular brand of Breathing Apparatus and figured out how to make all of them work at the proper pressures so that the firefighter could breathe from the apparatus and use an attached spray gun with a powerful fog spray to decontaminate their apparatus and equipment.  Wanting to share it with others, they created a how-to video on social media. To date, the video has been watched over 8,200 times and seen by staff of FEMA, U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Army. (Submitted by Stan F.)

(I was struck by several things in this submission: the firefighters rising to the occasion with pride and creativity, their interest in sharing with others via the how-to video, and for the Fire Chief himself, for creating the kind of environment that enables pride and commitment!)

Dr. Anthony Fauc

“In response to your question of the month, I’d have to say that I have been highly impressed by Dr. Anthony Fauci (as I know many are). He was already highly respected in the HIV community and now it is apparent why. He speaks truth to power (as few others have been willing to) and he manages the disequilibrium through action, presence, heart and confidence as discussed by Dr. Heifetz in the video in last month’s newsletter.” (submitted by Robin A.)

(Very few of us will ever be called to publicly and continuously exercise leadership at such a scale for such stakes and for such an unknowable future. However, many of you on this distribution list are called on to exercise leadership in a high stakes/unknowable future environment even if on a slightly smaller stage. If you didn’t get a chance to watch the Heifetz video from last month’s newsletter, it’s worth a watch!)

 Jessica Forkner Tomberlin and Janessa Tomberlin

“I read in the local newspaper about two owners of a bakery in South Austin, Jessica Forkner Tomberlin and Janessa Tomberlin, who were worried that there were children in their community who might go hungry without school meals available due to the shutdown.  They came up with the idea for a sack lunch distribution – anyone could call the bakery, state the number of meals they needed and pick them up curbside for free.  While they started out focused on meals for kids, they quickly realized that there were a lot of people losing their jobs every day.  They then made the free meal available to everybody, no questions asked.  In the first month, they distributed 700 free meals.  Based on many requests from the public wanting to help, they eventually began accepting donations for the lunch fund.  The owners said this experience has really opened their eyes to the needs in their community and they intend to continue this program even after the COVID crisis is over.” (Submitted by Brenda C.)

(Good leadership can be found in all walks of life – these leaders are making a difference in their community every day!)

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