Leaderships for Our Times

January 29, 2010 Leave a comment
Leadership - Liverpool street station

|Photo by victoriapeckham|http://www.flickr.com/photos/victoriapeckham/164175205/|

In this post I take a look at the overlap and differences between three leadership approaches to which we here at IISC regularly turn in light of our bent towards social change and beliefs about the world in which we live.

Adaptive Leadership – Most prominently mapped by Ron Heifetz, adaptive leadership is “the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.”  Heifetz identifies “adaptive challenges” as those that can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits and loyalties; they do not lend themselves to technical fixes.  Being an adaptive leader is different then, than having authoritative (content) expertise.  It is about being mindful of the bigger systemic picture and taking experimental steps to challenge and change existing structures and norms so that groups, organizations, and communities adjust to new circumstances.

Facilitative Leadership – Historically, this has been the core of what we do and teach at IISC and Interaction Associates.  “FL,” as we like to call it, is an approach to leadership grounded in the question, “How do we create the conditions for self-empowerment so that people work together on a shared goal?”  Facilitative leaders are interested in constructing and inspiring environments and situations where people can co-labor(ate), because they know that in certain cases more (and more diverse) minds and hands are what it will take to move things forward.  The “practices” of FL are the concrete sets of tools that help to create these conditions through strategically and inclusively managing decision-making, facilitating agreements, designing processes, etc.

Network Leadership – Some might see this as a bit of a contradiction in terms.  To the extent that anyone can lead a network, they help bring shared identity and intention to an array of interconnected and broadly distributed stakeholders.  Leading in such a context is really about “leading between,” in the words of Paul Skidmore.   It is about unleashing potential by structuring the right kinds of conversation that draw people in, establishing trust and a common language, and providing space (physical and virtual) for things to happen (emergence and self-organization).

Holding these up against one another, Adaptive Leadership stands out principally as a foundational mindset and systemic orientation toward the world, into which the collaborative skillset of Facilitative Leadership nicely fits.  Network leadership is a complementary practice of seeing and mobilizing overarching and underlying patterns of relationship (within and beyond organizations) that extends reach and builds movement.  All three are grounded in humility, a belief that leadership comes from more than just those with formal authority, and a shared understanding that we must reach out and go beyond command-and-control tactics and “expert” solutions to work together and meet challenges in this complex dynamic world.

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  • Natalia says:

    Hi Curtis,
    Very insightful post – thanks! At my organization, Leadership Learning Community, we recently launched a collaborative research initiative that explores network leadership – we are looking at how leadership is cultivated and supported in the social sector; and what needs to change in order to more effectively support efforts to mobilize collective action across sectors to address more systemically complex social and environmental issues. More info here:

  • Curtis says:

    Thank you, Natalia. Looking forward to reading more. Just gave a glance and LOVE the resource list. Anyone else reading these comments, please check out Natalia’s link.

  • Kim says:

    Hi Curtis,

    We are wrapping up our ICL class and I am still struggling to understand where activism and mobilization fit within these leadership models. Which model – if any – provide opportunities for people to organize others toward protest (the importance of which is well argued in Frances Fox Piven’s book or this article http://www.thenation.com/doc/20081201/piven). I really love the idea of leaders creating containers for people to come together as their best thinkers/selves in lots of areas, but I also fear that we need more direct action and for that we need some leaders who can energize, inspire, and mobilize people out of our collective funk.

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks for your question and wondering, Kim. I don’t think these leadership models rule out activism and mobilization. In fact, I know they do not. Network leadership is increasingly seen as a way of mobilizing people in broader more inclusive and effective ways than more traditional forms of organizing. And the shared goal of a collaborative effort among some set of stakeholders under the facilitative lens might easily be an advocacy campaign or protest. I don’t see the endeavor or creating space for people to come together to be their best selves as precluding direct action and mobilization of the people!

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