For a moment I thought he was going to hit me such was his anger and frustration. It was an interesting experience and one I’m not sure I could have coped with had it occurred when I first embarked on this teaching methodology. Nonetheless, reassured by what I was doing I took it all in and remained silent. The atmosphere in the classroom was electric as his rage hung thick in the air and I remained impassive, non-responsive. “What now?” I wondered.

What happened in that business school classroom during a day exploring ‘Strategic Execution & Best Practice’ has had me reflecting a great deal on the future of leadership: What will leaders need to learn in order to lead effectively into the future? How willing and prepared are leaders when it comes to engaging in that learning – or perhaps unlearning and relearning process? Can what leaders need to learn, be taught – and what would be the best way to teach this?

But first let me back-up and provide some context to what led to this tense moment in a business school classroom.

Adaptive Leadership, a leadership model designed by Ron Heifetz of Harvard, can simply be defined as, ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do’. Encountering such a moment is to invite engagement with what is termed an ‘adaptive challenge’. Another way of distinguishing an adaptive challenge is when the exact problem is not fully known – nor is the solution. Contrast this with a ‘technical problem’: this is where the nature of the problem is known, as is the solution. Technical problems can be extremely complex and difficult but the problem is known and there is a solution that can be employed.

I believe leaders are increasingly experiencing adaptive challenges as they lead in a context of exponential change, unprecedented connectivity and bewildering complexity. The temptation is to attempt to ‘solve’ an adaptive challenge by looking for a technical solution. In a sense this is our default setting. We are good at technical solutions and in a business context where being able to count, measure, calculate, predict and plan all provide a measure of reassurance; it is understandable why we turn to such practices when encountering the unknown, unfamiliar and uncertain.

Very often bringing a technical solution to bear on an adaptive challenge amounts to work avoidance – avoiding doing the ‘real work’ that is required in the adaptive moment. Furthermore, by engaging the technical solution in the face of what is an adaptive challenge, usually only makes matters worse. For the most part what ‘best practice’ offers is nothing other than an index of good technical solutions – things that have worked in the past.

Best practice invites a retrospective view on learning – a looking in the rearview mirror. Of course there are times when this is valid but when the road ahead is unfolding before us at blurring speed, we need to be looking ahead, not behind us! We need to know how to learn from the future. Adaptive challenges in essence are the ‘road ahead’ – the unmarked, untraveled and unknown road ahead.

The ‘silent class’ is a means whereby a real live adaptive challenge is created in the classroom and the learning that follows is profound. 

Let me explain.

At the outset of teaching on strategic leadership I ask the participants where the responsibility for learning rests. Without hesitation the response is always an overwhelming, “it is our responsibility”. At this point I pause and probe this seemingly automated response, testing the group’s sincerity of belief on this important point. Do they really believe that the burden of responsibility rests with them in this setting? What ensues is that the participants end up unequivocally accepting this key responsibility as they settle in for another day of teacher-tell instruction. After all, isn’t this the traditional business school approach – why else would they call in ‘subject experts’ and remunerate us to teach the carefully crafted curriculum that constitute the menu of impressive programmes on offer?

I then suggest that there are three ways we can ‘learn’ this subject.

Firstly we could all simply drink this tonic – at which point I display a bottle of ‘Leadership Tonic’ bought in Thailand. The small print on the bottle’s label informs us all that the tonic promises courage, virtue and a range of other impressive credentials essential to leadership. This would certainly be a nice, easy way to learn this subject.

Laughter ripples around the classroom.

(It would be nice were it as simple as this but the reality is that drinking the tonic is like Red Bull on steroids – it will keep you wide-eyed and on the edge for way longer than is natural or I suspect, healthy. You’ve been warned!)

Secondly, we could identify the list of attributes and skills needed in strategic leadership and then teach, train and discuss these – backed-up naturally with copious examples, case studies, quotes and of course the all compelling graphs, pie-charts and statistics. This represents the more traditional approach and it could be argued, forms a necessary part of the learning process. Yet somehow, within the constraints of this traditional approach, little variation or exploration ever seems to occur – at least with any sense of excitement or conviction. Just ask anyone who has been subjected to the average leadership development programme!

(As a point of validation: I once read that when Harvard Business School / HBS- on the occasion of the institution’s centenary – undertook a survey amongst their sizeable alumni, asked the question as to what had been the most beneficial aspect of attending HBS. Not one respondent commented on the course content! It all had to do with the networking, experience etc…)

Finally, I suggest there may be ‘another way’ – a better way, we can learn about this important subject. This third alternative promises to be chaotic, somewhat messy, emergent, organic and robust. It will be uncomfortable and create disequilibrium within our environment (the classroom). This third way that we can learn strategic leadership is like this…and with that, I take a seat and remain silent and unresponsive for the next couple of hours.

Blank stares, nervous laughter and some humorous comments (Have we done something to offend you? Cat got your tongue? Nice job you have…) usually start proceedings. But it doesn’t take long before this phase passes and chaos comes to the boil. And so the learning begins.

I have done this in numerous settings and across multiple cultures and industries. Every time it plays itself out differently yet there seem to be discernable patterns that emerge. What I have found is that there seems to be a direct correlation between the chaos and tension generated and the insights and learning gained.

From a teaching point of view it is risky stuff and having someone walk out is not altogether uncommon. However, having someone approach me as aggressively as this particular participant did, his anger and frustration near breaking point, was an entirely new experience for me. Every time I facilitate this adaptive challenge I subject myself to profound learning and this is what I so enjoy about the process. All too often the ‘teacher’ (leader) gives mere lip service to learning and the reality is they (we) have stopped learning…often a long time ago! It is a perilous condition for any individual or company to be in.

[bctt tweet=”For authentic learning to happen we need to be willing to enter a zone of disequilibrium.” username=”@tomorrowtrends”] To fall short of this zone is to ‘play safe’ – to go too far beyond the zone is to risk ‘too much heat in the classroom’ and thereby become unproductive. Not long after this outburst I intervened, judging that we had risked enough and that by continuing, we would be in danger of excessive heat and thereby losing the lessons of the adaptive challenge and all that it had created. Choosing the time to re-engage the participants becomes a matter of judgment and there have been times I perhaps should have let the silence continue. The temptation is to intervene based on my own levels of discomfort. This is what makes facilitating such an exercise so powerful as a mirror to oneself in learning more about ‘leading out of who you are’.

By choosing to be silent at the outset of the exercise, the rules of the game undergo a radical change. After all, the teacher is expected to teach, to speak, and to lead. Silence changes all those assumed expectations and so instigates entire new and unpredicted learning conditions. Debates often rage as to whether or not my silence constitutes an abdication of leadership, a dereliction of duty. “Yes,” say some. “Leaders need to lead and Keith needs to tells us what he knows and what to do – this is his job, this is what we are here for”. “No” argue others, “just because Keith is not engaging with us does not meant he is not leading. Leading can involve doing nothing”. Others then often add, “But hold on, Keith is not doing ‘nothing’ …he is watching, listening and observing – maybe this is leading. Maybe this is what we are meant to be learning. Remember we said learning is our responsibility”. And so the conversation tumbles, twists and turns down highways and byways, engaging and disengaging, leading to a range of responses, emotions, suggestions, actions and behaviors. All fascinating, insightful and certainly not for the faint-hearted!

An adaptive challenge invites the leader onto the ‘balcony’ and off the dance floor. All too often leaders remain on the dance floor as this is where their comfort zone is – this is what they do better than others. The problem is that from the dance floor, one cannot see emerging patterns and take in the big picture. Furthermore, being on the balcony often is seen as ‘not doing the work’ and is not measurable. The challenge for leaders leading in a world of exponential change is to know their balcony and know how to access it in order to see beyond their immediate surroundings. Jack Welsh has been quoted as saying that, “when the rate of change out there exceeds the rate of change in here – the end is in sight”. Being on the balcony is how leaders are able to best see what is required in order to adapt to a changing environment.

The lessons of the ‘silent class’ become startlingly self-apparent. Teaching beyond the debrief that follows the silence, often seems like a futile exercise and maybe, were I more courageous, I would dismiss the class rather than continue to lecture. Adaptive leadership in the present and future context means ‘knowing what to do when we don’t know what to do’. It involves a ‘presence of mind’ that taps into a reservoir of self-awareness and adaptive intelligence – all of which can be intentionally developed. There can be no short cut, no simple ‘A, B, C’ formulae consultants and others love to peddle, no ‘follow the rules’ game plan. The depth of your reservoir is all-important.

This is the nature of leadership in the new world of work. Scary? Definitely.

(Ask me…I thought he was going to hit me!) Worth the risk? Absolutely.

There is simply no other way to really learn what it will take to lead into the future – a future where adaptive challenges are the norm.

So, is that obstacle in front of you a technical problem…or an adaptive challenge? Take care with your answer and consider carefully your next move.

Note: Naturally I would welcome the opportunity to explore this methodology with you should you wish to consider implementing it in the context of your own leadership education programme or process. Feel free to email [email protected] 


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