Be The Buffalo (Parts I and II)
Cows run away from the storm while the buffalo charges toward it – and gets through it quicker. Whenever I’m confronted with a tough challenge, I do not prolong the torment, I become the buffalo. – Wilma Mankiller
Part 1: The weather forecast predicts stormy weather. For quite a while.
The prevalent weather system in the world right now is stormy – inequity, violence, injustice and oppression are constant travelling companions, and they seem to have an open ticket to travel across the globe. Some have coined the term “VUCA” to describe the context we live in now: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. I would add the words “overwhelming” and “heartbreaking” to the mix. This is the milieu we will be living in for the foreseeable future and, in my darkest moments, it leaves me despondent and grim.
And yet, I get to work with leaders – change agents, co-conspirators, inspirations – who look at the weather up above and on the horizon and say, “The storm is here, and there are more coming. What do we need to do get to the other side?” And I’m reminded that part of my purpose is to support leaders to thrive in this VUCA context. Because some of the awesome challenges we are facing require “DNA-rearranging” shifts in people’s beliefs and habits. Because today’s landscape requires that leaders remain off-balance, adaptable, and open to other leaders taking the fore. Because there will be some trial and error, and resiliency is essential. Because different frameworks, practices, and responses are required.
Part 2: Charging towards the storm: the adaptive leadership framework.
To that end, I want to share a framework that my CompassPoint colleagues and I have found useful in our work with social justice leaders, networks and organizations – the challenging, (sometimes) messy, and liberating work of adaptive leadership. At its core, adaptive leadership helps individuals and organizations through consequential change in times of uncertainty when there are no clear answers. It is based on a view that leadership is an activity, not a person, and that leadership can be exercised by anyone, whatever their role inside or outside of the organization. (Source: +Acumen’s Adaptive Leadership: Mobilizing for Change on-line course)Designed by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky at the Harvard Kennedy School, “adaptive leadership is the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.” When this framework came into our consciousness, it resonated with us (and still does) for a few reasons:
- It recognizes that leadership is not a solo act.
- It taps into collective wisdom.
- It requires that people work across boundaries.
- It nurtures courage and resourcefulness.
- It necessitates experimentation and failure.
- It is, ultimately, about thriving.
There are many concepts from the adaptive leadership framework which leaders and organizations have found useful as they navigate the complex environments in which they work. Below are some foundational concepts which are particularly compelling, applicable, and instructive.(Note: For excellent primers on the adaptive leadership framework, I would suggest The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading, and +Acumen's Adaptive Leadership on-line course. These are the main sources for what is described below.)
Distinguish between technical and adaptive challenges.
“The most common cause of failure in leadership is produced by treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems.” Technical problems tend to be those that we have encountered before and have experience, resources, and understanding to successfully solve. They are very complex and critically important, and the solutions tend to come from authority and are grounded in current structures, procedures, and ways of doing things (cultural norms). By contrast, adaptive challenges are those that we usually have not encountered before and a clear solution is not apparent. Solutions require fundamental pivots in people's priorities and loyalties, and others must be mobilized in problem solving.
Here’s a personal story to illustrate this point. An elder in my family has had a few car accidents over the last few years. While no one, thankfully, has been injured, we’re all worried that she – or someone else – could be seriously hurt. Not surprisingly, a number of family members want to solve the problem by taking away her car. And, while well-intentioned, this option will only garner a short-term fix at the expense of more lasting, long-term change. Taking away her driving ability doesn’t address some fundamental challenges, namely, that she’s struggling with losing her independence and that many family members are not prepared or available to take on the added responsibility of driving her to the grocery store, doctor’s appointments, church or social activities with her friends. So, while taking away her car may keep her safe, this fix fails to help her and our family in dealing with deeper issues of independence, aging, family responsibility and interdependence. We still want to keep her safe – and limiting her driving privileges is part of the solution – however, we also need to develop solutions that challenge our deeply held behaviors and ways of working together as a family, engage her and bring her along in this process, and embrace our emotional responses to this change. Like our family, all systems that develop both adaptive and technical responses to critical issues will thrive.
Get on the balcony.
In the midst of distinguishing between technical and adaptive challenges, the need to get perspective is critical. Taking a balcony perspective means getting off the dance floor, in your mind, even if only for a moment. The only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray. If you want to affect what is happening, you must return to the dance floor. Staying on the balcony in a safe observer role is as much a prescription for ineffectuality as never achieving that perspective in the first place. The process must be iterative, not static. The goal is to come as close as you can to being in both places simultaneously, as if you had one eye looking down from the balcony, watching all the action, including your own. Perhaps this is the hardest task of all – to see yourself objectively.
Heifetz and Linsky offer some practices, among others, for “getting on the balcony”:
- Find out where people are at: This task is about leaning into curiosity and trying on different perspectives. It’s about stepping back and starting where others are rather than where you are. Learn from others – what’s at stake for them? What might they lose? What are their fears? You will need to practice empathy regularly and stepping into others’ shoes.
- Listen to the song beneath the words: You will need to look beyond what people are saying about the adaptive challenges which are present. Pay attention to their body language, emotion and energy. Watch for behaviors that seem at odds with people’s statements and with organizational policies. Notice where there are any disproportionate reactions to proposals regarding possible solutions.
Be fearless in the face of loss.
When you’re listening to the song beneath the words, when you’re practicing deep empathy, when you’re trying to get into someone else’s movie, you will likely not only witness loss, but you will experience it as well. Loss can take many forms: loss of a job, wealth, status, relevancy, community, loyalty and identity. Indeed, habits, values, and attitudes (even dysfunctional ones) are at the heart of one’s identity. Adaptive change stimulates resistance because it challenges habits, values, and attitudes. Because of this, when exercising adaptive leadership, you risk getting:
Quite simply, adaptive leaders must be fearless in the face of loss, which is not the same as being indifferent or untouched by it. In fact, it’s the opposite: it’s about allowing yourself to be touched by it in order to model that one can survive the discomfort, pain, and grief of loss.
Preserve what is essential.
And yet, in this storm of discomfort and loss, adaptive leaders must also champion the assets of an organization, network or movement that deserve to be carried forward to the other side. Adaptive leaders help others in answering the question: “Of all that we care about, what elements are essential and must be preserved into the future, or will we lose precious values, core competencies, and who we are?” Adaptive leaders can support the system to being intentional about what gets conserved (values, identity, core competencies), what goes in the museum (history) and what goes into the toxic waste dump (legacy practices, derailing loyalties). As Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers write,
"Who are we now?" is a query that keeps us noticing how we are creating ourselves—not through words and position papers, but through our actions and reactions from moment to moment. All living systems spin themselves into existence because of what they choose to notice and how they choose to respond. This is also true of human organizations, so we need to acknowledge that we are constantly creating the organization through our responses. To monitor our own evolution, we need to ask this question regularly.
Without such monitoring, we may be shocked to realize who we've become while we weren't watching.
(Source: “Bringing Life to Organizational Change”)
Part 3: Thriving in the eye of the storm.
I hope these offerings are helpful to you in this stormy world. When I think about the challenges we face together and the type of collective leadership it requires, I am both awed and humbled by the work we need to do. It requires clarity of purpose (as well as vision), willingness to let go of long-held habits and entrenched perspectives and openness to being uncomfortable. Fearlessness comes to mind again.
One of the most fearless leaders I know, Beckie Masaki, introduced me to the idea of being the buffalo. We were talking about adaptive leadership with some amazing leaders in the California domestic violence field, and Beckie thought it was an apt metaphor to describe the challenges facing these folks. She was, as usual, right on the mark. I leave you with her thoughts on why it’s important to be the buffalo:
Like the buffalo, I can run into the storm – the fastest way through to an open heart.
Be the buffalo.