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Harvard Reflections

I’ve just returned home from an immersive week at Harvard Kennedy School Executive Education, where I learned the Art and Practice of Leadership Development.

Learning alongside 64 people from 19 countries (9 of whom were from Australia) was a brain-stretching experience.

A huge thank you to Ron Heifetz, Tim O'Brien, and Farayi Chipungu for showing us what excellent facilitation and a cleverly crafted program looks like. They created a holding environment for deep contemplation, dialogue, and learning. Our amazing coaches stretched our thinking and embedded the learning.

Most of all, the amazing group of diverse leaders who were immersed in this experience with me. I learnt so much from them all, and I can’t wait to see the impact we can have with the Adaptive Leadership framework.

Harvard Reflections - Claire Gray

My key learnings from the intense week:

  • We can all exercise leadership. Leadership is the act of mobilising people through tough challenges. Leadership is about capacity, not dependency.

  • People have different reactions to authority figures. There is formal authority based on your role and informal authority based on your influence.

  • Language is important. Understanding the difference between authority and leadership is also important. Maybe I’m an Authority Development coach rather than a Leadership Development coach, and my role is to help authority move into practicing leadership.

  • My understanding of adaptive leadership before attending was based on this: Leaders face technical challenges that can be addressed with a one-off solution that has generally been seen before. But leaders also face adaptive challenges that require systemic cultural shifts. Adaptive challenges are complex; they require listening and feedback loops, and observing and interpreting the situation. We must learn the way forward and make decisions based on our interpretations. This requires readiness and nimbleness to pivot and change direction. It also requires a level of comfort in ambiguity.

  • My deeper understanding now is that adaptive challenges require leaders to give the work back to the people with the problem and mobilise them to work through the adaptive challenge. It requires engaging them in the learning process and learning with them.

  • The difference between stakeholders and factions. Stakeholders are groups of people; factions are groups of people that hold certain perspectives on adaptive challenges. Sometimes, people assume you hold certain beliefs based on your characteristics, i.e. gender or the stakeholder group you belong to. However, this may assume that you hold this group's beliefs and perspectives. Factions are helpful as they characterise people based on perspectives and beliefs. We must avoid making assumptions and communicate to understand perspectives.

  • To do this, leaders must create holding environments so that all factions know how they contribute to the mess. Give them agency and a sense of responsibility. This will focus people on the issue.

  • We can often personalise challenges or play the blame game. We often need to shift ‘to the balcony’ to understand the broader system at a different level and work on the collective challenge.

  • We need to spend more time on diagnosis, being curious, and asking questions so we can truly see the systemic adaptive challenges rather than shift too quickly into solution mode. This requires us to observe, interpret, and then intervene.

  • Leadership involves disappointing people at a rate they can tolerate. The pace and sequence of the work are important. You may also realise that people may be avoiding the work and not taking accountability for their part of the mess.

  • The process of change involves discomfort and frustration. Leaders need to push the learning threshold and move into the productive zone. You can’t do something new without doing something different. The ‘heat’ is a byproduct of doing the work.

  • Adaptive leadership isn’t a silver bullet; there will still need to be technical solutions. You may never solve an adaptive challenge; it is about making progress. You don’t make changes to people; you make changes with people.

  • One of my biggest takeaways was shifting from the individual to the system, and this has now influenced how I see our purpose at Thriving Culture: to develop thriving leaders and teams for our evolving future so they are equipped to face adaptive challenges.

For months to come, I will unpack what I have learned and apply it to my programs and coaching. I am very blessed to have had this opportunity.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or want to discuss your adaptive challenge or experience with the framework.



P.S. This is a picture from the morning after I returned home, doing the Byron Bay lighthouse walk at sunrise. Notice the Harvard merch!

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