Adapt or die.  We’ve all heard that ultimatum before.  When the challenges that drive the need to adaptive are huge, systemic, pervasive, and quietly slow moving, such as an entire industry that is shrinking, a business model that is losing its relevance, or a chronic disease that will shorten your life, the urgency to adapt doesn’t seem to be there.

I was talking with a colleague last night about a large insurance company that is faced with loss of relevance.  The executives are clear about the threats to their business.  They know they can count the relevance of their business model and operational approach in years in the single digits.  Privately held for generations, they recently sold to an offshore investor, and they know now that, in addition to the pressures of the business context, the they are now one year into a three-year window which will likely be slammed shut by the new owners at the end of that three years.  They know they much change much:  products and how they build, service, and sell them.  Simple, right?  We know how to change, right?  But their very stable employee base doesn’t see the tidal wave coming through the forest and the trees.  They’re focused on retirement and how well things have gone in the past.

Now what?

Adaptive leadership provides an approach to driving adaptation iteratively in the context of complexity when not everyone sees the need to adapt.  It allows that leadership is sometimes disruptive and not always about being a candidate for most well-liked.  It is based on work coming out of MIT and has several simple tenants.

  • Organizational change happens through experimentation.
  • Organizations thrive by maximizing the value of diverse participants and diverse views.
  • Leaders are made, not necessarily born.
  • Leaders lead adaptive change best when they recognize they are a system in a system, not an answer-giver.
  • Leadership is not based on authority.
  • Organizations are ecosystems that can benefit from diagnosis and iterative, experimental intervention.

Adaptive leadership focuses on adaptive, not technical, challenges.  Adaptive challenges have the following hallmarks:

  • The language of complaint clusters around the problem.
  • Previously successful experts and authorities are unable to solve the problem.
  • Failure rate increases and frustration and stress show up. Known problem solving and solution approaches have been tried repeatedly without success.
  • The problem re-appears after it is apparently solved.
  • Conflict and frustration are rising, generating chaos and urgency around trying something new.

You may also know these as “wicked problems.”

Adaptive Leadership provides methods for identify, diagnosing, intervening experimentally using short feedback loops, interpreting the result, and resetting the diagnosis.  This work is best not done alone.  In my opinion, it is also best done in tandem with a Servant Leadership or Pervasive Leadership stance.  Let the process change you; be wary of your draw toward (or the system’s attempts to) creating yourself as a answer-giver with a backpack of right answers for the situation.

In complex and critical situations, just telling others what to do may be the most appropriate thing if you have supreme skill with or ultimate authority and accountability for solving the problem.  But too much leadership today is approached from that perspective.  Adaptive Leadership is a method for both leading and drawing knowledge and leadership from those led.  You may think of it as the practice of mobilizing yourself and others to tackle complex problems in order to thrive.

The most eye-opening Gestalt experience of understanding the gist of Adaptive Leadership came to me through this little video:


Nurturer’s Day

by Jean Richardson on May 14, 2017

This morning as I get ready to go to a Mother’s Day brunch with a friend who, also, did not have children, I’m thinking about a conversation at a bed and breakfast on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle a number of years ago.  I was traveling alone and no longer remember why I was in Seattle.  It could be that I was just rewarding myself with a weekend away, some time on the ferries in the gorgeous Puget Sound, and a long luxurious visit to Frye Art Gallery, which seems like a personal friend in many ways it has been in my life so long.

I was just settling in at the small breakfast table among other quiet and gradually waking guests when the co-owner of the establishment swanned up and welcomed me with a hearty “Happy Mother’s Day!”  I remember him clearly, the sort of big, beautiful African American man who makes you want to move toward him to bask in the warmth of his person, the warm glow of his easy smile, and the tenor of his voice.  Startled first by the lack of anything that would indicate I was anyone’s mother, I said “I’m not a mother.”

“We’re all mothers!” he said smiling.

On a planet filled with more than enough children and not near enough parents, the opportunity for nurturing those who need nurturing is ever-present.  And, beyond that, we supposed adults could use a bit of peer nurturing not infrequently.  It’s a thing that needs doing.  Kind friends who came for lunch and stayed to chat for several hours over Easter Sunday were nurturing me.  A colleague who has adopted his three grandchildren and gives one their bottle while we talk on the phone early in the morning and makes sure our calls are scheduled around walking the oldest to her school bus—he is certainly a nurturer.  He is doing what we would have thought only a female person called “a mother” would have done two generations ago.  This morning I read blogs from two different technical practices coaches; I see what they are doing with their audiences as nurturing.

While biological mothers have certain experiences that others do not, mothering has been seen as the province of caring and nurturing and that goes well beyond the province of birthing.  On Mother’s Day, most of us celebrate caring and nurturing, not birthing.

“We’re all mothers!” he said, and he seemed quite clear in the knowledge of his motherhood—nurturance—as he put us all at ease, fed us, looked to our various creature comforts, and saw, to the best of his ability, that we issued into the world that day in the best possible condition.

The act of giving birth ought not be minimized.  But the role of mothering is not limited to those who have given birth.  We can go into the topic of adoption (giver or receiver), surrogacy, and cloning.  This dilutes my point.

When the couple next door had a baby, she was back at work within a few days, and he stayed home for three years, taking time off for the first year or two and now building his career around the baby.  To my mind, he’s doing the mothering.

When I see a colleague sitting with a colleague who is recovering from a disappointment or struggling to integrate a challenging learning experience, the nurturing energy present in the conversation can look a lot like the work a mother does with an adult child.  My sister closest in age to me and I have talked about how we have had, at times, a mutual mothering relationship.

Fathering has changed greatly in the last two generations.  In my neighborhood, I often see men out walking in the summer evenings with infants in their arms or leading a small child by the hand—the evening constitutional.  In the lives of some men, a broader role for fathers has emerged, the nurturing aspect has emerged more strongly as the provider aspect has shifted and is increasingly shared by mothers.

The act of being whole persons and being ourselves is, I often tell younger folks, the hardest thing we will ever try to do.  Nurturance is required, whether that nurturance comes from ourselves and our habits or the caring of others.

I work in a field where pity is too often mistaken for compassion and condescension is too often mistaken for empathy.  This does not grow us up and is not nurturing, but stultifying and potentially infantilizing.  One definition of nurture is “to support and encourage, as during the period of training or development; foster: to nurture promising musicians.”

Adults can continue to develop, and clearly must, given the state of our world. And, that’s all of us, nurturers and nurtured alike.  My mother used to say to me, “This growing up, no ever told us it would take us all our lives.”

If we had, not Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, but Nurturer’s Day, I wonder what the effect would be.  Perhaps less cognitive dissonance among the many among us who have been tortured, humiliated, or abandoned by their parents.  Perhaps more appreciation for those who have helped us along our path.  Perhaps more appreciation for those who care for those among us toward the end of their earthly path, as my sister does in having our mother live with her and as the nursing home caregivers do for my father.

But, for me, today it’s tea with a friend at our favorite tea house.  We are cerebral.  We will notice the “this day only” quality of the obsequy likely to be present among some of the children toward the mothers they bring to tea.  We both know mothers beleaguered by their children.  She has been a carer for her sister and her father as they each moved through their end of life processes.  Now she supports her husband in his complex grief at his mother’s death.

“We are all mothers!” the big, beautiful, African American bed and breakfast owner said to me as he poured my coffee and orange juice.  And, in that quick moment, he nurtured me and left me with a faceted jewel of wisdom to hold up to the light so I could watch the colors gleam and dance against the wall of my former understanding.


I’ve been thinking and writing about the Pervasive Leadership (PL) model for several years now.  It is one of the leadership models that can be useful in fostering organizational agility.  I’ve found that when I’ve introduced it to the client organizations I work with, both teams and the surrounding management system leap forward in their understanding of leadership and how certain qualities of leadership can foster agility or impede it.  And, they understand that everyone has an accountability to lead the organization in this VUCA world.

Pervasive Leadership is principle-based.  The principles are:

  • Change your mental model of I and Thou.
  • Act locally; think holistically.
  • Enact empathetic stewardship.

PL is what is known as an embodied form of leadership congruence between the leader’s words, actions, and physical presence are important.  It is a step beyond Servant Leadership in that Servant Leadership can still be seen as a power-over approach to others because the “best test” of Servant Leadership is an evaluation outside of the choosing of those led.  Pervasive Leadership seeks to level the power relationship between the leader and the led by focusing on mutual learning and skill building through action learning projects that move the project or organization forward.

I have witnessed Pervasive Leadership help teams and organizations make a rapid leap forward and cause the light to dawn in the eyes of those who had not previously seen themselves as possible leaders.  I have heard testimony from nominal leaders in the organization that teams who have learned about and begun to practice Pervasive Leadership are much more skilled partners in pursuing organizational objectives.  And, while I find it sometimes challenging to practice, I personally prefer it to Servant Leadership because of my values around the individual’s right and obligation to grow and to lead.

The way that Pervasive Leadership supports organizational agility is to spread skill and power as a means of minimizing decision latency and improving decision quality, key factors in the leadership paradigm which can limit agility.

In a March 2015 article on on Host Leadership, the author described that model as an implementation of Pervasive Leadership.  More on Host Leadership in my next post.

Below are a number of related posts and articles on Pervasive Leadership:

Use of “Thou” in Pervasive Leadership Principles

We Need No Less Than Pervasive Leadership

The Ease and Hazards of Pervasive Leadership

Pervasive Leadership in 2014

It’s Time for Pervasive Leadership


As I discussed in my last post, most people in organizational life these days find they live in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world.  This inspires people in both public and private organizations to pursue agility as a means for thriving in the present and the future.

Servant Leadership is the most well-known and, perhaps, the oldest leadership theory recognized by many people as valuable for supporting agile teams and organizational agility overall.  Servant Leadership is a philosophy of leadership and is scant on leadership tactics and methods—things you do as a servant leader while you are thinking and acting like a servant leader.  This post relates directly to the essay which launched the servant leader model with specific references so that you may continue reading on your own.

The creator of servant leadership, Robert K. Greenleaf, was an organization man.  He had worked for AT&T for many years and researched management practices for forty years.  Taking an early retirement, he founded the Center for Applied Ethics which later became the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

Greenleaf published Servant Leadership:  A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness in 1977 but it is the first chapter in this book “The Servant as Leader,” written in 1969, describes his vision for the servant leader.  After describing the genesis for his own writing as a result of many years of corporate experience and thinking about the kind of leaders who will be needed in the future, crystallized by a reading of Hesse’s Journey to the East, Greenleaf briefly describes the notion of servant as leader.

Greenleaf describes the servant-leader as “servant first . . . It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.”  He identifies the key indicator of a servant-leader that the served “grow as persons.”

While Greenleaf did write extensively about the why of servant leadership, there is not much about “how.”  There is one key evaluative standard that helps determine whether a servant leader is present.  It focuses on the state this kind of leader generates in the follower and makes clear that a servant leader is known by his outcomes, not his espoused theoretical stance.  This standard is called the “best test” in leadership literature:

“Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”  (pp. 13-14).

In the same essay, Greenleaf presents his understanding of prophecy and the notion of contemporary prophets, a prophet being somewhat different from a leader in the popular imagination in that the existence of the prophet does not imply a group of adherents or followers.  Greenleaf writes, “I now embrace the theory of prophecy which holds that prophetic voices of great clarity, and with a quality of insight equal to that of any age, are speaking cogently all of the time” (p. 8).  With regard to power and authority he writes that people are beginning to learn to lead and relate to each other in less coercive and more creative ways.

He relates this to a moral principle, new at the time of his writing, which says that only leaders whose authority is granted by the led are worthy to lead.  This leads to the presumption that followers who hold this principle will neither casually nor automatically accept the authority of existing institutions but will “freely respond only to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted as servants” (pp. 9-10).  Of particular interest to leaders trying to understand Greenleaf’s intention about the power dynamic between leaders and followers may be his comment that, “(m)y good society will have strong individualism amidst community,”  (p. 13).

Greenleaf ascribes the quality of initiative to leaders (p. 15), and being good listeners to natural servant leaders—they “listen first” because “listening builds strength in other people” (italics mine), and he quotes St. Francis:  “Lord, grant that I may not seek so much to be understood as to understand” (p. 17).

The pages of the essay provide advice, examples, and cautions to the servant leader including the wisdom of withdrawing and recuperating, the value of acceptance (“receiving what is offered, with approbation, satisfaction, or acquiescence”) and empathy (“imaginative projection of one’s own consciousness into another being”) when dealing with others.  Then Greenleaf enters a consideration of the leader’s consciousness itself, her intuitive ability, foresightfulness, awareness, and perceptivity in which he does not distinguish servant leadership from other modes of leadership.

Then he uses the example of abolitionist John Woolman as an example of the practice of persuasion, who was a servant leader because he aspired to free the best in others (pp. 29-30), and Thomas Jefferson as an example of stepwise acting out of who one is, making one’s own choices even in the face of the flattery of being offered powerful and influential positions “he knew who he was and he resolved to be his own man” (p. 31).

He identifies “conceptualizing” or envisioning as “the prime leadership talent,” (p. 32) and considers the dual nature of power and authority.  Greenleaf writes, “Part of our dilemma is that all leadership is, to some extent, manipulative.  Those who follow must be strong!” (p. 42) and apparently, this strength is to be engendered by the servant-leader who sees to it that the followers become “healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous” (p. 13).

Servant-leaders appropriately see themselves as part of the system they serve.  The problems they encounter are seen as “in here, not out there” (pp. 43-44).  And Greenleaf identified the enemy of servant leadership as “strong natural servants who have the potential to lead but do not lead, or who choose to follow a non-servant.  They suffer.  Society suffers” (p.45).

Servant leadership supports business agility by focusing on growing the competency and wholeness of the follower.  But, it doesn’t provide much specific guidance on tools for doing this.  Additionally, many people have been uncomfortable by its religious grounding, though I have seen remarkably clear secular expressions of servant leadership, Peter Block’s stewardship model be an excellent example of this.

Servant leadership is an excellent lens for leaders in a VUCA world, but it has its challenges and limitations and may not meet all the needs of a leader who seeks to evolve the context she is in and to simultaneously evolve through the course of her work.


Source:  Greenleaf, R. K. (1991).  Servant Leadership:  A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness.  Mahwah, NJ:  Paulist Press.

Related post:  Forms of Leadership in a VUCA World


Forms of Leadership in a VUCA World

April 12, 2017

On my desk today is a white paper from an internationally recognized coach and author for whom I have developed great respect.  I’m taking a class from her as part of my quest to understand the world around me and the way I need to be in it.  There are many forms of leadership, and […]

Read the full article →

Fear of Flying

March 30, 2017

I was not raised in a family that flew.  My first flight was from Seattle to Frankfurt as a teen-aged exchange student.  I still remember looking out of the window over the north Atlantic and seeing the icebergs below in the ocean.  I thought of the Titanic.  I had read A Night to Remember, about […]

Read the full article →

Consciousness Hacking—Happens

March 27, 2017

So, this is how the story goes, and I’ve told it a number of times now, so perhaps writing it here will result in telling it one time less. A couple of years ago I was meeting an editor for an online journal for technologists which I had written for some months ago.  We were […]

Read the full article →

Consciousness as a Continuity: Radical Inclusivity and the Art of Staying on the Inside

February 26, 2017

A couple of months ago I was introduced to the notion of radical inclusivity by a colleague who was very concerned about diversity and inclusion.  When I asked for more explanation of what radical inclusivity is, I didn’t get a very satisfying explanation.  So, I did what we do:  I went to the web. This […]

Read the full article →

Good Leadership/Bad Leadership

February 9, 2017

Everyone these days, it seems, is talking about leadership.  And, for good reason:  We are in desperate need of good leadership.  But what is good leadership? When I studied leadership theory as a graduate student, I was quite interested to see that the literature on leadership usually seemed to consider two archetypal leaders in contemplating […]

Read the full article →

Go Home, 2016. You’re Drunk.

December 30, 2016

This topic was proposed by a colleague at a local monthly Sunday morning Lean Coffee I attend.  This Lean Coffee is held in a coffee shop in a garden like setting with lots of big windows.  The convener and facilitator is a gentle soul with a rakish sense of humor, and this helps to set […]

Read the full article →