Adaptive Leadership is a practical leadership framework developed by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. It takes into account the realities of complex social problems by suspending the presumption that leaders already have the right answers or a clear vision of the desired results. Leaders work towards solutions by being open to learning and rethinking prior assumptions. At Living Cities, we apply this lens to all of our work. Here, some of what we have learned through our Integration Initiative.
As I reflect on the first year of the Integration Initiative, I am struck by how much my – and all the Living Cities staff’s – thinking has evolved. We entered into this work with a lot of ideas and assumptions, and over the last twelve months, every one of them has been tested as we worked with the committed teams of leaders in the five Integration Initiative sites. This process deepened our understanding of the financial landscape in each of the sites, grew our appreciation of how challenging it is to transform entrenched systems, and helped us gain greater understanding of how Living Cities can be a valuable partner in accelerating efforts in local communities. Despite all that, for me, the biggest revelation has been around the culture of problem solving itself.
The Integration Initiative site teams are tackling some of the most challenging problems facing low-income residents in their cities– jobs, mobility, health, housing. These are problems that governments and philanthropists and communities have been struggling to address for decades, problems with no known solution. Though it’s hard to admit, there is no silver bullet. And while it’s possible to understand the complexity of these problems on a theoretical basis, it’s even harder to do the practical work of getting disparate actors in business and government and nonprofits and communities and philanthropy to align their efforts and work towards a common goal. If the first year of The Integration Initiative reinforced anything for me, it’s that if a community is going to be successful in addressing a seemingly intractable challenge, its strategy must include the following three things:
1. A focus on adaptive change. Only technical problems can be solved by technical solutions – if my car breaks down, I take it to a mechanic, but if a region has a lagging economy, inadequate transportation, and poor health, there is no quick fix. As Ronald Heifetz notes, for these challenges “the stakeholders themselves must create and implement the solution because the problem itself lies in their attitudes, priorities, behavior, and only a change within and between them will produce a solution.”
2. A strong leadership table that works. To address an adaptive challenge, a community needs a governance table that goes beyond advising, or providing ceremonial leadership. As Integration Initiative sites are showing, these tables can be places where key leaders learn together, build a common understanding of the problem they are trying to solve, and continuously define their strategies. It’s critical that these tables bring together different actors, unlikely partners, and that time is taken to build trust, a common vision and consensus around the path forward. In addition, these tables should not be conflict free zones – they should be places where leaders can grapple with tension, disagreement, and own the work going forward.
3. A clearly defined beneficiary and goal. A strong governance table needs to clearly define what problem they are addressing, for whom, and to what end. However, leaders often struggle with this seemingly imperative task. They resist shining a spotlight on a specific beneficiary—a group of people or neighborhood due to historical tensions and discomfort particularly in tackling issues of race. And the struggle to be specific about what they are trying to fix, and what goal they intend to achieve. In short, we keep the conversation general out of fear: fear of conflict, fear of accountability, fear of failure. Unless leaders can get beyond these fears, America’s cities will continue to struggle with the same problems for the foreseeable future.
Solving complex problems requires stakeholders to be open to changing the way they work, putting controversial issues like race and longstanding failures front and center, and being honest about what kind of results they seek to achieve. The first year of The Integration Initiative has reinforced for me that this work is incredibly hard. But the sites’ perseverance gives me hope, and I look forward to continuing to learn from them and others embracing this way of working.