Connecting to the Messy Reality

by Lee Teitel

The Massachusetts story is about persistence. Instead of jumping from one fad to the next, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents developed a comprehensive and focused plan and stuck to it for several years. And it is clearly a story about people — the trust and connections that developed among networks of superintendents that have held it all together.

But the story is also about Adaptive Leadership, an intellectual framework and approach that resonated for superintendents, and about the protocols that helped to change how superintendents talked to one another. Developed by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, co-authors of the 2002 book Leadership on the Line, and promoted through the Cambridge Leadership Associates, the Adaptive Leadership approach helps individuals and organizations distinguish between adaptive and technical aspects of the challenges they face.

Technical problems are the ones organizations can define clearly and know how to solve with existing expertise and authority structures. Adaptive issues often are hard to identify clearly, entail changing hearts and minds, involve conflicts among values and require people and organizations to learn new ways to work with one another. Often they require those in authority to acknowledge their own contributions to their organization’s problems. It is the deep-seated, persistent adaptive problems that keep superintendents awake at night.

Widely used in business, government and nonprofit settings, the Adaptive Leadership framework resonated immediately with the messy reality of the professional lives of Massachusetts superintendents. A key part of the Adaptive Leadership program created for MASS was the use of superintendent-developed cases to practice the concepts and apply them to the real work of the school districts. Groups of four to five superintendents learned the specific 45-minute protocol described in the accompanying article for addressing a case.

The reliance on the Adaptive Leadership framework and the protocol reverse the usual pattern of superintendent advice-giving to one another. They focus more on diagnosis and root causes than quick solutions. The format pays attention to the blend of leadership and authority needed to solve problems and requires superintendents to be vulnerable with one another in considering their own contribution to their situations. When applied in a consistent way, the combination can lead to the big cultural changes described here.