Adaptive leadership is a framework for practicing leadership developed by Harvard Professor Ronald Heifetz through his teaching in the early 1990s. Critical to the theory is the distinction between authority and leadership: that being in a position of authority (CEO, President, Manager) does not by definition make someone a leader.
And, in fact, leadership is a practice that can be exercised by anyone, whether they have any formal authority or not. Leadership, then, becomes defined as “the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.”1
The term “adaptive” is borrowed from nature, and is meant to refer to the way nature uses conflict to cause evolution through natural selection. As conditions change, organisms are forced to adapt or perish. This makes a decent analogy to us humans facing changes in our environment, whether that environment is social, legal, or more based in nature.
Leadership is in the process of guiding and motivating the work required to adapt to a new condition which cannot be changed or wished away.
When news stories like this one about Bowdoin pop up, where a college administration is in the midst of punishing some of its students for, essentially, having a Mexican themed party, many of us shake our heads. We know instinctively that this isn’t the right way to react. But why?
The problem with being too politically correct is that avoiding conflict is actually avoiding really important adaptive work.
If you subscribe to the concepts behind adaptive leadership (which I do), then you realize that the real work of progress (and leadership) happens in the minds of the constituency, and it happens when we are forced to confront just the right amount of conflict.
“Political Correctness” does damage in two ways: it is itself work avoidance, it pulls our attention away from the realities we should be reconciling with our values, and it reduces our overall capacity as a group, organization, or society to handle the psychological load of future work that will cause psychological stress.
In many cases, like what’s going on at Bowdoin College at the moment, the work that needs doing is the work of cultural integration. Most colleges go to a lot of effort to bring students to their campus from all over the US and the world, and put them together in a relatively closed environment.
This is a wonderful opportunity for leadership and learning: the college system can be a “holding environment,” a zone of protected conversation, for the students, supporting them as they use conflict to change their own understanding and opinions about other cultures, and preparing them to live in a country they must share with others. But that conflict is critical to the process. If there is only one cultural narrative, or rather, if only one system of values is allowed to be expressed, then there are no stressors on the system to create motion and force people to do adaptive work. The administration mistakenly believes that their job is to avoid conflict, when in fact they must enable and manage it.
If, instead of stepping in with a course of action, the college administration were to do nothing and wait2, they would force the students to continue to think about the party, the mini-sombreros, and the cultural statements being made by their actions. The students might ask themselves: is this party in line with my values? do I believe that cultural symbols should be fair game for parties and jokes? Is this just a reality that I need to live with, or is this a changeable norm that I would like to work on changing?
All this goes out the window when the authority takes action. The students, on both sides, become distracted by the more immediate questions about education, enrollment, and administration. The students who might have faced pressures from their peers, forcing them to examine their values and make a decision about whether or not they need to change, instead feel that there is nothing for them to do: the powers that be have taken this work for them.
In this way, the progress of society, and successful leadership, depend on a system that allows for managed conflict.
The practice of being politically correct is based on the idea that conflict is harmful. Conflict can be hurtful — it can cause pain, and change can cause loss — so for these reasons we understandably avoid it. But sometimes there is no way through but through, and when this is the case, we need leadership not political correctness.
1 This definition is from The Practice of Adaptive Leadership.
2 It’s always more complicated than this. Having authority gives you the power to do things like control what people pay attention to, and the administration, if it wants to exercise leadership in confronting this issue, might have to bring attention to the party if the students themselves were not already doing so. But raising a question or an issue is a different thing than acting on it, and they often have opposite psychological effects.