Q&A with Professor Dean Williams

As the 2017 Adaptive Leadership Conference takes shape and spots continue to fill up, we’d like to share this conversation between the head of conference communications, Andy Cahill, and Professor Dean Williams. Dean has been a faculty member at Harvard Kennedy School since 1999 and was a student at Harvard in the 1980s and 90s. He has just published a new book Leadership for a Fractured World. He is also the author of Real Leadership, a text widely used in adaptive leadership courses.

Read the full interview, and to hear more from Professor Dean Williams, and from all of our outstanding faculty, presenters, and facilitators, register for the conference before August 31st to secure your spot. We look forward to seeing many of you in Washington, D.C. on October 6-8, 2017!

THE POWER OF CREATIVITY IN THE FACE OF CHANGE

Andy: The theme of our upcoming conference is ‘To Hold or To Disrupt: Leading in Unsettling Times.’ Across the globe, there is this pervasive sense that we are on the edge of some precipice, and no one’s really sure what will happen if we fall. How do you make sense of that?

Dean: We live in both amazing and disturbing times. The tribal impulse is activated all over the globe and people are struggling to do the essential adaptive work needed to make shared progress. Counterfeit leadership is abundant. Where is the real leadership? Why is it so hard to provide real leadership? One reason is because of boundaries—the cultural, social, political, and professional boundaries, to name just a few, that separate us. The big challenges today are messy and interdependent and cannot be brought to resolution by acting within the confines of our group boundaries. We must cross boundaries to engage diverse voices. But boundary crossing and harnessing the power of diversity are highly problematic activities that must be pursued with sensitivity and care. It seems people are afraid, even terrified of doing this work given the perceived dangers and potential losses that they believe they might sustain.

Andy: Do you see anyone exercising real leadership?

Dean: Of course. At all levels of society and all around the globe there are people giving it their best shot. But I am reminded of what the philosopher Freidrich Schiller wrote as he assessed the quality of leadership during the French Revolution—a revolution that led to the deaths of more than 30,000 people—Schiller said “a great moment has found a little people.” I think this is true for today just as it was more than 200 years ago!

Andy: What do you see as missing as it pertains to leadership today?

Dean: Creativity, imagination, boundary crossing, and even boundary transcending leadership.

Andy: Boundary transcending leadership is an interesting idea, say more.

Dean: When you transcend boundaries you move beyond the known. A group’s boundaries hold a set of limited problem solving capacities and assumptions about the world. But today, for many challenges we must go beyond the boundaries and venture into the great unknown, into unchartered territory. Leadership is needed to stimulate a journey of discovery and hold people in a state of unknowing, experimentation, and exploration—just like the Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings who had to leave the safe confines of the Shire and embark on a learning adventure to make discoveries about themselves and the complexity of the world they had been shielded from. On that journey the natural response when the work is hard and when solutions and discoveries are elusive, is for the group to demand a retreat, to give up and go home.

Andy: You’re talking about the demands of exercising leadership to produce sufficient creativity to address the critical challenges of our time. To stimulate group creativity I assume the individual seeking to exercise leadership must also be creative in terms of how they intervene to get attention and deal with the tribal and political complexities of the system. How do we need to think about creativity in the context of leadership in these unsettling times?

Dean: If you’ve ever taken a class with me, then you’ve watched the documentary about the British artist Andy Goldsworthy. Andy constructs achingly beautiful sculptures out of completely natural materials. Mud. Stones. Branches. Leaves. Flowers. Ice. His work is intimately dependent on the resources at hand, and each piece is irrevocably influenced by the world in which it’s made. Ice melts. Water flows, smoothing down stones and carving paths through the mud. Branches bend and break in the wind. Even his most durable works only last so long.

Which is, of course, true of everything we make. It’s tempting to think that, as a society, if we just use the right materials, and put everything together in the right order, things will go on working fine year after year, decade after decade. But we need only look to the seasons to remind us that change is the fundamental state of the universe. Life emerges and blossoms, and flourishes and decays, sowing the soil for new life to come.

Which is all a way of saying that the only right response in the face of change and even decay, is a creative response. We don’t build something once and then leave it be. We make one move, watch what happens, learn from it, then make another. And another. Each generation responding to the ideas, mores, and even the work avoidance of the previous generation. Each of us growing up from the soil tended by those who came before us.

Sometimes it all seems overwhelming and we feel so insignificant. The forces of the universe will do what they will, but we too are a part of that universe and can be significant actors in ensuring that sufficient creativity emerges to help us collectively make the essential adaptions needed to survive and to thrive, even if that means that in order to succeed we must walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Andy: So if change is inevitable, are you saying we have to go over the precipice and see what’s down there in the darkness, waiting for us?

Well, that’s up to us. It may be that the sight of the edge alone is enough to help us embrace change, without actually tumbling over. Or it may well be that the only way forward is down into the abyss. But even if that’s true, does that mean that the only way down is to tumble in? Maybe there’s a safer way down, scaling down the cliffside, following the switchback trails. And maybe we can bring ideas, concepts and practices that will illuminate the darkness when we get down there, that will allow us to work together to make the passage through to the far side. The bottom of the Grand Canyon is hot and dangerous, but it’s also beautiful, and people make the journey down and back out again every day. But make no mistake, it is a daring journey. As aspiring leaders, it’s up to each of us to play the necessary roles to make it a successful one.

Andy: Tell us more about how you hope to explore these ideas at the 2017 Adaptive Leadership Conference?

Dean: At the conference I want to explore in greater depth the challenges of leading creatively in this crazy, fractured and volatile world. Inevitably, if we embrace the creative path there will be failures. Creativity and failure are front and back of the same coin. If you want genuine progress, then be prepared for a series of breakdowns along the way. A failure is a disruption that reveals what we do not fully comprehend. It surfaces resistance and affords an opportunity to explore what values people protect and promote that they think are more important than facing reality and fronting up to tackle an adaptive challenge. Failure surfaces people’s fears, but failure can also reveal openings. That is the work of leadership, to help people find the openings. So rather than be dismayed by failure we must embrace it as an essential element of the adaptive journey. I do not have an answer as to how to do this, but I want us to immerse ourselves in the relevant questions and begin to tease out steps, ideas, and even principles on how to lead at the edge, on the precipice, and even in the valley of despair.

Andy: Thank you for the time, Professor Williams!

Dean: You’re most welcome.

To hear more from Professor Dean Williams, and from all of our outstanding faculty, presenters, and facilitators, register for the conference before August 31st to secure your spot, and we’ll see you in Washington, D.C. on October 6-8, 2017!