Sunday, December 1, 2013

Adaptive Leadership

I've been thinking a lot about "adaptive leadership" lately.  It's an idea from Harvard professor Ronald Heifetz. ( my earlier post)

To review: many people habitually take the obvious approach to leadership:
from lumaxart

But sometimes another approach may be more appropriate:
from lumaxart

In the article that inspired my earlier post, it was proposed that the first perspective is most useful for technical problems where an expert can lead others to a relatively static "right answer".   The other perspective is more helpful in complex situations such as dealing with poverty or climate change where "the people are the problem and the people are the solution".  Researchers such as Larsen-Freeman argue that language develops and is learned in a dynamic and personalized way (a complex adaptive system).  This suggests that the second form of leadership may be more useful in a language classroom.  It follows (to me, anyway) that the problems of teachers who are working with language learners of different ages, backgrounds, abilities, and needs are also complex.  Agencies such as mine could benefit from more of this second type of leadership when supporting their teachers.

In a recent meeting with my ESL team, I mentioned this idea (in far fewer words, ha ha!). Someone commented, "Yes, but that's too idealistic for the real world."  I've been chewing on that thought for some time now! Seems to me that the other teacher was not saying we shouldn't have ideals, but that we're locked in to a "real world" where our leaders rely overwhelmingly on the classic leadership approach and press us to do the same with our lesson plans, testing, and so forth.

That's a valid (and somewhat depressing) point!  But I have to say: if the people are the problem and the people are the solution ... that's us.  We don't need to look for a "right answer"  from our management (that's viewing the problem through the classic leadership lens).  We ourselves can use this method as appropriate in our classrooms and when working with each other and we can press back on our managers to the extent that it's practically possible.  If that's not very much, well OK, then some of us will move on when the opportunity arises.

When I look back over the hundreds of learners who have come through my classes, I realize that the very best of them had this attitude.  They supported the teacher and their classmates because facilitating our lessons was how they were going to get their own needs met.  I remember one learner who was always alert to the needs of the lower level learners in the class and who kept me sensitized to them (and helped them herself).  That, of course, kept them from falling too far behind which was to her benefit.  Another learner went to a community meeting regarding the Haitian community and then translated the English handouts into Haitian Creole for his classmates.  That translation experience was a meaningful writing exercise for him.  Another learner occasionally pushes back on me in class, challenging me to give examples when I make an unsubstantiated claim.  I thanked him after class once for keeping me on my toes and he asked me to let him know if he ever goes too far.

This second kind of leadership can be enacted by anyone.  It's only "too idealistic" if we're thinking in terms of the first kind of leadership (that there is one right answer)!

PS: It has just occurred to me to look for more from Heifetz.  Here's a PDF that looks interesting, I've only skimmed it so far!

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