Your Ally is Not Your Partner: Thoughts on Adaptive Leadership


This is the first part of an ongoing series on Adaptive Leadership. If you’re interested in learning more, we can explore applying it to a challenge you’re facing now or you can join a future workshop coming in spring 2019. I also recommend checking out the free course on +Acumen starting on March 19.

I’ve been told that I’m naive more than a few times over the years. Growing up, I got a lot of, “that’s just not how the world works,” “you shouldn’t be so open with people,” and “you’re way too optimistic.” And that was just from my mother!

The thing about naiveté is that it presumes a level of innocence or unsophistication where, presumably, bad things haven’t happened to you yet or else you wouldn’t carry on being so hopeful. Particularly if those things have been stubbornly resilient to change, despite historical efforts to do so.

What I want to offer is that it’s possible both to have a clear understanding of the reality we presently live in and to role model the behavior of the world we want to live in. But in order to bridge the gap between the two - to get to a place where we no longer need to “role model” behavior that combats systemic injustices but rather it’s just the norm - we need a framework to understand how we all got so deeply entangled in a specific problem, and to predict how others will react to us trying to solve it.

That’s why I want to talk about Adaptive Leadership.

Adaptive Leadership is many things. It’s a way to get yourself off the “dance floor” and up onto the “balcony” where you can actually observe the patterns of the constant dancing and doing that you and your partner and all the other dancers are caught up in. It’s an understanding that we are all leaders (“leadership” is not a trait) and capable of expressing leadership in myriad ways (not only emulating what we’ve seen modeled in white, capitalist, patriarchal power structures). But perhaps most importantly, it’s a process to help you realize when there is no technical solution to your problem because the solution is unknown or unknowable. It’s at that point that you begin thinking politically about the different stakeholders who have come together to create the tenacious, adaptive problem you’ve been facing.

That’s the part of the longer adaptive leadership process I want to focus on here: how to map out those stakeholder groups.

There are at least six categories you need to be aware of:

  1. Allies/Partners*: Those who join your efforts and have the most to gain if you succeed. See below for an important distinction between these two groups.

  2. Opposition: Those who actively impede your progress and have the most to lose if you succeed. Even if they stand to make gains as part of a collective effect, they feel that their personal losses will be too great to support you or remain on the sidelines. Spend lots of time with these folks, if possible, and explore how you can mitigate their losses.

  3. Casualties: Those who will be fired, pushed aside, or otherwise discarded if you succeed. This is probably the toughest group to grapple with. A wide range of folks can fall into this category, from “innocent” bystanders who never asked to change the status quo to truly vile people where getting fired or even going to prison is too good for them. You may think that you can avoid casualties, but that is rarely the case, and in fact can render the change process incomplete. Identify them and be prepared for their departure.

  4. Troublemakers: Those who have been actively trying to raise the alarm, privately or publicly, but in a way that has resulted in their isolation. Try to bring these people into your movement, protect them, and cultivate them as an ally or partner buying in to your approach, while also being clear what your boundaries are. They may jump the gun before you’re ready, and then you will be faced with the difficult decision of whether or not you can still defend them.

  5. Authorities: Those who we fixate on the most - our boss and/or others who hold considerable power, formally or informally. You can learn from both good and bad authority figures about what the system can tolerate before you find yourself exposed and targeted. Observe them and spend time with them as much as possible to get a clearer understanding of how to apply pressure, preferably with their help.

  6. Yourself: Don’t forget that you’re deeply caught up in this system, too, and have likely been contributing to it in ways you may not fully understand. The allies and partners you cultivate will also have competing priorities that may affect your choices. Be mindful of both criticism and flattery - remember that this isn’t about you.

Now grab a piece of paper (or whatever medium works best for you). The next step in your process is to map out who falls into each group based on the adaptive challenge you’re facing.

Sorry for the low image quality. Also, all use, reproduction and distribution of this image is subject to a CC-BY-NC-ND license.

Sorry for the low image quality. Also, all use, reproduction and distribution of this image is subject to a CC-BY-NC-ND license.

Some stakeholders will be easily categorized. Others will be quite difficult, and may fall into multiple groups. Make note of who those people are and plan to go deeper with them until you have a clearer understanding of what their primary faction is.

If you find yourself struggling in this process, think about people in terms of VLLs: their Values, Loyalties, and Losses. What are their values (tip: actions speak louder than words), who are they loyal to, and what do they stand to lose if you’re successful? Especially for people who seem to be behaving illogically or irrationally to you, this is how you can start seeing things from their perspective. This process won’t work if you substitute your story for theirs - really try to think about what words they would use to justify their own behavior.

Finally, perhaps the most important distinction you need to make is within that first stakeholder group: between allies and partners.

We talk a lot about allies in social justice work, but if there’s one idea I want you to walk away with (and that’s why it’s in the title), it’s that your ally is not your partner. Your allies support your efforts but they will not take risks with you, at least not the kinds that you need them to in order to create systemic change. Your partners will. Know the difference, or else you will find yourself in critical moments with far less support than you thought you had.

You can cultivate your allies into partners by understanding what their higher order values are and incorporating those into your platform. However, you also need to be OK knowing that you won’t be able to convince all of your allies to take risks with you. Don’t alienate them just because they can’t go all the way - they still support you and want to see you succeed. If, in your attempt to convert allies into partners, you’re worried that you’ll betray the values of your current partners, then STOP. Be loyal to them first and foremost, and bring them into the conversation about how to encourage allies to step up their commitment to systemic change.

So how is your map looking? Have you learned anything new about the different players involved in your adaptive problem? Catching a glimpse of how to move people in one direction or another? Reach out and I’d love to hear about what you’re working on!

Next time, we will go deeper into Values, Loyalties, and Losses, and the importance of seeking out stories from people you just don’t understand.