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Transforming the Status Quo Through Everyday Leadership Moments

How Adaptive Leadership Provides the Tools to Move Through Uncertainty in Complex Times
May 03, 2020

What struck me in that moment was that I did not see that man.

Eric Martin was walking in London’s Hyde Park with Acumen Fellow, Vimal Kumar. Vimal was born a ‘sweeper,' the lowest caste in India, prescribed the role of cleaning toilets and sewers by hand, often without proper protection.

Vimal stopped before we entered the park and was looking at something. I couldn't figure out for the life of me what he was looking at -- then it dawned on me that he was looking at a sweeper.

Reminded of his own community in India, Vimal paused to take in the view of a London sweeper, though this man was fully adorned with the safety of yellow gloves, yellow boots, a push cart, and a mop.
Eric was embarrassed he overlooked a man in front of his very eyes. Vimal saw Eric’s shame and gently reassured him, “that man is our brother.” In this moment, Eric realized that the power of seeing others is one of the greatest gifts we can give.
This story provides a glimpse into why Eric dedicates his life to democratizing leadership, so leaders like Vimal and boardroom executives alike can apply the tools of Adaptive Leadership, a framework for leading change developed at Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Through this framework, leadership expands into a practice of seeing the brutal reality of where we are alongside the audacious vision of where we want to go -- and lovingly holding the tension in between.

Today, leaders - both appointed and self-driven - need to navigate a plethora of intractable challenges: Brexit, women's reproductive rights, gun control, income inequality, climate change, and much more.
While there is a prevailing image of a high-powered leader who relies on wit and charisma to rally the masses for change, challenging the status quo daily looks quite different. To make progress on today’s most pressing issues it will require each and every one of us leading every day.
If we’re all meant to step into leadership, the question becomes: How do I lead in uncertain times where there are no clear cut solutions?

Through much trial and experimentation to translate this sophisticated set of ideas into daily practice, I’ve learned that it’s most helpful to view leadership as a moment, rather than as a trait, a behavior, and certainly not as a person.

To lighten the weight of the world’s most pressing issues, it’s helpful to break them down into what Eric calls ‘leadership moments.' A leadership moment is a time when you need to make a tough decision in the face of the stubborn status quo. It could result in taking a stand on a polarizing issue, speaking up when it’s unpopular and uncomfortable, or doing what’s right instead of what’s easy (to steal a line from Acumen’s Manifesto).
The first step to growing as a leader is noticing when you’re facing a leadership moment. Where 20 years ago an average executive would see two leadership moments come across his or her desk in a workday - today the average team member will face five.
The practical tools of Adaptive Leadership help you identify and make progress on moments like these in your own life, team, or community.

One easy way to kickstart your growth as a leader is to begin practicing an exercise Eric calls ‘getting up on the balcony.' In the video below, Eric describes how this simple habit can help you create space for reflection in the midst of action:

Watch Now


The road ahead may be uncertain, but with change-makers like you acknowledging and acting on daily leadership moments, we can transform the world.
Watch the Learning Lab co-hosted with Eric Martin to more effectively lead change with the tools of Adaptive Leadership.
In this Learning Lab, you’ll learn from Eric and meet Acumen Fellow Vimal Kumar as he discusses his own journey of disrupting the status quo and mobilizing change with the principles of adaptive leadership.
You’ll get a taste of the types of sessions Eric has been delivering for years through the Acumen Fellowship program. He'll guide you through four basic questions to help you more effectively lead consequential change and sustain the conversation beyond when it gets tough.

Go Deeper:

Register for Acumen Academy's free Adaptive Leadership course.
Eric Martin (left) and Vimal Kumar (right)
Eric Martin is Managing Partner at Adaptive Change Advisors. He specializes in leadership development and systems change where his work draws on the Adaptive Leadership framework developed at Harvard with a focus on “democratizing leadership.” By putting tools that drive change into the hands of anyone who drives outcomes, Eric’s work has helps move promising initiatives to completion, even in complex and divisive environments.
Vimal Kumar is an Acumen Fellow and founder of Movement for Scavenger Community (MSC), an organization committed to the eradication of manual scavenging in India and bringing education and awareness to the existing scavenger community.
Danielle Sutton Headshot

Danielle Sutton

Danielle Sutton is the Content Animator at Acumen where she surfaces stories to inspire and activate social entrepreneurs. In an age of information overload, she believes in learning 'the right thing at the right time' to intentionally design impactful social enterprises. You can usually find Danielle digging into the Acumen course library, playing in the mountains, or exploring marketing on The Sedge blog.