How to Manage Archetypal Network Tensions – an Interview with Dylan Skybrook (Part 2):

In Part 1 of my post about Dylan Skybrook, I outlined some specific classic tensions of network leadership that Dylan has been challenged with in his first year on the job. But in addition to finding classic tensions in his story, I also recognized his clear & active practice of a kind of leadership Ronald Heifetz’ frames as ‘Adaptive Leadership’.

Adaptive Leadership

Here’s a summary-table of Adaptive Leadership basics:

In spite of my own decades of fighting against it (in myself), the heroic leadership model is still a personal siren call. My sense of self-worth becomes enmeshed in resolving collective tensions.

I yearn for and relish collaboration & co-creation. So as long as collective action is humming along - I’m fabulous at getting out of the way, sharing the work, contributing as an equal. I never fight for control of what others want to manage, or drive towards my own personal ends.

But when a collective gets stuck in unresolved tensions, that’s where I feel the heroic impulse. My sense of self demands that I handle what others feel is too dangerous or too insurmountable. I fixate on resolving the tensions others seem to avoid facing directly, in the belief that no-one else wants to or is able to face them, and that nothing will change if they’re not faced. Underlying collective tensions trigger some of my survival issues – I can become pretty passionate about breaking up blockages.

But if you know anything about change in complex systems, you know that my heroic efforts  are seriously NOT effective.

To be clear - I KNOW how ineffective and hazardous that behavior is. And I KNOW what needs to happen in those situations. But knowing doesn’t mean I’m always able. Because what needs to happen comes from a different sense of self-worth. Because in our culture, if we’re not heroic, what good are we?

What stuck with me over many years, from Heifetz’s ‘Adaptive Leadership’ approach was this concept of leaders needing to ‘give the work back to the people’. And believe me, I’ve tried. But like I said earlier, how to do that? We have few role models. We’re culturally not so great at facing the tensions that interfere with the work, so the work quickly grinds to a halt if no-one is handling them.

I’ve watched leader after leader (including myself) make sincere attempts at ‘giving the work back’ while essentially either leaving the tensions unaddressed, or trying to resolve them through indirect means.  The result of not addressing them is that the impetus either dissolves or fractures. The result of trying to resolve them indirectly is ever more heroism, efforts at persuasion & control and leader burnout.

As a result of much observation & critique of these less-than-effective ‘giving the work back’ dynamics, I’ve begun to re-phrase & re-frame Heifetz. The summarized dictum is changing from ‘give the work back’ to ‘share the tensions’. Without transparently & explicitly sharing the tensions (in addition to the fun, productive, affirming parts), I don’t see how we can move forward.

In any case, ‘sharing the tensions’ - precisely the opposite of my instinctive (perhaps even ‘triggered’) approach. It’s the importance of not taking on & ‘resolving’ the tensions personally as the ‘leader’ (which as Heifetz makes clear in his early work, is never sustainable), but giving them back to the collective.

Throughout Dylan’s story, I was hearing a friend making a personal shift from the temptations of heroic leadership squarely into the  Heifetz’ ‘sharing the tensions’ model.

Dylan’s Role

He recognizes that his own tensions about the pace of action may or may be shared throughout the network, but the network pace is not his to control.

But, the first thing that I feel about that is I want to make sure that, first, I’m serving the network and, that, if its pace needs to be glacial for real, then I need to not interfere with that so that I can feel satisfied.

So, yeah,, a lot of the pace of this stuff IS glacial and I need to make sure, for me, that I’m not stressing them out. By me being like, “come on,” [snaps fingers], you know, “let’s make some things happen,” because that’s what I want. I want to feel satisfied.

And the same for the Parts v. Whole tension:

...there’s already all these people in place and all these interests that they have in place and you have to work with that, even if you think they’re wrong, even if they’re clearly wrong, it doesn’t matter. You actually have to work with what’s present.

So, I really have embraced the idea of, kind of, evolving our way toward function and figuring out what that’s going to be and, like, what actually makes sense to them. Like, I can’t impose my theoretical we-need-the-big-picture-view on them.

But he’s not passive about it – he hasn’t abdicated the responsibility inherent in his role:

I mean, I impose questions. I impose consideration.

Where tension-hoarding/pseudo-resolving leaders might be asking themselves ‘how can I get them inspired to take action?’ or ‘how can I remove the barriers to action?’ or even ‘what’s wrong with these people and how can I fix them?’, Dylan simply shares the tension he’s sensing – and asks them.

I really tried to lay it on the table. I was like, “I don’t think our mission actually organizes any action. It feels like you guys don’t need to be doing network work. It’s like, you do it, and great things come out of it and that’s great, but just as often you blow off meetings or things don’t proceed because you don’t need it.”

As he says, his job is to impose questions and consideration.

I had them think about - since mostly what’s been clearly valuable has been getting together in these convenings and creating relationships. Was setting the conditions for collaboration and cooperation - is that the most valuable thing and should that just be our goal, just to do that?

Part of what struck me as valuable about Dylan laying it on the table was that as a result, everyone could become clear about the value he was already bringing and that they needed him to continue to bring. If some members expected him to drive ‘getting things done’, or were sharing his impatience, those tensions were able to be surfaced, and unpacked collectively. That tension could become the group’s work, where it belongs.

Laying it on the table helps everyone to become clearer about what the true value of the network is. Once everyone understands that, they can help support it, and they can navigate their own & one another’s periodic impatience with clarity about what needs to be protected.

They can get better at sharing & working through the tensions from all levels.

Creating Conditions for Collaboration

When pushed to articulate the value of the network, members said what mattered was the connections and the awareness.

So, basically, it’s like, one is just getting them in the same room is amazing. Surprisingly, a lot of them didn’t know each other before. A lot of them did, but a lot of them didn’t and, so, just the fact that they’re like, “oh, I know someone to call at this agency,” is like, just that, is already a giant success, you know? So, getting them in the room is amazing.

Awareness was big on several levels, and has already led to some big wins in terms of resource sharing. For instance:

One non-profit was talking about dealing with invasive species in a certain area and one of the agencies was like, “oh, we have an app that helps track that,” and just gave it to them to let them use it; which is huge! Now, they don’t have to spend all this money developing a similar thing.

And also:

City parks and BLM [the Federal Bureau of Land Management] – State Parks has a macerator and they developed an MOU with BLM to allow them to use it so that BLM doesn’t have to buy it. This is, like, a giant wood chipper. It’s a very expensive piece of equipment. We’re saving taxpayer dollars over here.  

Ultimately Dylan finds that connections and awareness leads to more results with less leadership intervention.

Dylan’s 4 Parts of Condition-Setting

Clearly, a fundamental condition for Dylan is not imposing his own needs onto the network. But then, what does he do to add value? What is his own contribution, if it’s not developing a vision and aligning everyone to that vision (which is what classic leadership demands)?

This network was originally convened by the Converge consulting firm, so Dylan’s job has been to both preserve what has gone before as well as to build in it.

So far, Dylan has identified 4 areas in which he can take action in creating the conditions that lead to collaboration. Those are: creating relationships, updating on projects, keeping it personal, using communication tools.

Creating Relationships

By the time I got there, there was this, kind of, amazing amount of trust already in the room and I’ve really noticed that I have to maintain it. Like, I have to keep doing things, like having them be able to be vulnerable with each other, and there’s new people coming in, and some people leaving as they retire, and stuff like that.

Updating on Projects

Dylan sees the importance and impact of everyone knowing what everyone else is working on. The actions they’re taking, resources they need and have, specific goals and projects. These updates take time, but he makes sure everyone gets time to report back on this stuff regularly. It’s key to that awareness piece.

It develops a systemic perspective – knowing what’s going on beyond my own field of action and  how it intersects with mine.

Keeping It Very Personal

You can’t just introduce people & expect magic to happen. Especially when there are strong differences. Dylan says you have to design a conversation that is deep and personal. You have to use stories. You have to invite vulnerability. You have to nurture trust.

Usually in the evenings we do something like sharing life stories of some kind or another. Last time I had them share stories of how they got on the path that they’re on now in their career, how it became meaningful to them, and it’s amazing. The energy in the room just totally shifts and everything gets kind of sweet as they start to share information with each other and they know that that’s valuable. Like, this is not one of those things that passes them by like it’s subtle. It’s clear to them that being able to share personal things creates trust in the room because some of them. . . some of the stakeholder groups have totally and specifically demonized other stakeholder groups in the room. So, to be sitting together in a small group and telling them about, like, how they got to where they are, it’s fucking amazing, you know?

Communication tools

And finally, Dylan says providing and using communication tools are also an important condition. The members of the network are spread over hundreds of miles. Some of them have to drive an hour and a half each way to get together, so in-person gatherings are infrequent.  Most of the work happens between in-person meetings - decisions have to be made by phone & conference calls. Access to necessary info has to be distributed.

Right now they’re using BaseCamp and Google Drive which are ‘not perfect’ but far better than nothing.

What I come away with

Working through Dylan’s story shed some light on my own heroic nature in a way that gave me some compassion for this part of myself – and by extension, other heroic type leaders. It helped me see heroism less as arrogance & dominance (which is certainly how it often manifests), but more as a desire for belonging, a semi-warped effort to connect.

For those of us not inherently valued by the dominant culture, those on the margins – when we push back, when we fight for our people, when we show courage & decisiveness – we become more valuable to our own. And we gain respect (or at least recognition), however grudging, from those who would prefer to ignore us. That’s a powerful lesson. It feels genuinely heroic. Affirmed & reinforced from every direction.

Because there IS a need for real leadership through the tensions. Conflict without the guidance to work through it is a core driver of increased separation, mistrust, dominance, & violence. It’s just that the models we’ve had for that leadership are no longer useful.

Heroism becomes its own reinforcing feedback loop. And once caught in that loop, it can become our sense of self. It becomes our self-worth. It becomes an all-or-nothing proposition. Not a skill of equal value among other skills, to be used where necessary and not applied where unnecessary. It becomes ‘if I’m not the hero/savior, do I even exist?’.

Why does this matter to me, in this context? Because that’s just one example of the ways our culture warps our sense of self, and those warped selves are often what’s ‘showing up’ when we show up to ‘be the change’. And I’m always trying to understand what needs to change, deep in our souls (or at the very least, in my own), if we don’t want our status-quo-selves showing up and unintentionally reinforcing our system’s status-quos.

Also – as our systems collapse (which they clearly are), if we manage crises the way we’re used to – especially those of us considered ‘leaders’ (because most of us leaders got here by drinking the kool-aid), well, let’s just say – I’m hoping we can find ways to do better.

In any case, I come away from this interview with a revived interest in digging deeper into the specifics of Adaptive Leadership. The books sit 2 feet behind me when I’m at my desk, but I haven’t cracked them open in years – until now. And I see there’s a lot I should re-visit.

Even more, I come away with a deepened respect for my friend Dylan. And an appreciation for him sharing his story. It showed me where I get tripped up in Network Leadership, while showing me how he has kept his own footing.

I hope Dylan’s story inspires other network leaders to begin or deepen their own practice of sharing the tensions.

What thoughts has his story brought up for you?

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