Sol Symposium Explores Reflective Practice And Leadership

Fifty SOL alumni, faculty, students and friends from all over the world returned to Duke for an afternoon to participate in a symposium about SOL’s signature pedagogy that combines adaptive leadership and critical reflection.  The gathering included workshops and talks by Mitch and Linda Hart, the founders of Hart Leadership Program, Bob Korstad, the founder of SOL, and Alma Blount, who has run the SOL program for the past two decades.

Mayor Steve Schewel, longtime faculty member and friend of the Hart Leadership Program offered welcoming remarks:

Alma Blount convened the group:

“Here we are. There is so much energy in the room!  Thank you for coming.

Some of you have come quite a distance—from China, from Singapore, from the west coast, and from many places across the country.

We are so happy to have you here with us today.

We have invited this special group together in order to:

  • Honor SOL students, alumni and the program.
  • Explore: what is reflective practice, what is adaptive leadership, how do these approaches go together, and what is their relevance for the world we live in now?
  • Review and reflect upon my experiments teaching adaptive leadership at Duke since 1994.

I have lots of big feelings right now at this turning point moment. 

I’m grateful, joyful, inspired and energized.

I’m pleased to look back on 24 years of hard work—working side by side with everyone in the room in one way or another—and to feel so fulfilled.

I am also feeling ready for the next step—in my life and my work. We all know this deeply—because we see it, feel it, and can’t escape it—this is a momentous time to be alive on the planet.  So much is at stake, so much is shifting so quickly, so much could go wrong, and the call for all of us—all of us—to step up in courageous and creative ways—could not be clearer or stronger.

And certainly it is an important turning point for SOL at year 24.  As I look around the room now I see SOLsters here—incredible—from different cohorts spanning that entire time frame.

So it is the end of an era, and we are starting to pivot to a new era in the Hart Leadership Program.  Something important is coming to closure, and something new is emerging.

Our focus today is to explore what we mean by reflective practice and leadership, and how this signature approach of the SOL program—might be relevant to our lives and our work in the world.

As always, I would say there are three questions that could help us discern what the current context is calling each of us to do.  These questions will not be a surprise to my students and former students:

  • What’s the adaptive challenge?
  • What questions are we asking?
  • What experiments are we running?

These questions are the core theme of SOL symposium.

Reflective practice and adaptive leadership.  What do we mean by these terms?

First, I see reflective practice and leadership as all of a piece.  It is one approach with two facets—reflection-in-action that combines what I call the “inner work of leadership” and the  “outer work of leadership.”  We also call it balcony-dance floor work.

Adaptive leadership—we’ll get into the framework in the overview section during the first hour of the symposium.  It means mobilizing people to take on adaptive work.   To exercise leadership is to help people face their reality and to mobilize them to change as their environment changes—so that they can be secure and can thrive.

Adaptive challenges are problems for which we don’t have the solution. 

This does not mean solutions are impossible.  But when we are facing problems that we have never faced before, and our previous repertoire of problem-solving approaches is not working, we say it is time to “learn to love the swamp.”  This means we have to learn our way to the solutions—as a collective.

Adaptive work is always about the group, the institution, and the social system.  The people exercising adaptive leadership care about the values conflicts surfacing in groups, and care about harnessing the group’s own intelligence—collective contextualized intelligence is a term we use a lot—to face its current reality, and to build the capacity to continue to take on complex, interdependent problems over the long haul, and to prosper.

Adaptive work is not about coping. It is about human flourishing.

So people exercising adaptive leadership cannot shy away from conflict, but they can become, over time, what I like to think of as healing conjurers.  They have adaptive imagination.  They are adept at going into the world as it is, and yet they are also adept at creating, bringing into being a new reality beyond what currently exists.  They see leadership as artistry—but an artistry that has an ordinary, humble, everyday “just get back to work” quality to it.  I call it garden variety leadership.  It is something we are all called to do.

Service Opportunities in Leadership—SOL—has been a 24-year experiment with reflective practice and adaptive leadership.  My colleagues at Harvard wondered if we would be able to teach the adaptive leadership framework to undergrads.  I was not sure I could, but I was intrigued by the challenge.  Today we’ll take a look at some aspects of our experiment, as see what we think.

So yes, I have big feelings today, and I also have big yearnings for the SOLsters who are with us now, and for our good friends and colleagues who also have joined us:

  • May we be great at embracing complexity and uncertainty
  • May we be able to see clearly what is no longer working
  • May we be able to see what is emerging
  • May we be willing to run experiments, and to learn from what unfolds
  • May we find our strength in improvising, taking risks, and living in the land of No-Easy-Answers
  • And may we be more than willing to pay attention, push the boundaries, ask the tough questions, and take a stand when the time comes.

Because we already know there is no escape from the complex, interdependent, adaptive challenges we face in this world.  Therefore, my strongest yearning is that we find our power and our aliveness in facing these challenges together.”

Alma Blount addressing the alumni, faculty, and friends who gathered to celebrate the SOL pedagogy.