Meditation at an inactive volcano

Taking a break from intensive language training to hike in the mountains near Puebla, Mexico. I studied Spanish for several months in Mexico before beginning my volunteer work in Nicaragua.

Traveling from Managua to the Honduran border

Fact-finding trip by jeep to Jinotega Province in northern Nicaragua, shortly after a truck carrying civilians to market ran over an anti-tank mine, killing everyone on board.

Home base in northern Nicaragua

The central street in Jinotega City, the capital of Jinotega Province, Nicaragua. I shared a house in Jinotega with other long-term volunteers.

Educational tour

Travels in another part of Nicaragua, Matagalpa, with a faith-based delegation from the U.S. In this photo I am negotiating with a farmer and his family about the possibility of purchasing lodging and meals for our delegation for a few days.

Anti-war protest in Managua

Participating in a protest organized by an ecumenical group of church groups from the U.S. who were visiting Nicaragua at the height of the counterrevolutionary war.

Anti-war protest in Managua

San Salvador, El Salvador

A visit with the family of the driver for our N.G.O.—who arranged transportation for the diverse faith communities from the U.S. who were visiting El Salvador, hosted by our organization.

Delegation returning from a trip

Return to Jinotega City after a weeklong visit to rural communities in northern Nicaragua, meeting with ministers, priests, lay leaders, and congregants.

Managua, Nicaragua

Speaking to journalists in Managua, after a trip to rural Nicaragua to document an explosion that had killed many civilians.

Civic engagement class

Class photo for the student year book. Students in the Hart Leadership Program, Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University.

Durham, N.C., Cover story, The Independent.

Interview with me by Steve Schewel, about my life and work in Nicaragua.

Cover story photos for The Independent

Photos from my days as a photojournalist and photo editor of the paper.

Cover story photos for The Independent

Photos from my days as a photojournalist and photo editor of the paper.

Cover story photos for The Independent

Photos from my days as a photojournalist and photo editor of the paper.

Alma Blount

Alma Blount

Stories With Purpose

Alma Blount was director of the Hart Leadership Program from 2001 to 2018. She began teaching adaptive leadership at Duke in 1994, and applied her interests in politics, narrative writing, and systems thinking to the way she ran Service Opportunities in Leadership (SOL).    

I have always been interested in stories. I come from a family that arrived in North Carolina in 1663, when four brothers from England settled in the Albemarle Sound area.  I grew up with a strong sense of family, and a strong love of storytelling, of hearing people tell stories about my family and the history of the state.  These stories included things I was proud of, but also things I was ashamed of.

When I was at UNC, I was drawn to doing oral history interviews with people. We were just undergraduates, but through a class, we were given a lot of responsibility to walk into a Chatham County mill village and into people’s lives just as a textile mill was closing.

I met a man who had been in the KKK for many years and he was forthright in telling me his stories. I learned the power of a person’s life history—including the shadow side and the light—and how, if you were sincerely interested in listening, you could draw the person out and witness the power of that process.

I became interested in learning how to go into a community, to listen deeply to the stories of the people who lived there, and to build a network of relationships. I liked the open-ended dimension of the work; it truly was an exploration. It was a relationship-driven way of building a story. I was able to let people tell their own stories, and then to link the stories to a larger narrative about a culture and way of life that was disappearing quickly.   

Then I began to tell stories with photos. I became interested in documentary photography. That interest laid the groundwork for lots of things. I liked the relational aspects of oral history, documentary photography, and journalism.  Each approach, in its own way, was a crucial part of storytelling for me. So I came to the craft from three distinct practices, and I learned all three at the same time.

An introduction to adaptive work

When you enter a community that is not your own, a whole host of ethical questions come up: How do you frame what you are doing? How much do you give back to the person along the way? How do you protect the interview so that it is only used the way you and the interviewee intended? Sometimes you see difficult things and you have to do justice to that knowledge. For example, after I graduated from college I worked with migrant farm workers as a social worker. I started taking photographs—only with permission and in such a way that the person was not identifiable—of people who were leaving the migrant stream and going back to their home base in Florida. I turned my work into an exposé of the housing and health conditions in migrant camps. The issues I investigated got me interested in grassroots activism and adaptive leadership.

I went from working with migrant farm workers to becoming involved in the anti-war movement in Central America in the early 1980s. I spent a lot of time documenting the wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. I came back to the U.S. when I was in my 30s, and met my future husband. At the time I intended to return to El Salvador, but then some people I knew and respected deeply were murdered by security forces—six Jesuit priests at the University of Central America and their two housekeepers. When I heard about their deaths it was a turning point.  I turned to my husband and said, “That’s it, I need to take a break now.  It’s time for me to go to divinity school.”

I got a scholarship to Harvard.  My focus was religion and public life, and I started taking every leadership class I could with Ronald Heifetz at the Kennedy School of Government. In his famous leadership class, Heifetz teaches adaptive leadership principles through a method called “case-in-point.”  It was a large class, and a really difficult and dynamic learning environment.  I took to it immediately.

Heifetz’s courses are set up so you are assigned to a small group to analyze leadership case studies.  You see how people can shape the conversation of a group in a purposeful way or not, and whether you are leading or misleading others, helping people move forward or not. You have to present a case study of a leadership failure from your own past using the adaptive leadership framework. You start to see more clearly the context of the system from inside your organization, and from outside in the larger environment. What forces were at play?  What was your intervention? One of the things you may be in denial about is having had a leadership failure. Yet facing denial is central to the pedagogy. It is a progressive humbling of yourself in a good way.  You see that you made choices that were the best you could have made at the time. But they could have been more effective if you had been on the balcony watching what was going on, instead of on the dance floor all the time—so swept up in the action that you were blinded by it.  You could have chosen your interventions more skillfully if you had had what we call “balcony/dance floor perspective.”

Adaptation in the Heifetz sense means seeing how to help your organization flourish when conditions change and your usual approach to problem solving, your tool kit, is no longer working.  You have to see conflict in your organization as a diagnostic tool, and to work with it in a new way. Conflict, if you have the right attitude, can become a resource for deciphering what is going on. I found the systems analysis of case studies from our own leadership failures to be liberating. I was 35 years old, and that was a perfect age because I had enough life experience under my belt to know that this is a complex, dangerous, and in some cases dark world. But at the same time, I was young, energetic and passionate enough to see the hopefulness of working with people and harnessing their energy to productive ends. So I took the adaptive framework and, with the help of a gifted teacher—Heifetz—applied it to my own difficult experience, a leadership failure from my international work. And that turned things around for me.

It was refreshing to have the insights that come from doing adaptive analysis with a large group. I had not examined the idea of leadership before I entered the mid-career program in grad school. I thought that if you were at the helm of an organization, if you had some courage, if you said yes and no clearly, if you held things together, you were a leader. I did not see that leadership was a skillset you could get better and better at over time, and how enormously practical the adaptive leadership framework could be in terms of work in the world.

What I used to think of as a failure was actually fertile ground for insights about how to move forward. I was bitten. I realized I needed to pursue this approach to teaching and learning. Professor Heifetz invited me to be a teaching fellow for his class.

When I finished graduate school I was invited to teach at the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy (now Sanford School).  I had not planned to teach at a university because I thought I would venture back into humans rights work.  You would have to say I was an unintentional academic, but I loved teaching right from the start.

The Hart Leadership Program had been created just a few years before I came to Duke. We got an infusion of program funds in 1998, and that is when we turned Service Opportunities in Leadership (SOL) into a yearlong program.  SOL became the focus of my creative energies.

How to teach undergraduates?

By the time I had taught several versions of my adaptive leadership class I noticed that I could do case-in-point in the classroom, but if students had no way to contextualize the learning, no real world applications for it, it was going to be a problem.  My students were talented, but they were young and unformed compared to the midcareer students who took Heifetz’s courses at Harvard. Unless you have real world experience and the maturity you can gain from professional work, adaptive analysis comes across as abstract instead of the practical, contextualized, strategic approach that it is.   

I hit upon the idea of having my students build upon their summer experiences, and to apply that knowledge to case study analyses in the fall capstone course.  The adaptive leadership framework was the analytical tool, but Research Service-Learning (RSL) and community-based research became the vehicles that got students to work with community organizations during the summer, and gave students a clear purpose for their projects, as well as tangible deliverables.

The pedagogy came together and crystallized in the late 1990’s.  Many people helped me, at just the right time, add different pieces to the pedagogy.  The approach was anchored in community-based research, and we sent students across the U.S. and around the world to do their summer projects.  Combining the adaptive leadership framework with research service learning was a breakthrough for me.

Over the years, my adaptive leadership capstone course has evolved to the point where I teach the concepts using documentary films as case studies.  I let students use that material to experiment with adaptive analysis. Then they are ready to create research portfolios that fit their interests, and to apply adaptive analysis to the institutional contexts they investigate.   

Reflective practice and inner work

Our students build research portfolios during the fall semester of the yearlong SOL program.  But increasingly students are driven by a mentality of “give it to me fast, let me grab it and go.”   The kind of in-depth research and reflection I want my students to do is becoming harder and harder for them.  Heifetz deals with mid-career people. I deal with undergrads, and we need different strategies to help college students contextualize and apply the adaptive leadership framework.   

Critical reflection is my central contribution to the pedagogy.  It means being awake and aware in the midst of the complex dynamics that are unfolding. You need to be curious and attentive so you can see the patterns. You cannot afford to let yourself become so wrapped up in what is going on that it becomes impossible to read the context. It is the capacity to do systems analysis that allows you to intervene effectively. The quality of your reflective skill is directly related to the quality of the questions you ask, and the effectiveness of the strategies you use to engage your group in adaptive learning.   

Building adaptive capacity means helping your group trust its own ability to tackle its toughest problems.  The group becomes more resilient and able to thrive as it engages in problem solving work, and it continues to develop confidence and adaptive capacity over time.   

Critical reflection is a habit of mind. It is a practice that you never stop working on, and you intentionally have to make room for it.  In fact, in this day and age, when we need critical thinking, reflective insight, and courage for the tough questions more than ever, it is a demanding daily practice to keep the distractions at bay and be present.  Balcony/dance floor, reflection-in-action—we use different terms for it—is about creating the psychic space—as individuals, groups, societies—to be response-able, come what may.

Service Opportunities in Leadership

Service Opportunities in Leadership—SOL—is the showcase for my approach.  Sometimes I worry there is too much going on in the program, but I have come to trust that yes, indeed there is too much — but it works. Students have told me there is a cumulative effect, and at a certain point things begin to make sense.  Layers build upon one another, and that is the power of the capstone course and the yearlong academic program.   

The pedagogy starts in the spring preparation course, called Border Crossing. One of the primary vehicles for learning is the POV [point of view] essay. The purpose of the assignment is for students to prepare themselves for the complications they will face during their summer projects. The community-based research project in the summer is an opportunity to counter the temptation to be a “moral tourist,” where you are having interesting experiences but are skimming the surface, and not immersing yourself in a set of relationships, or necessarily curious about knowing a community. I start by having students read nonfiction narratives, and then analyze the stories and enter into conversation with their classmates. Students read these wonderful stories and have to cut through the complexity and form an analysis of the material. I ask them, “How do you want to slice into the book? What is important, what is compelling, what are you curious about, what unsettles you?”  Engage with the story.  Then engage us.   

It sounds simple, but it is hard for students to learn the art of the point-of-view essay.  They struggle.  They wish there were a template.  If only they could snap their fingers and grasp the how-to, they think it would all become clear. And I keep saying, trust your own mind.  Take a leap and form your own point of view.

The service project for a local organization in the SOL preparation course has become an important component. I learned that the more responsibility you give students, the more they will rise to the occasion.

Every summer, students design great community-based research projects.   At the beginning of the project design process, though, it concerns me to see how much pressure students feel at the university to shine, perform, and add more bells and whistles.  Also, these days, students are increasingly distracted and bombarded. We spend a lot of time trying to bring them down to Earth and show them that they do not need to have glamorous, multifaceted projects.  Less is more.

We encourage students to build collaborative relationships with community partners. Paradoxically, at first these wonderful students who are all good people may not understand what we mean when we say relational. We have to ask them, have you actually called your contact at the partner organization on the phone?  Have you initiated a conversation with them?  Face to face is even better.

It always turns out okay. The students do come down to Earth. They go out in the field and life happens. I worry, but on the other hand my work is to help my students successfully encounter life in its unvarnished, confounding complexity. They get glimmers of insight during the summer, and in the fall, when they return to campus, they are ready for the capstone course.

I love walking into the capstone course the first day because the students know each other. It is a great feeling. The capstone course has its own tight structure; it is the hardest course I teach by far. Students sometimes struggle in the course and may not understand what they are learning until the end of the semester.  They have to undergo a shift in thinking to experiment with adaptive analysis.  It is hard to learn.

In my mind there is the constant question, “Why, as a teacher, am I doing this work?” I know why.  I want students to gain an intensified awareness of the difficult, beautiful complexities of doing real work with real people. For many students, epiphanies come after they leave the program and begin their professional careers.   

Choosing to be switched on

It is an important leadership skill to cut through complexity without dumbing it down—to be fair to the integrity of the context you have encountered. Then, take us somewhere with your insights and questions. It is a sophisticated set of skills to learn.

Acting and reflecting at the same time is a core leadership skill, being skillful at diagnosing what is actually going on.  Leaders have to observe, interpret, test their hypotheses and ask other’s opinions in order to build a sense of the collective, the “we/us.” Crafting interventions from this sense of “we/us” is what we want.

There is no better time to discover these insights than when you are in college, because it can be a fairly safe learning environment. The students who gravitate to SOL want to have their eyes opened. What I want to help students develop is the capacity to be switched-on, to be the trustworthy people in a group who are helping other people open their eyes.

The holding environment is a pressure cooker that regulates the stresses of the learning process.  As the teacher you are provoking things through the way you give the assignments, the way you ask questions, and way you challenge students to bring their best selves to the work—their attention and commitment.  The point is for a group of peers to have conversations that matter.

Having conversations that matter is the work.  All the insights and learning come from that.  You have to make the choice to be a person who wants to dialogue with others.  By holding people in difficult conversations, you can find ways to get at the underlying issues in a problem. It is a choice to be awake, to open your eyes.  It is a liberating feeling.

When I was living in Nicaragua and hosting delegations of people of faith, I instinctively created this thing I called a Letter Home.  I sent detailed letters to a small circle of people back in the United States, and the letters were narrative essays driven by strong emotions. Over the years, Letters Home have become cornerstone practices for SOL students and Hart Fellows.   

Personal narrative writing is a practical tool for learning how to read contexts.  You choose a window in, a story that somehow encapsulates your experience. The narrative is always specific—about people, experiences, and expectations.  It does not necessarily have a happy ending, and it does not necessarily have a beginning. The Letters Home often have a political dimension, because if you take a deeper-dive in reflecting on your experiences in a community when you are “the other,” you are blessed with the opportunity to face questions of equity and justice that are too pervasive to ignore.

Learning to have great conversations is what adaptive leadership is all about—developing a reflective practice for both the inner work and the outer work of leadership.  It is all balcony/dance floor work. Leadership means reflection-in-action. It is an art form to be on the dance floor in such a way that you are fully present, and at the same time you have a meta-view of what is unfolding.  You need to see the patterns and dynamics as they take shape. That is a capacity of insight and consciousness. Observe, interpret, and diagnose what is going on in a complex situation so that you and your group can take action in ways that hit the mark.

“It is not about being nice:” generating a culture of conversations

Our focus is learning how to work with conflict and differences in values in constructive ways. If you learn how to work with conflict productively, it can help you get to a much deeper place of “we/us.” It is about interdependence, creating a collective. It is not about being nice; it is about having your eyes open to the realities of living on the planet right now, and making a decision to be a helpful presence.

Over the years, I have seen a lack of knowledge on the part of students for how to work across differences. It is ironic because we have become a more diverse university. Yet I have noticed that it is easy for folks to find their own communities and mainly stick with them, even while going to class with people from different communities. I want students to develop more capacity for engaging others across differences.

Conflict is a given—look how troubled the world is.  In order for my students to develop a stomach for conflict, in a healthy sense, I have had to figure out how to provide an arena for them to learn those things. Over time, I have started teaching more case-in-point again, and have expanded the adaptive analysis of documentary films.

It is still a leap to get the students to see how to build their own case-study analysis in the capstone research portfolio.  A case study of an adaptive challenge is always connected to values conflicts in one way or another. You are working with a problem, which is connected to different, conflicted ways of framing what the problem is.  Then it is another challenge to figure out how to own the problem as a group or institution when there are such divergent ways of framing what the problem is in the first place.  Yet the differences in values—the values conflicts—are essential to understanding, owning and grappling with problems in adaptive, interdependent systems.  We cannot run away from values conflicts. We have to go right into them, hold them, teach others to hold them, learn from them, and engage others in learning from them.  This is what we mean by having a stomach for conflict.   

On college campuses it may seem that we exist in a bubble.  But the tensions I see as a teacher and the knowledge I have gleaned from my own life experiences tell me there is no escape from conflict.  So why not make conflict the starting place for creating a culture of conversations?   I do not think there are any shortcuts.  Such conversations cannot be just about the latest controversy on campus. There is another framework for thinking about productive dialogue—relational organizing.  It is the one-on-one/individual meeting where there is a mutual exchange.  Each person listens and finds out what the other person values. What seems like a private conversation actually points toward larger, public contexts that you have in common.

You then build from one-on-one conversations to group conversations, and from group conversations to institutional conversations.  This approach comes from tried and true organizing traditions, and it is integral to adaptive work.

John Paul Lederach’s book The Moral Imagination is about cultural shifts that we can create through conversations that matter. He talks about the notion of “the critical yeast.” There is a small group of people who have chosen to be awake in the midst of a difficult reality, and to take in that reality as fully as they can. But at the same time, in their imagination, they can see the shape of a newer, healthier reality that they, through their own agency and effort, could bring about.  So they exist in two worlds at the same time, the current dysfunctional reality and the healthier, more socially productive reality that could emerge, the new reality they could create together.    

Lederach’s context is peace negotiations, and there is always a surprising intervention that works. You have key people at the grassroots, who may be humble and trustworthy but lacking in worldly stature.  Yet they are connected to networks, and when they leverage their relationships, it has a powerful ripple effect.   

So often we are focused on the presenting problem, and the inevitable polarization, blaming, anger and disgust that surface conflicts can generate, but there is no deeper ongoing culture of conversations that points to the structural, systemic contexts we need to change. That deeper work requires adaptive imagination, powerful interventions, and collective commitment.

Creating a “culture of conversations” is not an ideology, it is a tool for exploring and more accurately assessing what is. It is a core tool of democracy.  The craft itself is anchored in common sense.  You make a decision that the collective is important, that “we” are important. It is heartening that there are so many people who want that to happen, yet it is countered by a pervasive, strong culture of “me, me, me.” And it is also countered by a culture of “me/mine” masquerading as a “we”—as in “our tribe, and if you are not part of our group, to hell with you.”  My yearning and fervent democratic hope is that the inclusive, politically engaged “culture of we” will prevail.  I believe we are at a turning point now, and when more of us stake our claim in rebuilding a healthy, diverse, democratically powerful “we,” the “me/my tribe” rage will lose its hold.   

Asking the purpose questions

From the beginning I have seen clearly the reasons I teach what I do. I am grateful to be here. It is a worthy challenge for me to do this work.  I know that I am teaching the next generation of leaders.  This generation is it. They are our world.

I believe that for each of us, discovering and refining a sense of purpose is at the core of this life. Sharon Parks wrote an extraordinary book called “Big Questions, Worthy Dreams” about the formative power of the critical years between 18 and 22. That is when you naturally want to ask, “Why am I here? What is life all about? What are my deepest yearnings for life? How am I connected to the rest of the world? What do I want the world to be?” If we, the older generation, fail to do our part in holding young adults to explore these questions, it is all too easy for students to avoid addressing the questions in a profound way. Parks believes that you are drawn to ask real questions when you have an encounter with “the other,” because the encounter can bring you outside of yourself, and show that you are not the center of the universe. It is a gift if you have a rich mentoring environment that helps you engage these explorations.

When you build reflective practice into your life, your awareness grows and you come to trust life.  This trusting process can intensify and quicken in potent ways when you are in your late teens and early twenties.  You begin to claim your own questions and to develop your own dreams. You begin to find your own voice.  The big questions come from raw encounters with others who are different from you, when you may not know yet how your experiences are adding up, or where they are taking you.  But you start to sense a directive principle at work.  It is right there, underneath your aspirations and ambitions.  And you become interested in discerning, deciphering, and applying it to your most difficult challenges.  Your desire to discover your direction never leaves you.  You begin to see that discovering purpose is a portable practice—and you can bring it to the work of groups, communities and countries.  Purpose is at the core of leadership.


Interview: Alma Blount

What’s a core value in your teaching and mentoring?

Humility. It’s the starting point, an anchor value in my book. I see it as an attitude and a quality of being. It’s a commitment to being present, open, curious, attentive, and genuinely interested in connecting with others. It’s about wanting to learn what makes others tick, to explore and understand complex contexts, to care about our common life, our interdependent life—in groups, organizations, communities, cities, states, regions, countries, the world.

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