Adaptive leadership: Leading in our changing world, especially in the face of resistance

Leading in our changing world, especially in the face of resistance, says Tod Bolsinger, requires resilience.

Sunset over the Green Mountains and star above Woodstock, Vermont. in Woodstock, VT, United States

Resilience is the capacity to “maintain core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.” — Andrew Zolli

“The question I find myself asking is not, ‘Can I learn the skills I need to lead change?’ but rather, ‘Can I survive it?'”

The senior pastor of a large church spoke these words to me in a whisper. I had become accustomed to hearing similar thoughts from leaders in different organizations and in vastly different contexts. In fact, these words repeated over and over again inspired everything that I have been doing for the past several years.

But let me start in two places that are a world – and 25 years – apart.

In 1992, my wife and I traveled to Prague, Czech Republic. One day, near the end of our trip, Beth and I walked through Staroměstské náměstí, a large central square. There in the middle of the square were two artisans who were drawing a sizable crowd watching them ply their craft. They took pieces of scrap iron, discards, and by first heating them until they were soft and pliable, and then held securely on the anvil, they were pummeled and pounded into a new shape. The process repeated: fire, steel, sweat; heating, holding, forming; placed, pounded, and finally, plunged into water.

I watched those artisans, so physical, so purposeful, so violent with hammer and inferno, so precise and exacting. They seemed a living icon of God. For we are the raw material, scraps of hardened, resisting steel. And they, the craftsmen, are so like God in precision and purpose.

Fast forward 25 years, and travel from Prague to Los Angeles. Adam’s Forge is a blacksmithing community in an industrial neighborhood on the north side of the city. It is a place where urban dwellers can leave their cell phones in the glove compartment for a couple of hours and learn the art of transforming rods of steel into tools that can be used. What was once raw material becomes, under the hand of the smith and through the heat of the forge, a new creation that is both pure and mixed, with a new purpose but with nothing lost of its original makeup. Through an age-old process from a previous century, we find a glimpse of what must happen in our lives if we are going to be able to lead – and thrive – in leading.

In 2015, I published a book on leadership in a changing world and since then, I have heard comments like the senior pastor’s many times. Whether it was speaking to a group of United Church of Christ leaders in a Knights of Columbus Hall in St. Louis, a large group of Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod Christian educators in Phoenix, a select group of Episcopal priests in Manhattan, or Baptist pastors and lay leaders in Auckland, New Zealand; whether Methodists or Pentecostals, nondenominational leaders or seminary educators, over and over someone – usually the person in charge of training, education, or leadership development – would whisper to me, “I don’t think we have anyone who can actually do this.” Indeed, one seminary president said to me, “I don’t think I can find anyone in the entire country to lead the kind of changes that you are talking about.”

The changes that I was describing is called adaptive leadership. And these leaders weren’t talking about the specific skills I was teaching. They were speaking about the stamina, the strength of purpose, the perseverance necessary to lead a church, institution, or organization through deep organizational change.

Why is this so difficult? Resistance. Internal resistance.

Resistance is the key difference between management and leadership: Good management is usually met with a grateful response from those whom we manage. Leadership is often met with stubborn resistance from the very people we are called to lead.

Resistance is the key difference between management and leadership…

Management is about helping people get to where they want to go and accomplish what they want to accomplish. Management, biblically speaking, is called stewardship. And stewardship is about taking care of what is most valuable and accomplishing together what all of us most want to get done. Humans are wired for stability and continuity, so we are deeply grateful for a good manager who keeps everything running well.

But leading change is disruptive. And everything within us resists disruption. When we are faced with change, we need leaders who can stand it when we resist the very thing we want and need, even to the point where we will turn on them, oppose them, sabotage them. According to the late Edwin Friedman in his book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, one of the critical attributes of a leader who is going to bring about deep change is “persistence in the face of resistance and downright rejection.”

Leadership therefore is always about the transformation and growth of a people – starting with the leader – to develop the resilience and adaptive capacity to wisely cut through resistance and accomplish the mission of the group. It requires learning and results in loss. And even when we know what we are signing up for, we resist both the vulnerability of learning and the pain of loss. So, to lead, especially in the face of resistance, requires that we develop resilience.

Resilience is not about becoming smarter or tougher; it’s about becoming stronger and more flexible. It’s about becoming tempered.

Which takes us back to the blacksmith’s shop.

Tempered. Let the word linger there for a moment. What comes to mind? Tempered glass? Tempered steel? To temper is an odd verb. It means both to make stronger and more flexible. Tempered steel is perfectly balanced at the midpoint between too soft to be useful as a tool and so brittle that the tool will break through hard use. To temper describes the process of heating, holding, hammering, cooling, and reheating that adds stress to raw iron until it becomes a glistening knife blade or chisel tip.

One interesting concept in blacksmithing is how stress is added to steel to make it stronger. The stress of forging the tool and the stress of using the tool is the same. This process is like the way a chisel is forged and then resharpened and retempered over and over again to be a tool for transformation. This leads us to consider an inspiring moment – and a transparent model – of a resilient leader.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a crowd at the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. in 1963. – National Archives Record #542015 – Public Domain.

Tell them about the dream, Martin!

It was August 28, 1963, and the mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial was filled with over 250,000 people. After a long afternoon of stirring speeches, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson sung two spirituals that, according to a 2013 story in the New York Times, caused Roger Mudd of CBS to remark, “all the speeches in the world couldn’t have brought the response that just came from the hymns she sang.”

A rabbi spoke and then Martin Luther King Jr. led into his prepared remarks. The words for this occasion had come slowly to the acknowledged leader of the civil rights movement. Drawing from the deep wellspring of the centuries-long struggle for Black Americans to experience the justice and freedom proclaimed in their homeland, he and his confidantes had worked late into the evening. This speech was not to be just the words of an eloquent preacher, it was a gift of the centuries-long Black struggle. This moment was bringing attention to the blood, sacrifice, and courage of so many who had labored in the long struggle for freedom for the African-American community. They knew that they would be speaking to a nationwide audience. And they also knew they would be speaking directly to people who had experienced firsthand beatings, jail, attacks by dogs and humiliation by neighbors.

[King’s] speech was not to be just the words of an eloquent preacher, it was a gift of the centuries-long Black struggle. This moment was bringing attention to the blood, sacrifice, and courage of so many who had labored in the long struggle for freedom for the African-American community.

King and his companions had debated which themes to use in what was an allotted five minutes of speaking time. King himself had spent the night writing in longhand and by 4 a.m. had put the finishing touches on a text that was meant to be both sobering and thoughtful, absent of inflammatory rhetoric, but sternly calling the nation to account for the ongoing denial of rights
to so many of its citizens.

King’s speech began more scholarly than soaring, and when he stumbled on a line that he didn’t think would work, he began to riff off-script. It was just then that the preacher heard the gospel singer crying out from behind him.

“Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream.”

King’s associate and speechwriter Clarence B. Jones, who was seated nearby heard Mahalia Jackson’s words and saw Dr. King glance at Jackson and put his notes aside. Jones said to the person sitting next to him, “These people out there, they don’t know it, but they are about ready to go to church.”

King launched into the words that have now become hallowed in our American history, “I have a dream.”

Using the imagery of Isaiah, one section speaks to the task of bringing change in the face of immense – even centuries-long – resistance and the despair it can cause:

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

And immediately King brings that vision down to the blood-stained soil of 1960s Alabama and Mississippi, and the daunting task ahead of him.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

Notice the imagery that sits in the middle of this stirring refrain:

With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. Hew.

Tools that can hew are tempered tools. Leaders that can hew hope are tempered resilient leaders. So, we ask, wanting to be resilient leaders, how do we find the resilience to face resistance? How do we find the resilience to hew stones of hope out of a mountain of despair?

How do we find the resilience to face resistance … to hew stones of hope out of a mountain of despair?

You don’t. It’s not found, it’s forged. Tempering is the process of transformation that is required of both steel and leaders to become tools that can hew.

Tempering comes from a repetitive process of transformation — of heating, holding, hammering and cooling. And in the same way, there are formative processes which leaders must undergo to be transformed from raw material into chisels that can hew stones of hope out of mountains of despair.

What is needed to become more resilient in the face of resistance? A life that enters the forge of transformation regularly.

It requires humble, honest reflection … and secure, supportive relationships … and a life of practices for shaping you for your calling.

That is what is at the core of resilient leadership — your own ongoing transformation.

It is hard, deliberate, intentional work. But when the leader gives herself to it, she becomes miraculously stronger and more flexible, tougher and more agile, decisive and more discerning, wiser and happier, more content and even more restless for the cause, the organization, the community, the mission to which she has been called.

The raw material becomes tempered. The man or woman becomes a leader. And – God helping us – the world is changed for the better.

Taken from Tempered Resilience by Tod Bolsinger. Copyright (c) 2020 by Tod E. Bolsinger. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA.