Transforming & Adapting as a Leader

by Jean Richardson

Much is asked of leaders these days, and many still aspire to leadership for the extrinsic rewards there—money and power.  Project managers are under particular pressure to grapple with this shift, often without additional compensation.  So, it can feel like one more thing on our plates, just one more thing to do!  This article describes unexpected intrinsic rewards that you can take home with you and which make the shift from manager to leader all the more enticing to many people.

As I sit here, I can think of no organization I’ve encountered in the last several years that is not challenged with the imperative to learn and change at an ever-increasing rate.  From software to sewer systems, education to microchips, and utilities to non-profits, every organization has to focus on the rate of change in their market and general business context.  Surprised at the range of organizations and industries?  Think about your own business context.  If you’re not in transition between organizations yourself, which is a clear example of the rate of change, your organization is likely seeing new participants in the market, social changes in its workforce, policy or climate pressures from the global context, the rise or fall of need or desire for its products or services or some other sort of change.

To some, it may seem that project managers are or can be isolated from these pressures.  But many have experienced the impact of taking their eyes off the change leadership ball and found themselves outside the playing field.  Not only does PMI have a new-found interest in building leadership competency in project managers, but organizations increasingly interview for leadership skills.  

Previously, leaders were coached to build trust, provide clear guidance, improve communication, have a leadership presence, talk like a leader, and so on.  We have a workforce enculturated to expect leaders to be masters of these skills.  However, these skills do not necessarily build trust.  Organizational leaders have begun to be painted with the same brush as senior leaders in our national political system.  And, at the same time, these skills, while in many ways helpful, don’t actually result in effective outcomes in the midst of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.  Rather, the skills of sensemaking, testing, experimenting, and learning are what are required—and the leader who can learn in public while collaborating and sharing power is the leader we both need and need to be.

The Harvard Business Review recently published an article on what happened and how a certain sort of leader made a huge difference at the nearby Daiichi plant during the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.  Naohiro Masuda may now been seen in heroic terms in the eyes of many HBR readers in the US and abroad.  However, his behavior and tactics were not those of the typical heroic leader, nor, I suspect, would he strike a traditionally heroic pose if we were to meet him in real time. The article shows a person who is using a cyclic sensing and testing model in conjunction with highly efficient and transparent network-based information sharing with collaboration and power-sharing as a backdrop or basis for his actions.

While not all of us are faced with a nuclear disaster every day, most project managers have to deal with unexpected events during the course of their projects, which is why we have competencies in risk and issue handling.  The more high profile, broad reaching, business critical, and technologically progressive our projects, the more likely we are not going to have solutions ready for the unexpected challenges that emerge.  So, while mastering a large toolset to apply is important, so is something that used to be anathema to leaders who “had all the answers” in our grandparents’ time. The ability to try/fail/learn/try again in public transparently and fluidly while encountering failure as an opportunity for personal group—this is the key transformational and adaptive skillset of contemporary leadership.

On May 26 my colleague, Pat Reed, and I will be facilitating a training on Adaptive Leadership for the chapter.  This training is based on research done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) by Ronald Heifetz and his colleagues.  The specific design of the curriculum was created, tested, and proven of value to leaders in the Agile Management Certificate program for UC Berkeley extension.  You will learn a sensemaking model for leaders (graphically summarized below) as well as a set of tools to take away and use to implement the plan you create with fellow class participants.  The curriculum design is intensely experiential and designed to emulate the kinds of situations you face each day which require adaptation and transformation in context as a leader.

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Learning in public is a new skill for leaders, but in the future, we will likely get a to a point where we take it for granted.  We see glimmers of that in the interview question that asks you to talk about your biggest failures, how you handled them, and what you learned from them.  Many of us have been taught to give answers that make us look pretty good.  Increasingly, interviewers are frustrated with that kind of response.  They know no one always looks good.  Learning, and life, are messy—a lot like projects.  They need someone who can take a mess and not be afraid to get a bit dirty while navigating toward the benefits the organization identified that the project could deliver.  The key to success is, increasingly, not controlling, predicting, and looking good while doing it.  It’s more like what Masuda did at Daiichi.  Using the best you have in you to assess the situation, test and tack toward a solution, gain and make use of feedback, adjust, test and tack again while changing on the job as a transforming and adaptive leader.

About the Author

Jean Richardson is an agile coach and project management professional with more than 20 years’ experience with clients in the Portland metro area.  Her initial agile training, the Certified Scrum Master (CSM) credential, was provided by Ken Schwaber, one of the two developers of the Scrum framework.  You can read her blog on leadership, agile, and project management at and link with her at You can correspond with her at

Register for the May 26th workshop, Adaptive Leadership Accelerator, mentioned in this article at