Accelerating Organizational Anti-Racism Work with Adaptive Leadership and Mindful Communication Practices


Transformational change at an organizational or systems level requires both deep listening and the willingness of leaders possessing decision-making authority to collaborate with those most directly impacted by the problems necessitating change. Few leaders I know would dispute this premise in the abstract, but many might struggle to explain in concrete terms how they walk the walk as well as they talk the talk. Moving organizations and communities from words to action around redressing institutionalized racism requires leaders not only to put listening and collaboration skills to the test, but to leap beyond the comfort zone of routine approaches to problem solving. Adaptive leadership and mindful communication practices can provide an excellent platform from which to dive into the deep water of acknowledging racism and other structural forms of oppression as powerful drivers of inequities in the areas of health, housing, and economic advancement.

Technical versus Adaptive Challenges
When strategizing to tackle dramatic disparities that negatively impact Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other historically disenfranchised groups, relying on routine ways of analyzing data and searching for data-driven fixes runs the risk of missing the forest for the trees. By treating disparities as technical problems, leaders can obscure unconscious beliefs in white superiority and other forms of racism. They can miss how the deep-rooted and pervasive biases that have helped to keep people in these disenfranchised groups at a disadvantage have infused organizational cultures and institutions throughout society, like a smog that we all breath together.

Over generations, assumptions of racial superiority have operated in ways that can be invisible, especially to white leaders who often have grown up with little need to consider their whiteness and its advantages. The resulting blind spots can include, for example, a disregard for the intergenerational impacts of redlining and other mechanisms that systematically excluded Black and other disenfranchised people from most of the opportunities that boosted homeownership and the ability to accumulate wealth for white Americans coming out of the Great Depression and following World War II. The insidious ways that racism was both institutionalized and rationalized by white elites during this period has been well documented by many Black writers and academics, including Ta-Nahesi Coates in The Case of Reparations and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and Race for Profit. Without considering the brilliant deconstruction of mainstream understanding of race in recent American history that such authors offer, a team engaging in root cause work will struggle to accurately diagnose the causes of the dramatic present-day disparities in family net worth, access to post-secondary education, rates of homelessness and incarceration, life expectancy, and other measures of economic and social wellbeing.

Problem-solving that acknowledges blind spots to identifying such structural dynamics requires leaders to distinguish between technical challenges and adaptive challenges, a term coined by Harvard Kennedy School professors Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky and their colleague Alexander Grashow and explored in their book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Here’s a quick summary of the key distinctions between these two very different kinds of leadership challenges:

Root causes are easy to identifyRoot causes are difficult to identify (easy to deny)
Often lend themselves to cut and dried solutionsRequires changes in beliefs, values, roles, relationships, and approaches to work
Often can be solved by an authority or expertPeople most impacted by the problem need to do the work of solving it
Requires change in just one or a few places; often contained within organizational boundariesRequires change in numerous places; usually across organizational boundaries
People are generally receptive to the technical solutionPeople often resist even acknowledging adaptive challenges
Solutions can be implemented quickly, even by edict“Solutions” require experiments and new discoveries; they can take a long time to implement and can’t be implemented by edict

Success in meeting adaptive challenges depends on letting go of the authority leaders are accustomed to exercising in directing technical problem solving. Effectively guiding adaptive change entails taking the critical step of joining forces with those most impacted by the problem to “get up on the balcony,” the phrase Heifetz, Linsky, and Grashow use for getting above the space where the everyday work gets done and finding a better perspective from which to collaboratively diagnose root causes. The on-the-balcony process requires a conscious investment of time, a collective commitment to listen deeply to different perspectives, and the willingness of those with the most official authority to share their power. Absent those aspects, there’s a greatly reduced likelihood of accurately diagnosing the problem and then reaching consensus on the most effective adjustments that can be made, not only to policies, procedures, work patterns, and routines, but also the structures that support them.

In my experience with racial equity initiatives at the organizational and systems level, nearly all the most difficult challenges fit into the adaptive rather than the technical category. They all required fundamental changes in beliefs, values, roles, relationships, and approaches to work that I and others initially struggled to acknowledge. On a personal level, and as explored in a previous blog post, I discovered that I had never thoroughly contemplated and interrogated my whiteness, like a fish who has no need for the concept of water. Likewise, I hadn’t really connected the dots between the benefits of whiteness for my family and the institutionalized subjugation of Native, Black, Latinx, and other people that has shaped American culture for centuries. Moreover, I struggled with a kind of management undertow that pulled me away from investing time, money, and energy on identifying solutions that might take a long time to implement and that require change in numerous places and across organizational boundaries. As Heifetz, Linsky, and Grashow point out, the shift to adaptive leadership represents a dramatic departure from many of the norms that typically comprise the culture of organizations; this shift, in other words, usually requires leaders to swim against strong organizational currents.

Managing Transactionally or for Transformation?
Making the space and time for the deep listening and authentic collaboration—elevating the voice and sharing power with people without the typical credentials indicating technical expertise—requires breaking more than a few unwritten management rules. These rules reflect the tendency to maintain tight control over any process that contemplates significant change. They also reflect a transactional model of management whereas undoing racism or successfully tackling other adaptive challenges calls for a transformational model. Transactional management responds to spoken or unspoken imperatives for managers to “learn the system” and then “work the system.” For example, in the non-profit and government sectors, the drift toward transactional management can result from the continuous pressure to increase grant or philanthropic revenue and at the same time protect and maintain existing revenue streams by ensuring compliance with relevant rules and regulations.

Transformational management, on the other hand, entails increasing curiosity about how to transform the system –in this case, in service of increased equity. It requires investing significant time, energy, and funds in rigorously exploring how policies guiding program planning and operations would need to change to effectuate needed structural changes. Here are some of the key differences between these two ways of managing:

Look for quick-to-implement tweaks to established ways of operatingSlow down the decision-making train and create the time for deep listening
Avoid rabbit holes and other time sucksInterrogate structural barriers to problem solving, even when it requires significant time to explore what may feel like rabbit holes
Keep the peaceMaintain an open mind to unfamiliar and diverse perspectives and avoid dismissing controversial opinions
Put your best foot forward, for yourself and those above you in the organizationWork with the discomfort of not knowing where sharing power will take you
Stay in your laneIdentify and explore overlapping values among stakeholders who advocate seemingly competing positions
Color within the lines to ensure compliance with all relevant rules and regulationsCultivate a culture of curiosity and creativity
Treat revenue growth or, at least, revenue maintenance, as your north starPrioritize in-depth analysis that is not explicitly required nor particularly tied to increasing revenue or lowering cost

Orienting toward the approaches in the right-hand column requires acknowledging and resisting the pull of transactional currents and the problem-solving comfort zones they create. It thus calls for inner strengths rarely addressed in the workplace leadership development models that I’ve encountered. Within the context of guiding racial equity initiatives, these strengths will prove critical to leading teams to rise above preconceived lanes, lean into the vulnerability that comes with acknowledging blind spots, explore the historical depths of the problem, unlearn much of what many of us were taught in school, and authentically acknowledge the marginalization and pain that this history continues to generate. Leaders wanting to move into personal growth work supporting systems transformation in these ways will likely need to look outside their organizations in exploring the tools they need.

The Power of Mindful Communication
Susan Gillis Chapman’s excellent book The Five Keys to Mindful Communication provides a great starting place for that exploration. A psychologist, meditation teacher, and former domestic violence program director, Gillis Chapman offers a practical model for understanding the power of mindfulness that’s informed by the everyday management realities and communication challenges of the non-profit sector. Mindfulness practices, she argues, help open up the inner space within which the awareness and empathy at the root of healthy communication, strong relationships, and powerful communities can flourish.

For example, these practices can increase our awareness of how our fears and fear-driven agendas trigger habitual reactive responses. These responses often operate below the surface of our normal awareness; they’ve become so ingrained that we’re not usually aware of how they can quickly and dramatically shift our focus and energy toward self-protection. By increasing mindfulness we can better notice this kind of shift occurring and bring our attention back to being more open to the needs and perspectives of others. We’re much more able to pause and course correct when deep listening has become impossible.

At the center of Gillis Chapman’s mindful communication model lies the power of meditation practices to improve attention to what’s happening moment to moment, enhancing the ability to notice habitual reactions and consider more intentional choices.  The model utilizes a stoplight analogy for understanding and distinguishing between moments when we’re communicating from a space that:

  • Reflects our natural openness (green light)
  • Indicates that we’re starting to shut down and become reactive (yellow light)
  • Suggests that we may be fully triggered and not really capable of empathetic listening at all (red light).

Gillis Chapman’s mindfulness exercises enable students learning the model to gradually move toward: 

  • More consistently operating in the green light space
  • Better course correcting when they veer into the yellow light space, and 
  • Learning to take a break or otherwise reboot when they’re stuck in the red light space. 

In Gillis Chapman’s words, the model helps students connect with the “…three natural gifts that all human beings are born with:

  • Awake body, the ability to pay attention
  • Tender heart, the ability to empathize with others
  • Open mind, the ability to be honest, curious, and insightful.”

Tuning into these gifts can provide a powerful counter to the tendency in our society to view the path to social transformation as a zero-sum game in which lifting up the needs and voices of one group depends on ignoring or suppressing the needs and voices of others.

Lessons Learned

In my work helping to lead programs providing specially tailored health care services to people experiencing homelessness, mindfulness practices similar Gillis Chapman’s supported my growth around leaning into a more transformative orientation and guarding against slipping into default transactional mode.  Specific examples include:

  • Agenda-free Listening.  I found myself more able to notice when I was only partially listening to what another person was saying because I was formulating what I planned to say next.  The more I learned to drop my agenda and simply take in what was being said, engaging my natural curiosity, the more I valued the nuggets of insight and sharing of experience that can be easily missed in the rush to move onto the next thing.  At a deeper level, these learning moments helped me to notice and work with my habitual impulse toward accomplishing or defending something.  Of course, at a 30,000 foot level, I could still maintain an agenda to foster the major systems-level changes needed, yet I began to appreciate that the fastest path toward reaching the ultimate goal entails opening to new learning in the moment.  
  • Remembering to engage my heart and not just my intellect.  Increasing mindfulness underscored that, at the end of the day, meeting adaptive challenges depends on authentic communication and trusting relationships.  In working within teams striving to increase racial equity, I witnessed that improved communication and more trusting relationships resulted from open hearted and vulnerable dialog around the pain, anger, frustration, and trauma that result from both overt racism and more subtle bias and other forms of discrimination.  Fully engaging in this kind of dialog entailed tolerating a level of discomfort that I haven’t typically encountered in a work context, where it’s easy to stay within the safety zone of analysis.  Mindfulness exercises helped me stay more present to how raw and intense my reactions can feel.  
  • Avoiding the technical credentials trap. Exploring mindfulness practices has helped me get up-close-and-personal with habitual assumptions and associations, i.e., my biases.  For example, I realized that I unconsciously placed greater value and trust in the opinions of those with certain technical credentials, such as many years of program management experience, a medical or other professional degree, or a bachelor’s degree from a “top-tier” university.  This bias drew me away from remembering that the people closest to the problem are closest to the solution, a core principle of adaptive leadership.  It took a long time for me to understand that effective problem-solving within my leadership sphere of influence required finding, engaging, and deeply listening to people:
    • With lived experience of homelessness
    • With lived experience of serious mental health or substance use disorders
    • Currently living homeless and struggling with navigating the health care and housing assistance systems, and 
    • Working as direct services providers and struggling day-to-day to eliminate the multitude of barriers to good health and recovery encountered by people living homeless. 

  • Inviting significant real-time planning and development input from people within these groups led to successful barrier-busting strategies that likely would never have emerged at a table filled with those of us with the “right technical credentials.”

A Question of Purpose

Over and above lessons such as these, practices supporting mindful communication brought into sharper focus two basic, but critical questions related to my goal of walking the transformational walk and not just talking the transactional talk around undoing the pervasive and insidious impacts of racism: 

  1. What is my Why?  
  2. How does structural racism present barriers to reaching my goals for my team, organization, and/or community?  

Answering Question #1 entailed considering what makes me passionate about my work, what inspires me to be effective, to build strong and capable teams.  Answering Question #2 entailed considering how the history of racism in our country has created innumerable structural problems that held my teams back from reaching our goals, how it made us less effective in meeting the needs of the people we serve.  Contemplating these questions helped me locate my courage in the midst of the uncertainty that is part and parcel of swimming against transactional currents, charting uncomfortable territory, and bearing witness to the pain of those who know all too well how racism, though not always overtly expressed, continues to exclude huge swaths of people from many of the privileges that I take for granted.  

In this context, adaptive leadership feels less about how to apply innovative management principles and more about how to reconnect to the inherent dignity and worthiness of all human beings.  Mindfulness practices have accelerated my ongoing journey of centering that dignity and worthiness within my Why.  A significant step in that journey has involved digging deep to contemplate why it’s so challenging for me and many other white leaders to share our power with the people most impacted by racism—people from Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other disenfranchised communities least represented at the planning and decision-making tables at which I’ve sat. 

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