2019 MSW Adaptive Leadership Fellows Reflect on the Framework’s Application in Social Work

May 1, 2019

In 2016, with funding from the B. Robert Williamson Jr. Foundation and the Katherine and Howard Aibel Foundation, Clinical Associate Professor and Executive-in-Residence Linda Lausell Bryant and Adjunct Lecturer Marc Manashil established an Adaptive Leadership Fellowship at NYU Silver for second-year MSW students. The competitive fellowship features intensive weekend seminars on the adaptive leadership framework, which provides a set of strategies and tools to help practitioners bring about necessary change within organizations and communities. Fellows also receive coaching and guidance to help them directly apply what they have learned to challenges they have identified at their field placement agencies, their communities, or the school itself.

Dr. Bryant explained, “Adaptive leadership is about enhancing awareness of other perspectives and recognizing that we operate in the context of a larger system of people who each bring a unique viewpoint based on experiences, values, family, culture, and beliefs. It emphasizes cultivating leadership in others and leveraging the contributions that everyone makes. These aspects make this approach particularly apt for the social work profession, and this fellowship serves to strengthen the leadership capacities of our soon-to-graduate MSW students to be effective agents of change.”

Mr. Manashil added that adaptive leadership deviates from models of leadership that are grounded in power and position. “The framework recognizes that leadership is an activity that anyone can exercise regardless of where they are in the formal authority hierarchy. It is about identifying what needs to be changed and mobilizing people to make that change happen.” Moreover, he said, “because adaptive work is about helping groups of people grapple with difficult problems and face hard realities, it takes time. Exercising leadership requires that we work within the stakeholder system to learn, ask questions, test assumptions and introduce new ideas in a careful and thoughtful way.”

At the annual Adaptive Leadership Fellowship Colloquium on April 30, 2019, the 14 MSW students in the fellowship’s fourth cohort shared their own reflections on the framework and its relevance to social work. Here is a sampling of what students learned during the experience:

Heidi Alonso: “If you want to exercise adaptive leadership more than you have in the past, you will have to make some different choices from those you have made before.”

Gabrielle Austein: “When preparing an intervention, we must evaluate the loyalties, losses, and values of all the key players in the organization.”

Jacqueline Burnett: “It is easy to have someone in authority tell you what should be done, but often their solution doesn't fix the problem because they’re not the ones actually doing the work. The real way adaptive leadership works is giving the authority back to those doing the work and having them adapt to form a solution to best fit their needs.”

Mary Burns: “Distinguishing between authority and leadership is key to understanding the adaptive framework. Recognizing that leadership is an action provides an opportunity for any person, in any position, to exercise leadership and effect real change.”

Allison Cantos: “The goal of adaptive leadership is to address the underlying attitudes of stakeholders that are prohibiting the system from effectively doing the work that they're employed to do.”

Jessica Lewis: “Engaging courageously means recognizing that there is no immediate solution, and that change is an iterative process requiring time and patience. When exercising leadership it is important to not only hold the discomfort; but to also push the boundaries by taking risks in a purposeful and thoughtful manner.”

Christopher Longo: “The organization is the way it is because the people in authority and longtime employees want it that way, they prefer a world where they can perpetuate the revolving door AND wring their hands about it. Adaptive leadership is about mobilizing people to tackle the hard work of change while helping people to deal with the losses that may come with change”

Meryl Makielski: “To live in the disequilibrium, you must utilize adaptive leadership skills to compassionately guide the community to lean into the discomfort and frustration necessary for change while consistently managing yourself within the shifting environment.”

Anna L. Nathanson: “Everyone within a system -- including those with the most power and authority -- have their own set of values, loyalties, and things they are afraid of losing.”

Krushika Patankar: “Become aware of the limits of your own authority, and of stakeholders’ interests, and give valuable dissenting voices a hearing as you adjust your perspectives and mobilize adaptive work."

Martha D. Pereira: “You want to keep everyone interested in the conflict at a level that will provide creative steps and useful solutions, but not too high that it makes people disengage and become uninterested.”

Olga Preciado: “Get yourself out of the picture and observe what is really happening without bias yourself.”

Yiyin Tang: “Getting on the balcony gives one the ability to evaluate the situation in its organizational context, allowing time to identify, reflect, and make decisions based on the assessment of the situation.”

Richard Wenthen: “The nuanced diagnosis of a system requires careful consideration of how it functions: strengths, weaknesses, idiosyncrasies, and compensations. We can apply our trained diagnostic clinical perceptivity to organizational and systemic settings to best understand the framework in which an adaptive challenge exists, and into which we can apply an informed adaptive solution in a meaningful way.”

Dr. Lausell Bryant and Mr. Manashil, who were recently awarded a grant from the New York Community Trust to replicate NYU Silver’s robust social work leadership training program at a public graduate school of social work and establish a Social Work Leadership Development Institute at NYU Silver, noted that the MSW Adaptive Leadership Fellowship is just one of the school’s initiatives to build the capacity of social workers to exercise leadership to effect change in organizations and society.

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