Adaptive Change and Transformation

by Virgina O. (Ginger) Bassford*
The following originally appeared in the November edition of Faith & Leadership – an offering of Leadership Education at Duke University
Even grown-ups like to play dress-up.
We revel in the crisp fall evening filled with masks and capes. The good saints barely have time to comfort our memories; before the stroke of midnight, Christmas begins to fill the stores, and carols to fill the air. Then the King cake is hardly in the oven before Mardi Gras arrives, and the masks and costumes come out again.
Who doesn’t enjoy donning a mask, with its warm childhood associations of innocence and cheer? But for a leader, it’s important sometimes to drop the mask, even though it can be frightening. Challenging. A step into the unknown.
Taking the step to drop the mask and respond to a problem honestly -- not with a “that’s fine” or a “that’s nice,” but enacting what clearly needs to be done -- is what Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky might call a “technical” change. Technical change entails putting in place a solution to a problem for which you know the answer. The change might be difficult, but it’s known.
“Adaptive” change comes in keeping the mask off -- making a change that’s not just routine but that also involves changing hearts and minds. Adaptive change can alter a whole system.
Perhaps you recall the mask and cape worn by Darth Vader. Not the original Darth, but the winsome boy in the Volkswagen ad during Super Bowl 2011.
I thought of this when I read that the actor -- a 7-year-old boy named Max Page -- has undergone heart surgery to correct a congenital defect. While his surgeons prepared to do the technical work of open-heart surgery, Max did the adaptive, internal work that would change his life and the lives of those he encountered.
As the surgery approached, Max focused on the possible outcomes. With the help of his mom and brother, he decided to make a “can do” list, and to “fun up” his house. He thought about life after surgery and all the things he would be able to do, as well as the things he could do beforehand to make ready, so he would be equipped to cope with the recovery.
Then he re-imagined his home -- turned it into a place of intrigue and creativity -- with themed rooms, special rules and secret codes. He utilized the resources that had been preparing him for just such a time -- his most articulate, adaptive self.
Perhaps that is the greatest attraction of adaptive change: the “can do” spirit of those who venture into the unknown and emerge on the other side. It’s neither “fine” nor “nice.” It is real.
I have some experience with this in my own life. It was a chilly day as the nurse assisted my dad into my car. I drove him from the hospital where he was a patient to another across town for specialized testing. He was in excruciating pain. The doctors couldn’t figure out why, but Daddy and I knew that the answer could not possibly be good.
At 20, I wasn’t ready to be without a dad. But we both knew that I soon would be. “You’ll see, Daddy; I’ll grow up well,” I promised him. “One day I’ll do something that would make you so proud. I love God … I’ll put God first. You’ll see.”