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Evolution and Revolution in Leadership Journeys

| June 7, 2022

by Michael Humphrys

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Michael Humphrys, Director of IT Strategy & Innovation, Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. It is a reflection on what he is learning as a current MOR program participant.  Michael may be reached at [email protected].]
Of the many lessons learned through my MOR experience, one that has regularly surfaced is that the practices that contributed to my current success won’t necessarily ensure my continued success and growth as a leader.  It’s an idea that can be simultaneously counter-intuitive, disorienting, and empowering.  I’ve spent time reflecting on this and here’s how I have come to reconcile these contradictions.

Accepting the need to change
As we move through our careers and grow in our leadership, expectations change.  For example, we need to find ways to scale as we take on more.  Also, we may be asked to move into new subject areas — so we can no longer rely on our technical expertise as a foundation for leadership.  In short, we have to develop new skills to both scale and lead in unfamiliar territory.
The above notwithstanding, the need to consciously change or discard practices that contributed to my current success just feels counter-intuitive.  There are several metaphors that can be used to explain this contradiction, but what ultimately locked it in for me is the parallel I see between one’s leadership journey and growth in organizations.  
Larry Greiner’s Harvard Business Review (HBR) piece Evolution and Revolution as Organizations Grow provides a powerful illustration.  The central thrust of the article is that as organizations move through growth phases, they are faced with crises (Revolutions) which force Evolution.  For example, consider the startup:

Many startup founders have a technical or entrepreneurial focus and the organizations are run more on employee creativity than formal processes.  The startup model works well as organizations are proving their viability. But once there is a need to scale, the company can be faced with a crisis.  The very things that made it a success to date, the organization’s culture of creativity and flexibility, can be barriers to growth. If the company is trying to secure more capital for expansion, funders may even press to bring in new leadership to provide structure around the founder’s visionary style. This cycle of crisis and evolution continues throughout the life of an organization.
Dealing with the disorientation
Knowing there will be a need for change is one thing. Taking action is a bigger deal.  I suggest the starting point lay in considering the following questions:


  • Where are your leadership gaps? What practices can you add to fill those gaps?
  • Which practices do you keep/expand upon and which ones do you choose to discard or deemphasize?

I also suggest you look at your leadership journey through the lens that Greiner offers.  As you progress, you will be faced with leadership crises that will require you to adapt and evolve.
Recently, I concluded that my team depended too much on me for day to day activities. The situation had not yet reached the point of crisis, but it took on urgency as work was backing up.  This was a wakeup call for me to focus on two areas:

  1. Delegate more to staff and to engage them sooner in matters I would eventually delegate (so I didn’t need to spend as much time at hand-off providing context)
  2. Raise the level of expectations

I began asking team members to go outside of their comfort zones by taking risks and then normalizing risk taking by sharing lessons learned in staff meetings.  I decided to give some of the work back to my team.  Instead of presenting problems to leadership, team members are asked to make issues actionable by

  1. Summarizing – Start with a high-level capsule of the issue and why it needs attention at this time. If an issue isn’t timely, it’s still good to put on the radar so we can monitor until it becomes actionable.
  2. Analyzing – Identify causes and factors tied to the issue along with stakeholders
  3. Offering crisp choices Being prepared to discuss each along the following dimensions
    1. Technical correctness – complete and coherent model from action to outcome
    2. Administrative feasibility – existing or mobilizable resources are sufficient to carry out and sustain action
    3. Political supportability – coalition must be sufficient to initiate and sustain action

Embracing the Opportunity
As I move through this phase of my leadership journey, I am pleasantly surprised at the sense of empowerment I feel with the knowledge that one can change and adapt to succeed in new contexts.  Instead of being locked into using old formulaic habits of mind or practices, I’m willing to experiment with new approaches — and having this flexibility has allowed me to get more team input and yielded more creative results.
I have also found that having an understanding of my leadership gaps and options for getting them filled is a source of empowerment.  For example, while I am not as well networked as I’d like to be, I have some team members that are superb connectors. Recognizing this gap and the strengths within my team gives me peace of mind that we can fill the short term needs with help of others.
Finally, through this process, I have also seen that adjustments to my leadership practices have informed my vision of what’s possible.  As I encounter future “revolutions” in my work, my practices will continue through “evolutions” — as will my vision of how we can best deliver results for the organization.


This Week’s Survey

What is your biggest opportunity regarding your habits?



From Last Week
Last week, we asked: How would you best describe your own priorities?
The largest portion of us (41%) said we have written priorities we work on here and there.  And just under one in three of us (29%) have written priorities we work on regularly.  Congratulations to this combined 60% of us who articulate and regularly advance our priorities. 

There were also a notable number of us who think about priorities but barely act on them (18%) and an exceptionally honest small number of us (6%) who are too busy reacting to think about priorities.  For this combined 24% of us, it may be time to reevaluate how we are spending our time.  It is easy to get consumed in the day to day and never get to one of our highest value adds: furthering strategically important priorities.

Finally, a special congratulations to the small number (6%) of us who have done so well with our priorities that we’re starting to work on the next round.  What an example you are to the rest of us.  We’d love to learn from your experiences, and maybe have you take on some of our priorities 🙂