“Let’s ‘Verb’ Leadership”

Maya Bernstein

Given the myriad of complex challenges and opportunities facing the Jewish community today, what actions are necessary, and who should take responsibility?

We often think of leadership as a role—the president is the leader of our nation; the team captain is the leader of the team; the CEO is the leader of the organization. What, though, if we were to think of leadership as a verb? What if we jettisoned the notion of “a leader” completely and instead approached leadership as an activity in which everyone could engage?

Adaptive Leadership theory, conceived and developed by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, posits that leadership is an activity with a clear purpose. Leadership, they argue, is the work necessary to bridge the gap between a group’s aspirations and its current reality. That means that the work of leadership involves being brutally honest about what is working and what is not. It means being creatively optimistic and clear-sighted about the group’s aspirations—where it strives to be—and sensitively bridging the gap separating the two realms. One’s position in an organization defines one’s role and the expectations that the system has of you in that role, but it has nothing to do with the work of leadership.

If we break down leadership into its three component parts, we end up with three core activities that compose the work: Observe, Interpret, and Intervene. It is my purpose here to inspire and challenge all of us to realize that the work of leadership is the responsibility of each and every individual, regardless of one’s authority or role in an organization, and that our community will be better and stronger if each of us engages in these activities on a more regular basis. Each of these three areas of leadership can be deeply informed by the Adaptive Leadership theory of change.


The first phase of any leadership process must involve a sensitive observation of what currently exists, what existed in the past, and what is likely to exist in the future.

The present is deceptively simple to observe. Adaptive Leadership theory introduces the metaphor of moving between the “dance floor,” the realm of the action, in which you are one of the players, and the “balcony,” the realm of contemplation, in which you have the luxury of being removed from the action. You can cultivate opportunities to be on the balcony: for example, joining meetings as a “fly on the wall,” or observing a colleague’s classroom. But the real challenge is to be on the balcony while you are on the dance floor: to cultivate contemplation while in the realm of action. That ability to move between the dance floor and balcony is a critical leadership skill that profoundly enhances our powers of observation— the first necessary element in any leadership process.

The past and the future are as important to observe in any leadership process as the present. It is important to understand the history of any issue you might tackle: what things used to be like and why, what the original dream was of the organization, who was originally involved, and what their values were. The leadership work of observation must include conversations with those individuals who have institutional memory—who were part of the original design or founding team—and as much research into “the way it’s always been” as possible.

Finally, observation is not complete without an attempt to look into the future, and to engage in meaningful conversations about what is likely to be coming down the pike. The Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California, has cultivated a wide variety of foresight tools to help organizations make more informed predictions of what technological, scientific, social, and cultural changes are likely to be arising in the next 50 years, and then to make organizational change and decisions based on those likely new patterns. One such tool is looking for “signals.” Are there hints out there in the world that might give us information about how our organizations and institutions might be affected? The work of leadership involves hunting for signals that might have an implication for our leadership challenge at hand.


The second phase of leadership is interpretation. This phase requires looking at all of that which you have observed about the past, the present, and the likely future, followed by diagnosing the “gap,” in which you admit honestly where you are in relation to where you would like to be. One powerful interpretive tool is to learn to distinguish between technical and adaptive aspects of the gap. Technical aspects of the gap are ones which require the application of skills and knowledge. Let’s say your school wants to make better use of technology for the students’ learning. There are many complex technical aspects to this work that require technological solutions, including resources, tools, and training.

But there are also adaptive aspects of the gap. These have more to do with people’s values, ways of behaving and thinking, and their identities. If your goal was to bring technology into the classroom, to keep your learning environment current and relevant, the adaptive realm would be analyzing how the introduction of technology advances and impedes learning. It would involve looking at what would need to be lost in order to make progress. What aspects of the classroom would change, and what losses would those changes incur? How will various people in the larger educational realm in which you are operating react to this? When you invite technology into your schools, are there beloved people, programs, and events that will inevitably be excluded?

In the technical realm, you interpret the literal costs and benefits of making change versus maintaining the status quo; in the adaptive realm, you interpret the emotional costs and benefits. How will this affect our identity as an institution, and will we gain more than we lose?

Leadership’s second phase, this diagnostic phase, is perhaps the most important. This interpretive pause, in which those exerting leadership challenge everyone around them to look beyond the technical aspects of the gap and to begin to address the adaptive aspects, is invaluable to creating lasting change.


The stakes are often high when you are exerting leadership. You notice things that others don’t notice. You offer uncomfortable interpretations that challenge the way that people think and create discomfort. When we do this type of work, everything within us personally and around us systemically is yearning for resolution, clarity, and calm. Leadership work, though, involves staying in the fray.

That is why it can be extremely helpful to take a design approach to tackling a leadership challenge. Design Thinking, an approach to problem solving that evolved from product design, has been popularized in the past decade by the design firm IDEO and Institute for Design at Stanford d.school. It offers to leadership the concept of “prototyping,” or creating experimental interventions. The purpose of such interventions is to test whether or not your interpretations are on the right track. Interventions inspired by a Design Thinking approach can help you be more calm, creative, and willing to tackle complex adaptive challenges.

After careful observation and interpretation, intervention should be approached in two stages. First, imagine as many creative ideas as you can, without feeling the constraints of reality. Design Thinking offers multiple activities and tools to cultivate this skill and come up with new ways of approaching problems. Allow yourself to momentarily be suspended in this realm of imagination without the pressure of needing to make a decision. It is a finite phase, which transitions back into reality, but it is of utmost importance to dwell in that space of possibility. Next, embrace the concept of prototyping. Design a relatively low-risk, low-cost, rapid way to test if your idea is on the right track.

Your intervention should be focused on helping you get more data regarding whether or not your interpretation of the challenge is accurate. It can also help you gauge the readiness of the people around you to tackle the challenge. Creative, low-risk interventions can both help you make progress and give you insights that will inform your next steps.

Leadership work involves multiple iterations through this process. First, use the wisdom from Adaptive Leadership and Foresight methodologies to observe the current reality, the past that has defined it, and the future on its horizons. Next, interpret what you have observed. Finally, tap the creative and playful tools of Design Thinking to imagine a wide variety of possible solutions. Observe, Interpret, Intervene—then do it all over again.

It’s not only those with the most power or authority who should take care of our most pressing challenges. Let’s build our own muscles of observation and interpretation, and develop our willingness to take risks to intervene on behalf of what we all care deeply about, ensuring that our community continues to grow and thrive.

Maya Bernstein has facilitated inspiring and impactful leadership initiatives in nonprofit and educational settings for over 15 years. She draws on her expertise in adaptive leadership, design thinking, foresight methodologies, Jewish text study, improv tools, and storytelling to create unique environments in which participants become willing to take risks and experiment with new ways of thinking and behaving.

Maya is a cofounder and associate at UpStart Bay Area, which supports innovation in the Jewish community. In her work at UpStart, Maya helped launch a wide variety of cutting-edge nonprofits that are transforming the landscape of Jewish life in the United States, and consulted to established nonprofits, including the JCC Association, Jewish Federations of North America, foundations, schools, and synagogues on innovation strategies. Maya is on faculty at the Wexner Foundation and Georgetown University’s Center for Transformational Leadership. She consults widely throughout the Jewish community and has recently begun teaching improv to middle-school students.

Maya publishes widely, online and in print, on the topic of innovation and change. She is a graduate of Columbia College and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and a 2012 recipient of the Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize. After a decade in Silicon Valley, Maya, her husband, and their children have recently relocated to New York City.

Learn more about The Davidson School