It’s a Human Endeavor

by Sean R. Stegall | April 26, 2020

As I said recently to my colleagues, there’s no playbook for leadership when the stakes are high, and there are no higher stakes than helping communities survive in a 21st Century pandemic.  We’re all facing threats on multiple fronts at once: to self, family, friends, colleagues, citizens, vendors, and our governmental partners.  While there may be no playbook or specific predetermined set of actions to take, the cultural framework we’ve established in Cary continues to serve us well in these unprecedented times.

Why? Because it’s founded upon principles of Adaptive Leadership.

What is Adaptive Leadership? Well, at its most basic level, it is defined by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky as:

“The practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.”

For me, the real power of Adaptive Leadership lies in the understanding that leadership is a function, not a formal role or title. The genius of recasting leadership this way means that we can all lead.

I was fortunate to learn about Adaptive Leadership firsthand from Marty when I attended Harvard’s Executive Leadership Program in 2010 and later grew my skills personally with Marty as my Executive Coach.

To say these experiences changed my life would not be an overstatement.

Blending Adaptive Leadership with other concepts as well as my own ideas and applying this amalgamation in real-life settings has become my life’s work – Creating the Local Government that Doesn’t Exist, which we are doing today in Cary, NC.

At Cary’s cultural core are relationships – our ability to connect with and understand one another; the desire to grow each individual’s potential while, at the same time, cultivating a sense of community and togetherness; the opportunity to help others see who they are – in a group or on their own.

Taking the Adaptive Leadership definition a step further and within the context of how we work together:

“Adaptable Organizations are living and breathing enterprises organized around networks based on how people work and behave, distributing and maximizing human potential”. (2018 Deloitte)

So, there it is – maximizing human potential, the organizational definition of a human endeavor, in my experience.

Linsky and Heifetz invented the concept, and others continue to add to it. I brought it, along with more ideas, to Cary, and, with staff, Council, and our community, co-created a new culture, one that is not only holding us up but also moving us forward in this global crisis.

As I think about what I’ve seen, what my experiences have been working in Cary, I believe that our framework can be decoded into small observable and understandable pieces including these:

It’s about seeing the person beyond the title.

It’s about never judging someone by their “worst day”.

It’s about assuming the best in people.

It’s about joy and celebration.

It’s about being as comfortable with questions as we are answers.

It’s about empathy and knowing that feelings have as much validity as facts.

It’s about finding ways to say “Yes.”

It’s about never taking success or each other for granted.

It’s where relationships are built on authenticity, candor, and vulnerability.

It’s where lemons become lemonade.

It’s where each of us owns our “piece of the mess.”

It’s where curiosity trumps certainty.

It’s where momentum is never given in to.

It’s where problems are solved before they exist.

It’s asking questions that let us reimagine what could be.

It’s about feeling motivated.

It’s about being challenged within our capabilities.

It’s trusting ourselves and our ability to learn, and it’s about being trusted by others.

It’s when we can say to each other: “I believe in you.”

It’s about being courageous and not always trying to fit in.

It’s about everyone knowing what matters.

It’s about all of us learning and growing and changing.

Creating Cary’s adaptable workplace has been hard. Ask anyone. And, after nearly four years, we’re still not done.

So, why would we move away from a world oriented towards managing constant community and revenue growth, and what were seen as the necessary hierarchical structures that came with that world, that are the backbone of most local governments? Why would we seemingly abandon a paradigm hat was the basis for the organization’s multi-decade history of success?

Well, the answer lies in a plan, a community commitment for and to tomorrow. But that’s a blog for another day.

Until then and in closing, let me leave you with this: I see Adaptive Leadership as a call to action, a call to exercise leadership when and where it’s needed. Doing so is your responsibility. You must do your part in your place if our world is to become resilient, healthier, and more productive – in spite of the pandemic.


Sean R. Stegall



© 2020 Sean R. Stegall. All rights reserved.