Leadership and Driving Innovation in Uncertain Times

Presenting strategies to overcome technological learning curves, Professor Scott Westfahl from Harvard Law School Executive Education introduces key principles of adaptive leadership.

Author: Scott Westfahl, Director of Harvard Law School Executive Education.


As part of our LawAhead Hub initiative, IE University recently welcomed the Director of Harvard Law School Executive Education, Scott Westfahl, to share his expertise in adaptive leadership. Applying nearly a decade of professional experience, Professor Westfahl presented “Leadership and Driving Innovation in Uncertain Times” at IE University’s Paper Pavilion in Madrid. There, he spoke about the power of adaptive learning to mobilize the workplace.

According to the professor, faculty at Harvard’s Kennedy of School of Government developed the adaptive leadership framework designed to help organizations overcome ambiguity and uncertainty within their operations. Following the pandemic and the accelerating pace of digitalization, many leaders face new demands, which technology has enabled us to answer in many cases. However, Professor Westfahl says many of these obstacles represent adaptive challenges rather than technical ones they’re usually perceived to be.

Learning = Discomfort

Professor Westfahl began the lecture by saying that leadership is a role, not a title. Based on his experience, leaders are formal authorities who evoke trust and reliability. But this is not granted overnight; leaders must earn this reputation to succeed in their role. Yet in today’s fast-paced, digital world, modern-day leaders now face unprecedented challenges in building and maintaining team cohesion, and in serving clients. This is where adaptive leadership comes in.

In Westfahl’s opinion, technical problems are often solved simply with technical proficiency, but adaptive challenges require perspective, learning, and active listening. Adaptive leadership means constantly striving to do things better while acquiring new knowledge, even when it’s uncomfortable. In other words, leaders who lean into the discomfort will be more prepared to withstand the challenges of learning.

“Learning only happens with a certain degree of discomfort.”

When leaders face challenges, this is when creative, innovative and entrepreneurial ideas rise to the surface. Challenged enough, leaders can better evaluate the “cultural DNA” of their organization. Adaptive leadership means thinking critically about the organization’s identity and, depending on the organization, requires the team to decide what processes they want to keep, discard or innovate. An example of this is implementing hybrid work schedules or holding meetings over Zoom, as became routine during the pandemic and has continued to be beyond the return to in-person working.

Create inclusive environments

A vital component of adaptive leadership is workplace inclusion. But Professor Westfahl warned of “overheating,” characterized by too many side conversations happening outside of meetings, unproductive or personalized conversations, or too much humor being used as a tool to diffuse tension. Disengaged stakeholders not bothering to attend meetings or participating only rarely should also raise warning flags, he said; they, too, must be included to solve certain issues.

“Trust, innovation, evolution, entrepreneurship… that’s the ground for growth of leadership.”

To avoid overheating while promoting an inclusive environment, he recommended making it clear that all ideas are welcome, but not all of them will be implemented. Once innovative ideas begin to emerge, adaptive leaders then refine and determine which ones to execute. Inclusion is about empowering team members to create meaningful changes, yet pacing themselves.

Effective adaptive leaders must be prepared to take a slightly removed view of the process; seeing it, as the professor put, “from the balcony,” to give them a clear overview. Adaptive leadership is, he pointed out, a marathon, not a sprint. As a result of the hard and sometimes uncomfortable work he had said is required to change mindsets, progress is likely to be steady.

Embrace experimentation

To make that progress requires experimentation. This method is especially useful for understanding clients’ perspectives while responding to new opportunities. For this, Westfahl proposed more strategies to form new ideas for experimental purposes. For example, leveraging younger lawyers or associates to “look outwards,” surveying new trends and technologies that could positively impact clients or the company.

Along those lines, leaders ought to create room for discussion within teams by inviting speakers from different disciplines to present, even if the topic may seem unrelated to law. Part of experimentation requires associates to also think strategically about new designs and presentations when necessary. Additionally, there may be the need to set up a task force to explore certain industry trends.

Leadership and Driving Innovation in Uncertain Times

Invite collaboration

With inclusion and experimentation comes collaboration. As Westfahl said, it’s imperative for people from different levels of the organization to feel safe and confident in bringing fresh ideas forward, even if they come from outside disciplines. An effective way to handle this would be to create innovation teams across different offices or practices.

High levels of collaboration between departments can reduce hierarchical barriers that often prevent strong ideas from being heard. Combined with inclusion and experimentation, collaboration makes teams more resilient. With the right metrics, too, leaders can explore new ideas quickly and inexpensively. Moreover, echoing his earlier comments on patient progress and experimentation, Westfahl urged leaders to use pilot schemes to test new ideas “liberally.”

Find the purpose and metrics

Adaptive leadership must ask some tough questions about teams’, practice areas’ and organizations’ purpose so every team member has a clear definition of the mission. Without a purpose, teams can’t be inclusive, experimental or collaborative, said Professor Westfahl. What’s more, it won’t be possible to define metrics to measure progress based on regular intervals, whether that’s daily, monthly or yearly.

He went on to say that purpose and metrics allow team members to celebrate their accomplishments when they hit targets. All the while, adaptive leadership calls for regular personal reflection. Leaders bracing for the future should always motivate their team to think critically about their purpose and values. People will often need to be given some quiet, reflective time to allow new insights to appear.

“You create lots of authority when you solve little problems.”

Acknowledge the elephants in the room

Coming from a lawyer background, Professor Westfahl was candid when he said that lawyers can sometimes get easily distracted, hopping from one project to the next. Central to adaptive leadership is finding the willpower to focus on (and solve) one specific issue at a time. He also mentioned how some lawyers have the mentality of wanting to fix a problem the first time around.

Faced with initial failure, at times they get distracted and fail to see the bigger picture. When neglected due to a leader’s busy “normal” work schedule, neglected matters can potentially transform into “elephants in the room.” Therefore, adaptive leadership requires early action to prevent small issues from growing into large ones.

The world is changing fast, he concluded. Adaptive leadership allows new generations to be much more flexible in dealing with that change.

Scott Westfahl, Director of Harvard Law School Executive EducationScott Westfahl is the Director of Harvard Law School Executive Education and also teaches courses on leadership, design thinking and innovation within the law school’s J.D. curriculum.