How to engage courageously

5 min readJan 30, 2023

I’ve written before about what adaptive leadership is, using it to co-produce challenging conversations and how I’ve practised it. Now I want to focus on an element that is about how to engage courageously.

Major constraints can hold you back from summoning courage for leadership:

  • Loyalties to people who may not believe you are doing the right thing
  • Fear of incompetence
  • Uncertainty about taking the right path
  • Fear of loss
  • Not having the stomach for the hard parts of the journey

Your loyalties influence the questions you ask, the possibilities you entertain, and the views you are willing to hear.

  1. Watch for gaps between your words and actions

What story are you telling about your supposed priorities? Do your actions support that story?

2. Stay in the present

Help your colleagues name the problem, analyse the differences between yesterday and today, heal some old wounds, and open themselves to a better set of options for tackling today’s challenge.

3. Identify the loyalties you need to refashion

Have a conversation with some of the organisation’s elders, including some of your mentors.

4. Conduct the needed conversations

Discuss how you need some of their expectations to change. You will be asking people to tolerate behaviour on your part that violates the spoken or unspoken contract that exists between you.

5. Lean into your incompetence

Find structured and challenging learning opportunities, and reframe your truths as assumptions that you can test. Find a low-risk context in which to experience being incompetent. Seek out challenging new ideas. Look into a discipline other than your own.

When was the last time you risk being incompetent so that you learn something new?

Doing the 100 design projects course to just be artistic without thinking about it.

When was the last time you resisted doing something new because you did not want to feel incompetent or look incompetent to others?

Interview people on the spot without someone accompanying me.

What new skills have you always wanted to learn? What would it take for you to start acquiring that skill now?

Shadow a community organization to understand and start practising it.

Create metaphors or analogies from these cross-disciplinary experiences

Recall some tough choices you made in the past. What made those decisions so tough? What process did you use to make the choice? If you feel you made the wrong choice on one or more of those tough decisions, what did you learn from the experience that could be applied in the future?

Decisions were tough due to the fear of missing out on the benefits of taking the other route. What made me take the decision was working out what really mattered to me — my deepest values. Regarding the wrong choices I may have made, I could have prioritised better.

Identify a tough decision facing you now. Bite off a piece of it for which the stakes do not feel so high. For example, instead of rolling out a big new strategy, run a pilot project to test the water. Then assess whether you are on the right track, need a mid-course correction, or should keep moving in the same direction.

  • Develop a strategy for how R&D can help to commission
  • Work through Commissioning Framework
  • Develop a project that embodies those principles
  • Apply principles to an existing project
  • Learn from others

Manage the expectations of those around you to prepare the ground for the possible failure of your effort. Enlist them in giving it a shot and learning from the effort. You will foster a shared sense of ownership and reduce the possibility that they will turn you into a lightning rod for failure or hold you to an unreasonable standard.

Recall situations in the past when you experienced great patience. What enabled you to do that?

Focused on what really mattered, acknowledged that it could take a long time and was really determined to overcome it.

  1. Role setting: who am I in this conversation?

Individuals connect and identify the roles each play that will engage the other person in the conversation.

How I can help them identify and tackle challenges they will face in helping the organisation commission the use of technology?

2. Confronting conflict: what is the conflict about?

Each person lays out their case or challenge, hoping to win the argument or at least feel like that they have made their point.

3. Diagnostic inquiry: what’s behind the conflict?

Ask questions to probe deeply behind the position, to understand the values, loyalties and losses at risk that give rise to the point of view.

What is most important to the person?

What losses are they trying to protect themselves against?

How do they see you as part of the problem?

What is their understanding of what you’re looking for?

4. Adaptive ask: what specific action do you want from them

How can I understand the other person to mobilise change? You will have to be willing to change as well.

Help understand the value of community-centred commissioning and ecosystem.

What were your “aha” from this phase?

Don’t assume the reason someone is giving for not doing something or doing something a particular way is a cause. You need to dig deeper around why they don’t have the time or can’t change to discover the underlying factors and causes.

As a takeaway, here’s a crib sheet I’ve found helpful from the Acumen Adaptive Leadership course:




Head of Policy Design, Scrutiny & Partnerships @newhamlondon #localgov Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese