Ten years ago, I was sitting across the table from 1991 Bush Fellow Gary Cunningham, a member of the Bush Leadership Fellowship selection committee, prepared to answer questions about the fellowship plan I’d submitted to develop my leadership on local food systems.
We chatted a bit, and then suddenly, he asked me about U.S. commodity policy, the need to feed the world and questioned whether local food was relevant. “Here we go,” I thought. And we launched into a debate, with Gary very much the devil’s advocate. When I walked out, still energized (because, in fact, it had been fun), I paused. “Wow,” I thought. “Did I just blow it? Or was that good?”
Ten years later, I was thus able to empathize with the 10 incredibly talented and passionate people I met from my seat on the other side of the table, as an interviewer for the redesigned Bush Fellowship Program.
As I listened to their stories, one after the other, I was enthralled by the journeys they’d already made, inspired by what they hope to accomplish and not a little sobered by how hard it was all going to be. Transgender youth leadership! Hmong farm business innovation! Efforts to reduce terrorist recruitment in the Somali community! (And these were only three of the 30 amazing finalists whom I and other interviewers had the privilege of meeting over the course of the selection process.) Whether they received fellowships or did not, it was clear that all 10 candidates I interviewed were already making a difference in the world and would continue to do so.
I’m interested in the journey the Bush Foundation has made to this new approach to leadership development, because it parallels the journey I took through my own fellowship. I used part of that funding to support a form of apprenticeship with Ron Heifetz, who teaches leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. I see two core ideas from the Adaptive Leadership framework he developed in the underlying logic of the new Bush Fellowship Program.
- With a strong sense of purpose, and the will and skill to mobilize stakeholders to make change, anyone can exercise leadership.
- Those in charge cannot solve the most important problems facing communities with what exists in the current repertoire. For the most part, these are adaptive challenges that require multiple stakeholders to learn their way to new solutions by engaging in the tough work of deciding what is precious and what’s expendable, and by managing the losses, as well as the gains, in the process.
Thus the act of making change itself is the crucible for these new Bush Fellows’ leadership development; their learning makes a difference, in real time, to the communities they care about.
It was a privilege to be a small part of the journey of those 10 amazing people, some of them now Bush Fellows, who are all working to improve the lives of those around them.
Talk Back to Bush
How can communities look beyond the technical aspects of tough problems to see the adaptive challenges that thwart solutions? Tell us about a time when you’ve worked together with others to “learn your way to a solution.” We want to know what you think.
Bush Fellow Karen Lehman (’01) is the director of Fresh Taste, a funder collaborative formed to advance the growth of diverse local agriculture and healthy eating in Chicago and across Illinois. Fresh Taste partners are committed to changing the manner in which food is produced, distributed and consumed in Illinois.