Hugh O’Doherty makes it sound so simple.
“What I hope to do is simply to provide a framework that will help people think about challenges that confront them and frame them in a different way.”
O’Doherty, who will give the keynote address at the diocesan convention on Friday, October 2 at the Best Western Lehigh Valley Hotel and Conference Center, is a native of Northern Ireland, a much-sought after conflict resolution consultant and an adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Like his colleague Ron Heifetz, O’Doherty has helped organizations throughout the world recognize the difference between the sorts of organizational problems they label “technical” and those they call “adaptive.”
“With a technical problem, we have the skills to solve it,” he says. “Solving an adaptive problem requires learning. The knowledge that got us here is no longer adequate.
“If you look at the Episcopal Church, what we have in our repertoire has got us to this point, but it is no longer adequate for the times we are in,” says O’Doherty, who has made presentations in several dioceses and worked with the Clergy Leadership Program run by Trinity Church, Wall Street in New York City.
An adaptive challenge can’t be solved by a stereotypically strong and decisive leader, he says, because the contours of the problem aren’t yet known. “Ownership shifts so that everyone must own the problem,” he says. “You have to gather all of the stakeholders and figure out what is really the work we face, what is the challenge we face going forward.”
Bishop Sean Rowe believes the clergy and people of the diocese are ready to do this kind of self-examination, and that O’Doherty is the person to help them do it. “Hugh O’Doherty is certainly an expert in the theory of adaptive leadership,” Rowe says. “But, more importantly, he is an experienced practitioner who has coached leaders and organizations to work through their most difficult challenges and assist them to identify important opportunities for growth.
“The work that Hugh will do with the clergy and lay leaders of the diocese during convention will lay the groundwork for the mission strategy work that we will undertake together as a diocese over the course of the next year.”
Although working through adaptive challenges requires the wisdom of a community—a seemingly popular means of solving problems—leaders who take this approach often encounter resistance from the very people whose opinions they are attempting to solicit, O’Doherty says. “People say, ‘Well, we gave you the authority. You do it.’ It’s risky because you are disappointing this set of expectations, but these problems can only be solved as a body.”
In his long career, O’Doherty has identified several ways that communities shrink from tackling adaptive challenges. These include responding to an adaptive problem with a technical solution. In his native Northern Ireland, he notes, “peace walls” separate nationalist and unionist neighborhoods. “On one hand it stops the killing,” he says. “But the underlying issue is not addressed.”
Other ways in which communities avoid dealing with their problems include blaming the person in authority (“We made the wrong choice. Let’s get a new one.”) and “killing the messenger,” O’Doherty says.
In times of turmoil and change, he says, “people need to be inspired by a new vision that makes change worth enduring. There is a saying out there that people resist change. They don’t. What they resist is being forced to change. What they really resist is loss. You have to make it worthwhile for them to endure loss.”
O’Doherty has known much change in his own life. A high school teacher in Portstewart during the 1970s when violence there made teaching all but impossible, he found his way to the Irish School of Ecumenics at Trinity College Dublin where he earned a masters in theology and later directed the Inter-Group Relations Project, which brought together political and community leaders in Ireland to establish protocols for political dialogue.
In the United States, he taught at the University of Richmond and the University of Maryland, where he directed the Ireland-US Public Leadership Program for “emerging” leaders from all the political parties in Ireland. O’Doherty earned a second masters and his doctorate at the Harvard School of Education.
For a man who has consulted with parties in Bosnia, Croatia, and Cyprus and spoken to the United Nations Global Forum on Re-Inventing Government, the problems of mainline Protestant churches may seem tame by comparison, but O’Doherty has an understanding of the particular challenge that the church faces.
“The Episcopal Church is very interesting in its authority and culture,” he says. “It’s a wide family and that’s a tremendous resource, but on the other hand the downside of that is ‘How do you find a common sense of direction?’ So there is a tension between the richness of diversity and the challenges and conflicts that can arise when you don’t have a centralized authority structure. That conflict has to be harnessed.”