Adaptive leadership during a pandemic

Mark PetersenBook Reviews, COVID-19, Innovation, Leadership, Strategy

Let’s begin with some background music to set the stage for this blog post. Start the music in the video below, and continue reading…

You’re now listening to a familiar tune called ‘Take Five’.[1] Catchy, isn’t it? If you’re not a musician, you might have a hard time putting your finger on what makes this song so alluring. Music historian Tony Sarabia states,

“In 1961, Dave Brubeck told Ralph Gleason on the TV program Jazz Casual that jazz had lost some of its adventurous qualities. He said it wasn’t challenging the public rhythmically the way it had in its early days. “It’s time that the jazz musicians take up their original role of leading the public into a more adventurous rhythm,” he said.

Brubeck said it’s a good idea to shake things up a bit, and that’s exactly what he did with the song “Take Five.””[2]

Dave Brubeck was a brilliant artist that wanted to lead down brave new pathways, so he crafted this song in 5/4 time. Most jazz music up to then had been written in the traditional 4/4. His fresh verve introduced a new take on jazz to the mainstream. Brubeck’s bold refusal to obey the conventions of the era have today become an iconic jazz tune for one’s classic library.

Edwin Friedman’s book A Failure of Nerve likewise messes up conventional wisdom on leading well during social isolation, lockdowns, and pandemics. While governments and many foundations tend to want to stick a band-aid on a gaping wound, Friedman’s approach would differ greatly. He introduces the key concept of self-differentiation as being critical in a healthy movement forward which we can apply to families, foundations, and charitable organizations. The failure of nerve happens when we cave under the pressures toward sameness, homogeneity, and the comforting status quo.

Characteristics of these sick and gridlocked systems include:

  • “An unending treadmill of trying harder;
  • Looking for answers rather than reframing questions; and
  • Either/or thinking that creates false dichotomies.”[4]

Family philanthropy revolves around family systems, and money is the gunpowder in the mix. It’s a volatile cocktail. How can wealthy families work together for maximum impact without blowing themselves apart? Using approaches from Friedman, one might suggest that in order to not separate, we must learn to be separate. Valuing the contributions of each member, honouring their individuality, learning to listen, giving space when needed, and not insisting on sameness are all ways forward.

For foundations or charities the message is similar. “Anyone who has ever been part of an imaginatively gridlocked relationship system knows that more learning will not, on its own, automatically change the way people see or think…. In order to imagine the unimaginable, people must be able to separate themselves from the emotional processes that surround them before they can even begin to see (or hear) things differently.”[6] Charities that will successfully navigate through these trying times will creatively and boldly forge ahead, risking much, yet responsively adapting to new realities – even pandemics.

Philanthropists who are doing this well include the David Weekly Family Foundation, based in Houston. This interview, recently posted by Cardus, is full of excellent examples that inspire other foundations to find their own unique pathway in giving well.

As we lean into a differentiated approach in family philanthropy or charitable outreach, we won’t reach perfection, and at times we will fail. But if we fail, we will fail with integrity, being true to ourselves. And with creative risks and an adventurous spirit, like Brubeck, we may be able to make some surprisingly beautiful music together.


[1] Inspired by a reference to the song in Friedman, Edwin H. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), 199.

[2] Tony Sarabia, “The Story of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’”, The NPR 100, November 19, 2000, accessed November 8, 2018,

[3] Friedman, Edwin H. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), 23.

[4] Friedman, 38.

[5] Friedman, 197.

[6] Friedman, 35.

[7] Friedman, 195