Creating Space for Adaptive Leadership Development

July 21, 2015 By Katherine Tyler Scott

The definition of space has varied meanings: “a period of time; a limitless area in which all things exist and move; an empty place; the region beyond the earth’s atmosphere; a definite place; the distance between people; intervals between time; an arrangement of items.” None of these convey the importance this concept has become in leadership development.

From quantum physics we have learned that space is a field of energy and infinite connection rather than vast void. The connections are not discernible to the human eye; and can be detected and substantiated indirectly through scientific tools.  The inability to perceive these connections doesn’t mean they don’t exist or are unimportant. The same is true for the connections between leaders and followers; and in this age of constant and complex change it is imperative for leaders to understand space as a place of transformation. 

Adaptive leadership enables those with the problem to solve the problem and this begins with creating Hospitable Space

What is Hospitable Space? 

Hospitable space is the place in which there is an integration of knowledge of human development, group dynamics, and systems theory.  These are embedded in the Ten Habits of the Mind and Practices of the Heart in Ki ThoughtBridge’s The Integrated Work of Leadership©.[i] It is the discipline of using these Habits and Practices that equips leaders with the adaptive competency required to effectively lead in the 21st century and the indicators of their existence and that of Hospitable Space are:

  1. Group members feel included.
  2. Individuals feel a meaningful connection with other members.
  3. There is a healthy balance between addressing and meeting personal and common interests; self and community co-exist in healthy tension.
  4. Members have a sense of belonging and partnership in pursuit of shared vision.
  5. Members examine and reflect on the meaning of information.
  6. Diversity of membership and perspectives are accepted and valued.
  7. Expectations, boundaries, standards, and norms of behavior are clear.
  8. Psychologically safety exists.
  9. Members have shared responsibility, ownership of, and commitment to the work to be done.
  10. The group’s climate and culture reflect flexibility, clarity of mission, and a responsibility to the larger good.
  11. The quality of relationships and communication is a priority.
  12. Vulnerability, absent of the crippling fear of exploitation or harm, exists and members engage in the work of developing self-awareness and self-differentiation. 

These indicators of Hospitable Space can be used to ascertain whether there is balance between technical and adaptive aspects of leadership. 

Why is Hospitable Space Important?   

As ideal as the above list of twelve indicators appears, they are attainable through intentionality and practice. It will mean a change in attitudes and beliefs about aspects of leadership that are not always tangible or visible; yet they must feature as prominently as technical aspects continue to do in leadership development. 

Priority attention to the technical aspects of creating space for leadership education is common; i.e., finding a setting, planning agendas, selecting speakers, gathering materials, etc.  These are important, but as much attention must be paid to the adaptive aspects of this space. It is in this kind of space that the self of a leader and the selves of followers are developed. Neglect in creating hospitable space diminishes the opportunity to cultivate this adaptive capacity. 

Edwin Friedman writes in A Failure of Nerve that “Well developed self in a leader- what I call self-differentiation- is not only critical to effective leadership, it is precisely the leadership characteristic that is most likely to promote the kind of community that preserves the self of its members.” The well-developed sense of self, in his view, is the antidote to societal regression. Well-developed self and healthy communities are synchronous. The provision of hospitable space for citizens, space in which trust is the glue for getting things done, for obtaining longevity and sustainability; for investing in the healthy development of individuals and groups, is the space in which adaptive work can be accomplished. It is the space in which trust is developed and transmitted to others so that they too have the capacity to hold others in trust®. This means that the work being done in leadership education will have an impact on “those they will never know for a time they will never see.”[ii] Helping leaders do this level of work will strengthen their and the group or community’s adaptive capacity, endurance, and resilience. The ability to value and take the longer view rather than the most immediate one when confronted with adaptive or “wicked problems” will be strengthened. Society and its citizens will be the ultimate beneficiaries.

Developing Hospitable Space is a critical integrated adaptive leadership skill needed to address the issues that persistently plague our communities. A new generation of leaders must be raised up, leaders who are able to deal with those facing the toughest adaptive problems. We must equip them with the capacity to create hospitable space in which leaders and followers can capably address them and bring about transformation. 


Equipping people with technical knowledge should remain a part of leadership development; but what leadership education and development programs must now address is adding the skill of creating space in which those directly affected by the problems can engage in the work that will have this impact. When hospitable space is lacking or its inclusion marginalized there will be inevitable fissures in relationships and breakdowns of communication and trust that will be difficult to repair. 

When we are able to see people taking risks that lead to their healthier development and that of the community, and in which their sense of self is connected to a healthy respect and regard for others we will see the impact of developing this space. When we see strong respectful connections between citizens and a shared sense of obligation for developing the growth and healthy development of others as well as the health and stability of the larger community, we will see the impact of what is intangible and invisible space. Hospitable space has for too long been ignored or minimized in leadership development. When included in the current canon of leadership development a huge shift will occur in the adaptive capacity of leaders to engage in the work of transformation.

[i] The Ten Habits of the Mind and Practices of the Heart form the content of Ki ThoughtBridge’s The Integrated Work of Leadership, A Journey of Transformation, copyright 2009. Creating Hospitable Space is one of the Habits of the Mind; page 135.

[ii] The Integrated Work of Leadership, definition of Hold in Trust; Katherine Tyler Scott.