Be The Buffalo.

Be The Buffalo.

Cows run away from the storm while the buffalo charges toward it – and gets through it quicker.  Whenever I’m confronted with a tough challenge, I do not prolong the torment, I become the buffalo. – Wilma Mankiller

Part 1: The weather forecast predicts stormy weather. For quite a while.

The prevalent weather system in the world right now is stormy – inequity, violence, injustice and oppression are constant travelling companions, and they seem to have an open ticket to travel across the globe. Some have coined the term “VUCA” to describe the context we live in now: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. I would add the words “overwhelming” and “heartbreaking” to the mix. This is the milieu we will be living in for the foreseeable future and, in my darkest moments, it leaves me despondent and grim.

And yet, I get to work with leaders – change agents, co-conspirators, inspirations – who look at the weather up above and on the horizon and say, “The storm is here, and there are more coming. What do we need to do get to the other side?” And I’m reminded that part of my purpose is to support leaders to thrive in this VUCA context. Because some of the awesome challenges we are facing require “DNA-rearranging” shifts in people’s beliefs and habits.  Because today’s landscape requires that leaders remain off-balance, adaptable, and open to other leaders taking the fore. Because there will be some trial and error, and resiliency is essential. Because different frameworks, practices, and responses are required.

Part 2:  Charging towards the storm: the adaptive leadership framework.

To that end, I want to share a framework that my CompassPoint colleagues and I have found useful in our work with social justice leaders, networks and organizations – the challenging, (sometimes) messy, and liberating work of adaptive leadership. At its core, adaptive leadership

helps individuals and organizations through consequential change in times of uncertainty when there are no clear answers. It is based on a view that leadership is an activity, not a person, and that leadership can be exercised by anyone, whatever their role inside or outside of the organization. (Source: +Acumen’s Adaptive Leadership: Mobilizing for Change on-line course)

Designed by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky at the Harvard Kennedy School, “adaptive leadership is the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.” When this framework came into our consciousness, it resonated with us (and still does) for a few reasons:

  • It recognizes that leadership is not a solo act.
  • It taps into collective wisdom.
  • It requires that people work across boundaries.
  • It nurtures courage and resourcefulness.
  • It necessitates experimentation and failure.
  • It is, ultimately, about thriving.


In my next blog, I’ll share some foundational concepts which are particularly compelling, applicable, and instructive.

(The metaphor of “being the buffalo” was introduced to me by one of the most fearless leaders I know, Beckie Masaki, a core member of the Strong Field Project.)

Marissa M. Tirona
Marissa M. Tirona
Program Officer, Building Institutions and Networks (BUILD)
Ford Foundation

Marissa M. Tirona is the Program Officer for the Ford Foundation's Building Institutions and Networks (BUILD). Marissa specializes in leadership development, nonprofit sustainability, governance and performance metrics. Learn More

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