“Adaptive Leadership” with Harvard Kennedy School Fellow Mercy Atieno Odongo in Dubai


Most of us would have heard “adapt or die.” The past few years have shown us how true that saying rings, especially when exercising leadership. Why is adaptive leadership so critical in the world today? Joining Anne Pratt from Dubai is Mercy Atieno Odongo, a Harvard Kennedy School Edward Mason fellow and Obama Foundation, Africa Emerging Leader, and the Founder of the Adaptive Leadership Foundation. Mercy explains what adaptive leadership means to her, distinguishing between technical and adaptive challenges. She also shares snippets of her leadership journey that shaped her worldview and purpose-driven career. Tune in and learn how to exercise adaptive leadership to analyze, energize, galvanize, mobilize, and harmonize people to tackle tough challenges and thrive!

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“Adaptive Leadership” with Harvard Kennedy School Fellow Mercy Atieno Odongo in Dubai

Adapt or Die? Exercise Leadership to Stay Alive in Dangerous Times

Our thoughtful, bold leader in this episode is based in Dubai. She is a Harvard Kennedy School Edward Mason fellow and Obama Foundation, Africa Emerging Leader, and is the Founder of the Adaptive Leadership Foundation. She is also an accomplished diplomat and has served her country, Kenya, in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is currently serving in Dubai.

Stay with us as she shares with us her adaptive leadership challenge and why moving fast in trying to tackle these tough, big challenges is often slow, and moving slow is often fast, how a childhood slap at age seven in rural Kenya defined her career, the difference and the distinction between technical and adaptive leadership challenges, and how Mandela’s lesson of separating one’s self from one’s role has empowered her career. We warmly welcome my dear friend and the co-creator of this global Mandela Leadership Movement for Change, Mercy Atieno Odongo.


LBF 37 | Adaptive Leadership


Mercy, welcome. It’s so wonderful to have you here with us from Dubai. Thank you for spending time. It’s lovely to have you with us.

Thank you very much for having me. It’s a great honor to share my experience with you.

I wanted to share with our audience that Mercy has spent many years in the Foreign Affairs Ministry for the Republic of Kenya. She was selected by the Obama Foundation for the inaugural class of 2018 as one of 200 emerging leaders in Africa. She is a coach for transformational leadership in the 21st century for emerging leaders across the continent. Mercy, it’s so wonderful to have you share your leadership wisdom and insights with us, and I thought a wonderful starting point would be to share some of your career highlights and what has brought you to this moment.

Thank you very much for the opportunity. As you said, my career has been spanning for many years in public service. That’s correct. Within this period, I was privileged to go to Harvard Kennedy School. During that period, I got to learn or get to some courses that were very fundamental in exercising leadership. One of the two courses was Exercising Leadership: The Politics of Change and Leadership From Inside Out.

With my experience, I felt it is honorable to pay it forward to people who’ve not been privileged to get this idea. It’s because one of the things that stood out for me personally was the idea of technical and adaptive challenges. That work for me has been eye-opening. When Harvard Executive Program partnered with us to help them shape the narrative for the emerging leaders for Africa to design a course for the 21st-century leaders for Africa, we did that in 2018 and 2019.

We trained over 140 merging leaders from Nigeria, The Gambia, Somalia, Egypt, Kenya, and some from the US, and it was an amazing experience. That gave me the impetus that this idea needs to find space. That is what led me now to the idea of creating a foundation for leadership to empower now young leaders across nations.

We know that Africa is a nation that is hungry for change and has enormous challenges too. I was wondering personally, Mercy, what have you found to be the greatest leadership challenge in your career? You spent many years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In exercising leadership, what has been your greatest challenge during that time?

One of the greatest challenges that I still grapple with to date is my inability to frame issues that are transformational in a way that finds space with the authority figures to get the buy-in. Part of the challenge is when I frame issues, I come out as a very strong person, and that, to a greater extent, has been a challenge. Some would view it as a threat. Others would view it as aggression. That has impacted my ability to form alliances, build partnerships, and be able to rally around the cost that can bring impactful changes.

Can you share a practical example with us?

I’ll give you an example. When we were selected from a pool of 10,000 applicants for the Obama Foundation, we are put in a group of 4 people. We were told to come up with ideas. In the process of coming up with ideas, our ideas were collated. The 200 of us are then condensed to 40. Out of those 40, one of the ideas is an idea I believe in, and that is where the Adaptive Leadership Foundation comes in. The idea was to be able to bring change using data because we realize that now, there’s a lot of misinformation and not basing decisions based on facts.

We were tasked to give the resource and the kind of people you need in your team. I said I needed somebody good at resource mobilization. I needed somebody good at technology. I needed somebody good at branding because I’m a strategy person. Those would form part of my team. We were put with four of us on my team, and in the process, we were curating this idea. One thing which I consider leadership failure is we went through the process. We presented our idea, but after that, we never came together. Why? It because maybe a failure on my part to get the buy-in in seeing the sense of what we are doing, or it was too fast or rushing in trying to mobilize people to get in.

With all the lessons I came out with, it’s good to pace your issues step by step. Don’t rush people. People have different developmental stages. Sometimes when you push people too much, they tend to reject even the idea that would be, so it’s good to get buy-in. You give people work to get the buy-in from the people from the onset so that it doesn’t appear like it is the masses’ idea.

It's good to pace your issues step by step. Don't rush people. Sometimes when you push people too much, they tend to reject even the idea that would be, so it's good to get buy-in. Click To Tweet

What attracted you to move into foreign affairs? I know you did a Bachelor’s Degree in Languages and Literacy. What motivated you to move into Foreign Service?

That is a long story, but I’ll say it. What happened as a young girl of seven years old in the rural part of Kenya growing up, a Sunday morning, we were cleaning the house. My brother pushed me, and I fell down. I broke part of my teeth, and upon waking up, I slapped my brother so hard. When I slapped him, he started to nosebleed. When my mom came to the scene, I saw tears coming from her eyes. I felt the pain through the blood of my brother and my mother’s tears. Within that short duration of time, my world came to a standstill.

I receded in a corner, and I prayed to God. I told God, “If you get me out of this, I will never fight or lay a hand on somebody.” My world was shifted. God shifted my world to the extent that I don’t fight. I don’t like conflict. I began to pay attention to the plight of people now. Even in my home, I’m the mediator when people are having a crisis. As I grew up, I realized that this is the path that probably I’ve been called to do but based on the vulnerability that I went through of being in an uncertain situation and helplessness without hope.

That, to a greater extent, began to show me how to solve problems without using physical confrontational or fighting through non-conventional means. I joined the Model United Nations when I went to undergrad at the university. They follow the activities of the UN but from the youth’s perspective.

I was the head delegate for France. That is the time when there was a Sustainable Development Summit that was coming to South Africa. In the process of looking at the sustainable development goals, that is when I discovered that diplomacy was the thing for me. From there, I went to graduate school and enrolled in the Institute of Diplomacy. I did Diplomacy and International Relations. I joined the Foreign Service, and I’ve never looked back.

What excites you most about Foreign Service and serving your country in Dubai?

What fascinated me most was when the late Kofi Annan was the United Nations Secretary-General. As a young girl, I would wake up. There was a program on CNN called Diplomatic License. I would diligently wake up to watch Kofi Annan move from East Timor to Israel to Benghazi. I was like, “This is very nice.” I started paying attention now to wild issues.

When I joined Foreign Affairs, it was almost like, “This is where I wanted to be.” For my role in Dubai, we are looking at issues of the consulate. We are dealing with the Kenyan people, a large group of people in Dubai. We are dealing with issues of documentation, job creation, and strategy for engagement bilaterally between Kenya and the UAE.

How have you found that from a leadership point of view? Dealing with the desires, aspirations, and cultural aspects of what shaped you and influenced you coming from Kenya and working in the Middle East, how has that been a challenge, and how have you been able to navigate that?

It’s very interesting. I came to the Middle East in 2019, and the most fascinating thing is, especially here, given that the world is flattened, the boundaries are broken. Also, because of the broken boundaries, we have common global problems. When you have common global problems, the challenges are shared, but we deal with them inwardly as countries or nation-states.

The world is flattened. The boundaries are broken. Because of that, we have common global problems. Click To Tweet

What does that pertain to us? It means that now, even our diplomacy or foreign policy orientation steps up in advocating for multilateralism so that we rally in the convergence of ideas in solving common global problems. It’s very exciting because you can see, for example, the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s one incidence in Wuhan, China, and the world has come to a standstill. In our world now, we have changed. I can talk to you through Zoom, which is very easy. Technology has been accelerated.

That leads us to another set of questions. If we think about the complexity and challenges of the world, what are the three big challenges that keep you awake at night from a leadership point of view?

Number one is the inequality in various points. As you know, there are a number of people who are going hungry for food. There are people who are staying in refugee camps. There are children who are not going to school. There’s a huge population that does not have access to healthcare. There are young African people that, because of lack of employment, are boarding boats crossing the Red Sea to come to Europe. That myriad of complexities within the continent and even within the countries makes me restless.

Number two, there is the issue of governance and leadership. Most of our authority figures still use technical lenses to fix challenges that require people to be adaptive. It is the responsibility of authority figures to provide direction to set norms, but because of the brokenness of the boundaries, agenda is set by even non-state actors. It becomes a challenge, even as an authority figure, to harness or even contain your people and provide those functionalities that I have laid before you.

This is one of the most trying times for leaders that now requires them to step back a little bit, see, and be able to compartmentalize the issues that require technical fixes. How can we build alliances and partnerships? What issues require people to change their behaviors, values, mindsets, attitudes, and then give them that work of bringing that change they want to see? Also, the aspect of creating an enabling environment where innovation can thrive, and that means security. Whether it’s personal security, food security, or all the securities to make people feel safe and protected, they can innovate, grow, and bring what they want to see.



We’re sitting with a multitude of complexity. One of the questions that come up with you sharing many of these issues is, what do you think is unique about this time, Mercy? The world has gone through a process of evolution. We’ve had these big challenges in the world before. What do you think is unique about this time or this moment?

What is unique about this moment is the acceleration of technology, which is disruptive. That has changed a lot of how people operate. Because technology has intruded into our space, even the personal touch of humanity has gone low to the extent that even relationships are superficial. That has impacted exercising leadership with empathy, extending love and compassion to people who deserve it, and even acknowledging humanity from a dignity perspective. That is what is unique.

To some extent, because of the intrusion of technology and its acceleration, you can say that the love component has become low or diminishing. Whether I want to transact money, communicate, or do work, everything is the digital space. If we neglect the old aspects of our relations that have held or glued us together, then it will be a challenge. That’s why you’ll bear me witness that there are a lot of mental challenges that people are going through.

Also, it was exacerbated by the pandemic and having to rely on technology and socially distance ourselves. However, given this current moment, these issues, and also the world of work, have changed, and the world of leadership is changing too. What do you think is the future of leadership?

The future of leadership, for me, is exercising adaptive leadership. What do I mean by exercising adaptive leadership? Being able as a leader or authority figure to compartmentalize issues that require technical fixes and issues that require to be solved in an adaptive way. That is changing people’s behavior, attitudes, mindset, values, and belief systems and giving people the work of bringing that change they want to see. That, for me is one.


LBF 37 | Adaptive Leadership


Number two, also exercising leadership with empathy, and that requires grounding on values, which now builds down to the idea of recognition of the dignity of humankind. Also, the aspect of humility is to acknowledge the diversities of people, the stages of development that they are in, the challenges they’re facing, and the gaps that they’re in. You then see how we rally together to bridge the gap, to give hope, and to give them that enabling environment and ecosystem that, even in their vulnerable position, this hope that there’s a better tomorrow.

That brings me to talk about one of our favorite mentors and icons. If we think of adaptive leadership and having core values that evoke our humanity but also, our humility, we both share a love and passion for Nelson Mandela, who we know was a great Icon, not only for South Africa but for the world. I know you’ve had a number of Mandela Moments, but could you share with us what your big Mandela Moment was? How did Madiba shape, influence, or inspire you on your leadership journey?

You said rightfully that I had a Mandela Moment. The first one is growing up with a strict father. My father was very strict, and growing up as a young girl in our house, rules were never expressed or written, but they were implicit, so now you needed to scan your environment and be watchful and alert to know that this is no or this is right.

My dad was a strict disciplinarian. How has that helped me in my Mandela Moment? For me, that aspect of my father’s strictness has enabled me, even in my exercising of leadership, to scan the environment where I am. To constantly see things as they unfold, pick relevant lessons, failures and pitfalls that I need to avoid, and areas I need to enhance. When Mandela was in prison, one of the key things that he did that was very remarkable for me is that he studied a lot.

In fact, they called Robin Island the Robin Island University, not only for Madiba but many of the other young prisoners that came onto the island.

Even while he was in prison, he kept abreast of what was happening outside of the prison. In that process, he also worked with people who are in prison with device strategies to solve their problems to represent them, and he was able to take a stand. That is one of my Mandela Moments. Another Mandela Moment for me was, as you’ve seen, when you find yourself in a situation where you are unable to build alliances or partnerships because of your strong value system or your grounding, people tend not to agree with you.

You find yourself. You either take a stand or go with the crowd. Sometimes the stand that you take might not be appealing to the majority. It’ll be a lonely walk, and during this lonely walk, you have to rely on the values that ground you. For me, that also is a memorable moment because he led a lonely life for the bulk of Mandela’s life.



During that lonely period, he was able to acquire knowledge. He also understood the magnitude of the weight that he carried on behalf of South Africans and the hopes and dreams that they had for him. When you got out, he realized that for him to move forward, he had to forget and forgive and struggle for that reconciliation between the mind, as he says, and his heart. That is what I constantly strive to do. Even where I’m offended, in order not to carry the baggage of my oppressors or the offenders, I then have to forgive and say, “For me to move on with what I want to do, which is a focus on the ball, then I have to forget the past.” It’s something that I constantly learn.

As opposed to forgetting, forgiveness was a big part of it. With Madiba and his leadership, what stands out for you as being unique about him? How do you think that’s relevant, given the challenges you outlined?

For Madiba, I will say three things. Number one, he was very bold and courageous. He took a stand on issues that he believed in. To some extent, even he’s quoted to have said that those are the things that even he is prepared to die for, which I found very fascinating to the extent that when he was asked about the issues of Fidel Castro and his affiliation with Muammar Gaddafi, he said, “Don’t be twisted here. Your enemies are not my enemies.”

That, for me, was very profound. In your engagement with the people in your exercise of leadership, you have to identify what are the key issues that are aligned with the values that you espouse and the values that these people bring to you and to the agenda that you are carrying so that you don’t begin to send away people because of the standards that you’ve been set for. In another way, he set his own parameters for doing things. In his invitation to the world, you invited people based on what he had set. He welcomed people in his space as opposed to fitting in other spaces and conforming. That, for me, is very profound.

Another thing was his ability to reconcile. When he formed the Rainbow Nation, there was a lot of pressure from the Black South Africans who had hoped, and they felt like with Mandela’s entry, that was their time to be liberated and free. That was the time for the other parties to be oppressed, but he said, “We are going to form the Rainbow Nation,” and it’s going to start with him. That is a key ingredient that most are lacking, especially in a process where an electoral system is a winner take it all.

Are you talking about the issue of reconciliation, the fact that it started with himself, or both?

For him to start with himself, he had to reconcile himself. You have to first lead by example. You reconcile with your status for you to now go out and convince other people that this is the course that I’m taking. That brings me to the second one leading by example. You don’t tell people to do things that you will not do. You ask people to do things you will do, which are my guiding principles. When I give people tasks, I don’t give them something I cannot do.

You have to first lead by example. Don't tell people to do things that you will not do. Click To Tweet

I start with, “Can I be able to do it?” If I can’t, it’ll be improper to ask somebody to do something they cannot and push them to their frontier of incompetence, and you watch them struggle. The third thing is the aspect of recognizing the dignity of humankind. It did not relate to you based on your position or role but viewed you as a person first.

For me, that is also very important in leadership in that he listened to people’s views intensely, and then he responded. As a leader, for you to be able to listen to the people, you have to believe in the value of that humanity, even to give them the audience to listen to what they’re saying. Even if you are different from them, you do it with dignity.

What part of his leadership do you think would have the most impact?

What we need to do differently than Mandela did, and probably is one legacy that we carry along other than that dignity, is the ability to take a stand and provide direction. Many people sit on the fence when they are expected to step up and give the needed direction or guidance. They waiver. They don’t have a stand on something. For Mandela, he took a stand even if it was uncomfortable with the people who were close to him. He would take a stand and say yes as much, which is what I found very interesting.

Even with his wife, I still don’t understand when he told Winnie that I love her, but up to this moment, we will part ways in as much as I still love her, and she’s the love of my life and stuff. It’s because he looked at the big agenda and realized that it would impact how he is going to help drive the process forward.

That is one thing that people need to do because there are issues that will push you and even the people that you love, but how will you separate your role from self to move the process forward? Many authority figures fall by the wayside because of the inability to separate the role and the self. That is one thing that we need now.

Mercy, can you share with us an example of where you’ve taken a stand in your world of work and applied that lesson in taking a stand? Can you share with us an example? You have a difficult role, and it requires a lot of diplomacy. That is the nature of your role, but is there an example where you’ve taken a stand that has been a lesson you’ve learned and applied?

That’s a very good question, and based on what I’ve told you, we take stands every day if we’re guided by values. If your moral is value-driven, you take a stand on something in every decision you make every step of the way. Sometimes it might not go well even in terms of your career trajectory because it means if you are able to speak truth to power in a way that does not go well or driven by your value, your inability to rally towards a course, then chances are you are going to be relegated to the periphery. When you come out as a very strong person, it means where issues that require some kind of not serious stance, you are left outside, and that can be a lonely process.

Do you have a real example you can share with us?

There’s an organization that we are co-creating called the Global Peace Network. We are trying to co-create, and finding solutions for world peace is a project within the organization. We were doing what is called 4D Mapping. We wanted to do something unconventional because world peace has been elusive for a long time.

There were seven of us. The 4 of us were told we will do the presentation on behalf of the 19 people we are working with. The first person introduced what 3D modeling is, and then I was to map the actors. One of the issues that were a bit tough as we thought that humanity, mankind, and man as an actor in terms of how the different segments of personalities within a conflict.

There are people who have been in the conflict epicenter. There are people who have been privileged to conflict. There are people who have been involved in conflict through mediation. There are people who are funding conflicts, and then there’s conflict itself. There are people who are hell-bent on seeing conflict continue because that is how they run their businesses.

When we presented this conflict and said, “Let’s look at it from different perspectives,” we listed all the actors within a conflict. After we finished that, because of the idea that if you look at conflict through the human lens, whether you take the UN, the government, or the resources, there are people behind these faces that did not go well with a certain segment of people.

We were actualizing the 3D model when we went to the next meeting. They decided to put me aside. When we did the mapping and all was in place, we asked, “Where is the organization we are finding?” It’s because it was missing from the map and we’ve done everything else. That is one example where when your ideas don’t find the place, or people find you, and you’re framing to be different from what they expect, they will not invite you to the table.

Can you share with us what you did in that instance?

What I did in that instance, one of the things that I’ve learned from my lessons and training in adaptive leadership, in that emotive moment, I don’t act. I step back, internalize and try to analyze, “What is going on here? What are the group dynamics? What are the issues? What are people avoiding?” I let it go. When we met the second time, the team is presenting, and then when I spoke to the issues, and it made sense, but had I forced myself into the preparatory process, it probably would not have been taken on board. One of the things that I’m learning is you have to pace the work, but you also have to start from where people are.

You have to pace the work, but you also have to start from where people are. Click To Tweet

We are just having a bit of fun right now. Just a couple of one-liners, a brief one-line answer. What is your favorite city or country, and why?

You’d be amazed that my favorite city is Nairobi, Kenya. It’s because I have a sentimental attachment to it, having lived there and grown there. Two, Nairobi is a Maasai word that means cool water. It’s also the city in the sun. Imagine if you have the sun and water. The growth, innovation, and opportunity exist with those two. That’s for me. Another thing is Nairobi is the only city in the world that has a national park within the city center where you can see the Big Five and have breakfast with giraffes in the morning. You don’t get that even in South Africa.

What is your favorite childhood memory?

My favorite childhood memory was on Saturdays, the Sabbath, because you first wake up to the smell of chapati. My favorite food is chapati. I don’t know whether you know chapati.

I don’t. What is it?

Chapati is made of wheat flour. It’s not like cake, but it’s like bread, but made of wheat flour. My parents were very strict, but you got away with many things on Saturday. You are never punished. You woke up to the smell of chapati. We used to go to church on Saturday. It was the Sabbath experience. That was my favorite childhood memory.

What did you think you would be when you grew up?

When I was a child, I thought I would be a medical doctor, getting people in the hospital. One day, I had a bout of malaria and was taken to the hospital. Three things stood out for me, and I realized, “No.” I told you about the sight of blood and tears. I got an injection, so I cried. It was painful for me. During those days, they were using big needles and syringes to inject people, so it was painful and smelled of medicine in the hospital. As we were getting into the entrance of the hospital, that site alone makes me well.

Did it trigger back that memory that you had?

Yes, it did because when you were young, and you walk into a hospital, or you went to see the doctor, and you hear the cries of babies being injected, you see people with syringes and like, “I’m going to be the next one.” That day, I was given an injection, which was not fun. I realized like, “I need to find space somewhere.”

What is your favorite book?

The Bible. I discovered that the Bible has solutions for every problem. That could be debatable, but even when you look at foreign policy matters or issues of international relations, you are able to relate them to the public. Even with leadership and kings, if you read the Book of Kings and how the kings and the mistakes they made, some of them, you see them now, and you’re like, “These things were prepared.”

I’m going to digress slightly. Why do you think we haven’t learned those lessons and keep repeating them?

It’s because we don’t treat them. We are looking for solutions outside there but have solutions within ourselves. That is where the challenge is. That is why adaptive leadership is key for me because it opens you to see things within yourself that are solutions to a problem you’re looking for.

Adaptive leadership is key in the sense that it opens you to see things that are within yourself that are solutions to a problem you're looking for. Click To Tweet

For example, I don’t know whether you’ve heard of the concept called Adjacent Possible. It gives you possibilities, and when you look at those possibilities, sometimes you realize that there are things that you step backward. There are things that you have, but whether you’ve not seen them as of value or you tend to sidestep them or ignore them because you are thinking that the grass is greener on the other side. I’m biased, maybe because of my love for God, but I’ve realized that most of the theories and the solutions are found there.

To that point, what is your favorite quote?

My favorite quote is interesting. It’s by an American poet. There’s a lady called Ella Wheeler Wilcox. She said nothing can deter or hinder the firm resolve of a determined soul. Nothing can stop a soul that is determined to do something, which has been my mantra going forward. When you believe in something, you are determined and do what it takes; as Sheikh Maktoum says, the impossible is possible.

That reminds me of when Mandela said it always seems impossible until it’s done. What do you think are the three things that Mandela would say to our generation now?

To our generation, Mandela would say to be humble in your exercise of leadership. Lead with humility. You have to have an opinion or take a stand on an issue. The third thing that I think Mandela would say to me is that you must have a cause to fight for. Believe in something. Take a stand, be courageous, and be humble.

We know he loved children and that he is missing the children in his 27 years in prison. What would he say to our younger generation, to our rising young stars?

For the younger generation, education will be key. I think Mandela believed in education as a liberty of the mind. He would tell them to pursue education at all costs. Mandela would tell the younger generation to listen and learn. Glean from the lessons. Remember, in his early childhood, he used to sit with his father in those meetings. He would listen and suck it in.

His adoptive father was the King of the Thembu tribe, Jongintaba.

Probably the third thing he would tell the children is to chart their own path.

There’s a valuable lesson. Mercy, you’re a remarkable woman who’s had a fantastic career. In 3 to 5 years, where do you see yourself?

In 3 to 5 years, I’ll put it as the government’s top foreign policy expert.

Ultimately, where do you see yourself if we had no timeframe for that?

I see myself with António Guterres’ job (the United Nations Secretary-General)

To achieve what goal?

To bridge the things that give me sleepless nights, reduce inequality but stress fairness. Come up with strategies to increase enrollment in schools. Our sustainable development goals challenge is that we’ve been setting goals, and when we are almost at the tail end, we revise them again. We started with Agenda 21 with Kofi Annan, and then we came up with eight Millennium Development Goals.

We then decided that Millennium Development Goals are insufficient, so we devised seventeen sustainable goals. I don’t know what will happen after, but when we were doing Agenda 2063, which is the blueprint for the African continent, we also came up with flagship projects, which are also on course. We envisioned a continent that is at peace with itself, being able to feed itself, connect, and trade among itself.

We have those African Continental Free Trade Areas. We dreamed of silencing the guns. We dreamed of providing electricity and connectivity to all the countries. Some of these processes are ongoing, which is encouraging. Maybe they could not at the pace we envisioned, but they’re making remarkable moves. I believe that we are here to see with a different lens or perspective because a lot is changing.

Imagine where we are in 2020 and where we are now. A lot has changed. I don’t know what will happen in 3 to 5 years. I don’t know what will happen in twenty years because people are going to the moon. Artificial intelligence is here with us. Robots are at work. Leadership is being disrupted upside down. We have to be focused and be a step ahead. Also, not lose the values that glue us together in building relationships, human dignity, and friendships like the ones that we have and the things that make us human.



Those are wonderful takeaways. I have one question. Do you think the United Nations is ready for you?

I don’t know. As Mandela said, you check a stand and chart your paths. It’s not whether they’re ready for me. It’s a question of what value I can add. I don’t even have to get to that level if I can be able to add value where I am. What I believe in is the small incremental credits from where I am. If I’m able to change the mindset of a group of people, one at a time, for me to care, I don’t even have to be at the helm because there’s a lot of influence when you have informal authority because you have the leeway to play with many things. For me, that becomes critical, and it doesn’t matter who I become or what I become, but can I be able to change a generation at a time?

Mercy, in your own leadership journey, is there a specific thing that, if you could go back and do differently, you would? What is that?

To engage more with authority figures and speak to power in a way that finds space to bring the desired change. One of the things that I see that is interesting is because of the strictness of my father, to some extent, in my developmental process, which hindered my ability to negotiate with authority. Until I discovered the waters I’m carrying from my father’s strictness after giving it back to him, I was all liberated. I can speak truth to power. I can negotiate with authority. I can be part of the change I want to see, which is liberating. That, for me, is comforting in the sense that once you are grounded on your values, regardless of where life takes you, you will stand the pressure of this world.

It takes me to another point our life story is our leadership story, in a way. Interestingly, you’ve noticed this relationship with your father and how you needed to liberate yourself from that to step into more of your leadership role and not be bound by authority.

It’s liberating when you discover something that has been hindering you from doing things that you wish you had done earlier, then that would’ve meant you would’ve negotiated certain things much earlier at a younger age, and that would not have limited your ability to do a certain thing, but that is not an excuse that you’re stuck.

That’s one of the benefits of experience and aging. Having some experience helps us evolve and develop. What are your final three takeaways for our audience?

My three final takeaways are that from Mandela’s perspective are 1) Diversity management and respect for other perspectives, 2) Inclusivity in representation, and 3) The idea of separating role from self. It is very critical when you harness and be able to do what I call the three things that authority figures do: provide direction, set norms, protect people, and especially the voices from below. That is where that is missing. However, as Mandela says, be humble. Humility is a virtue. Take a stand on issues. Don’t be a fence sitter.

Recognize the dignity of humankind and your engagement with them. One thing that I carry with me, even in my work, is that making policies with the frames of vulnerability lenses changes how you structure those strategies and your intervention process. You realize clearly that there’s a lot of wage on you as an authority figure to be able to decide somebody’s fate, and that’s what leaders do.

They’re able to either influence, shape, but also determine. It’s such an honor to be in that position that if you don’t understand the magnitude of the weight, if you don’t understand the times and seasons you are operating in, if you don’t understand the needs from the lenses of the person you are deciding their faith, then chances are that you might not be the best in the execution of your role. Also, be aware that you carry the aspirations, hopes, and dreams of other people so that you don’t drop the ball so you keep focusing on the ball.

As a leader, you need to be aware that you carry the aspirations, hopes, and dreams of other people so that you don't drop the ball. Click To Tweet

Mercy, my friend, it has been so wonderful talking to you. You certainly are a woman of courage and humility who takes the stand. I feel so blessed and privileged to share this conversation with you. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and wisdom with our audience out there. I so look forward to us reconnecting again soon.

Thank you very much, Anne, for this opportunity, and I look forward to working closely with you and anything you need to exercise leadership information. We hope that we can do our best, however little, to make an impact on our generation.

Also, for our next.

Why is adaptive leadership so critical in the world? Most have heard the term adapt or die. For some, it’s the Hollywood fantasy of James Bond movies. For Countess Moore, it’s waking up to the harsh realities in this radically and rapidly changing world. It is difficult, daunting, and, in fact, dangerous when change requires that you challenge people’s realities, attitudes, beliefs, and norms.

Most people fear extreme loss when they push for change. The more they have, the more they will fear they will lose. Yet your very survival, life in business, and in the world depend on your ability to adapt and exercise adaptive leadership, step out of the familiar comfort zone, and challenge the realities not only of others but your own realities, too.



I make my good friend, Mercy Atieno Odongo, at Harvard Kennedy School in the Adaptive Leadership Program with remarkable professors Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky. Her stories, her insights, and her wisdom help us expand on more of the adaptive leadership principles. Firstly, we bust some of the leadership myths. Contrary to popular opinion, leadership is not a position. It is not a title, nor should it be confused with authority. Instead, leadership is a practice. It is action. We exercise leadership.

Secondly, she helps us define adaptive leadership. As Professor Ron Heifetz defines it, it is the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive. Lastly, she helps us distinguish between technical and adaptive challenges. Often people in powerful positions often misdiagnose the problem and try to fix an adaptive challenge with a technical solution. What do I mean by that?

Let me give you an example. When Nelson Mandela came out of prison in February 1990, if he had misdiagnosed and misanalyzed South Africa’s transformation problem as being simply a technical problem, a problem of changing the older laws into modern constitutional democracy, and had failed to diagnose and analyze the adaptive challenge, namely the challenge of changing the heads, the hearts, and souls of all South Africans, not only the majority of South Africans, but everybody in changing their beliefs, their attitudes, and their norms. He would not have succeeded in helping mobilize the country to support and hold a prosperous and peaceful first democratic election which was held on April 27th, 1994.

It took more than four years for Madiba to help affect that transition, not only through the technical solution but to help mobilize all South Africans across multiple deep divides.

In summary, if unattended to, technical solutions do not solve adaptive challenges, and adaptive challenges can and will disrupt the technical solutions. What is critical is to distinguish between the two. In the case of South Africa, we needed both.



Until next time, remember that leading boldly is about making thoughtful, clear choices. Bold leadership is about taking bold action one small step at a time, one step for you, but together, a giant step for humanity. Come back soon and take care and take thoughtful, bold action.


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About Mercy Atieno Odongo

LBF 37 | Adaptive LeadershipMercy is a diplomat and public servant spanning 19 years with 14 years of illustrious diplomatic service at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kenya. Mercy brings rich experience in diplomacy, intergovernmental relations, and multilateral policy development. She is ahead of the curve in strategic visioning, exercising adaptive leadership, building partnerships, and getting things done in a development context.

She is the founder of the Adaptive Leadership Foundation, which empowers, connects, and supports change makers exercising adaptive leadership for social change in their communities, counties, countries, and globally. https://www.adaptiveleadershipfoundation.org

Mercy is a coach in Transforming Leadership for 21st Century Africa in collaboration with Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government Executive Education. In 2019 trained 70, and in 2018 trained over 70 emerging leaders from across Africa – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria, Egypt, The Gambia, Somalia, and the United States of America on Adaptive Leadership for Africa: Chaos, Complexity, and Courage.

Mercy is one of the 200 young leaders selected from over 10,000 applicants from across 44 African countries for the inaugural class of the Obama Foundation for Emerging Leaders in Africa in 2018. At the Harvard Kennedy School, Mercy was an Edward S. Mason Fellow and one of the distinguished women selected for the Women in Public Policy Program From Harvard Square to the Oval Office. As an Edward Mason Fellow in 2017, she is prepared to address the world’s most compelling development challenges.

She is a member of the Adaptive Leadership Network, a community of the most dynamic and influential leaders in the world, the Global Diplomatic Forum Youth Working Group, a knowledge hub for diplomats to exchange expertise in the realm of international affairs, Member & a Mentor for Harvard Women in Defense, Diplomacy and Development (W3D), Member of Leadership and Peacemaking Global Network, Member of the Room and Member Lean in Women Network. The experiences gained have been instrumental in shaping her leadership roles and diplomatic practice.

Mercy holds a Master’s in Public Administration from Harvard University, a Master of Arts in International Studies from the Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies, University of Nairobi, Bachelor of Arts in Language and Literary Studies from Moi University. Mercy is married and a mother of two wonderful children. 

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