A Mediterranean Adaptive Edge: Experiential Leadership across the Atlantic

Adriano Pianesi

Adriano Pianesi

“The mind grows through exposure to reality.”
– W. Bion

I grew up and was educated in Rome, Italy. Here are a few flashbacks about my life as a learner in the Italian school system:

  • Elementary School, 1972: Maestra Arena would consider any question from the class as a personal insult and refuse to answer.
  • 12th grade, 1977: Signor Pumo would simply not acknowledge our presence in the class as we walked in and would make fun of the students with low grades.
  • High School, 1986: Signora Bondi would lecture for hours, then she would draw a name from a little box, bingo-like, to select the student that would have to parrot back what she had said.
Adriano Pianesi

Adriano Pianesi

Alas! The Italian didactic style – being more theoretical and less interactive than that of the U.S. system – conditioned my thinking about teaching and learning at an early age. These experiences provided a powerful paradoxical teaching experience that has guided my life as a leadership educator across the Atlantic.

When I started teaching professionally, I was not compelled to use any particular technique. I was able to follow my own energy, and rely on my interests rather than my current lecturer as the source of knowledge. I realized later that the process was in itself a leadership statement about my own intentions, purpose and aspirations as a learner.

Mezirow, Kolb and Freire inspired me to start tapping into people’s creative ability to learn collaboratively through dialogue. This addiction to a different kind of learning environment where the intentional practice of freedom through experience was the norm became my signature contribution to my emerging theory of teaching.

After my MBA in Italy and after an unsuccessful stint at a job in a Fortune 500 company as a marketing manager in Switzerland, I needed to reinvent myself. I was given a chance in the United States through an international marketing job based in Miami where I would meet two of the founders of the International Association of Facilitators who taught me everything I know about collective intelligence.

Employing constant improvisation and openness to new mindsets, I would eventually master the art and science of group work. In the process, I identified a clear thread in my life of servant leadership through teaching and learning  – which started in Sunday school at my church when I was 15. I have cultivated this thread with mentors like:

  • Jane Vella (Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach) who taught me the power of dialogue in educating adults,
  • Ingrid Bens (Facilitating with Ease: Core Skills for Group Managers) that gave me a hint of the awesome power of groups to collaborate and excel
  • David Isaacs (The World Café) who made me realize that that ultimately collective intelligence is the subject of our work.

With the World Café in particular, I learned to use rituals inspired by my culture of origin to access collective wisdom and develop collaborative leadership.

Congruence as Leadership for Educators

When I started approaching the subject of leadership I started with myself. Today, with many books and leadership lessons under my belt, I can confidently say that my experience as a foreign national living and adapting to U.S. life, plus a natural Mediterranean comfort with conflict and overdeveloped emotional intelligence and creative skills by U.S. standards, predisposed me to embrace the integral leadership paradigm (and adaptive leadership practices in particular).This is not because I liked it (I do), but because it was me. I recognized myself in adaptive leadership theories. Coming from another country, my life had been – and continues to be – a leadership lab of adaptation, a living experiment of the power of resiliency and innovation.

Besides getting married to the love of my life, having two beautiful children, and owning a 1976 Red Cadillac Eldorado convertible, the highlight and pride of my life in the United States is that my way of teaching leadership is congruent with what I teach. In other words my leadership theory matches my leadership development theory. That is, I do what I am in the way that is aligned with my purpose. I do this double leadership work of identity (inside-out) as well as mobilizing resources to deal with tough challenges (outside-in) in order to realize the possibilities that people are.

My way of teaching leadership in the US was born by taking risks. Unlike standard classroom training, it began to take shape when I insisted on having trainees perform experiential, collaborative, hands-on tasks in the class rather than reading a slide with the “five steps” to leadership (!). It progressed when I engaged trainees in dialogue with joint inquiries rather than forcing them to listen to me. Perhaps it was when I started using music, poetry, movies, literature, ethics, art, and improvisation to engage the trainees in content – and watched them, incredulously, wake up and learn better.

The “Present” Time of Leadership

Our passion, the one we are born with, cannot be put on hold inside us. It is too powerful to be held in place. I have set off on a voyage from far inside myself to find my home in a leadership class in the US. In life our aspirations, our longings must find a home by being expressed in the world. I read somewhere “our work is to make ourselves visible in the world.” This is the essence of my individual journey, one that I would rather fail on my own than succeed in someone else’s shoes.

Yes, I confess: as I engage in the practice to create new worlds (!), most workdays I need to remind myself of this formidable force that exists within myself. Yet any simple step forward reminds me that real becoming is homecoming. And that the present time is our ultimate test and all we really have.

As I continue to learn about learning and leadership, the pleasure I get from doing my work in the present time is always the same: the one described by Carl Rogers, one – I confess – I am really addicted to and guilty to the maximum penalty, whether I am teaching in Italy or in the US:

To free curiosity; to permit individuals to go charging off in new directions dictated by their own interests; to unleash the sense of inquiry; to open everything to questioning and to open everything to questioning and exploration…Here is an experience I can never forget…Here is a goal to which I can never forget…Here is a goal to which I can give myself wholeheartedly.

Footnote: What My Class Looks Like

In my class, leadership goes from PowerPoint to powerful. Rather than the “expert” model (PowerPoint), the class unfolds and provides the “living case” for everyone to learn experientially. Through provocative statements, a listening and compassionate heart and a conceptual focus on the difference between authority and leadership, the class becomes a lab of how leadership work is done. Within the period of a few hours, we are able to recreate a corporate micro-culture with a breakdown in communication, “command and control” from authority and the resultant disengagement. The same ideas we often talk about in abstract when we discuss leadership materialize in front our very eyes and provide powerful material for reflection in real time.

The participants and the instructor become the system under inquiry, mirroring the bigger system of our leadership field. The work of leadership is done in the moment and is subject to everyone’s scrutiny. Leadership capacity is built through experience and experience means the ability to solve problems using the context of the class as the work.

As a result, the work in class progresses, it becomes trying to connect classroom situations that unfold (like confusion or conflict) with the actual problem solving and decision making experiences of the work of leadership in the real world. I realize that, for me, the ultimate inner challenge in doing that kind of work was working toward the creation of a space where people could bring their whole persons – their brains as well as their hearts.

About the Author

Adriano Pianesi is a leadership practitioner; a change agent, a consultant , a learner/teacher who helps people create better futures. Through ParticipAction Consulting, my consulting practice, he helps diverse groups of people come together to solve tough problems, and helps leaders work for change by harnessing the powers of conflict, diversity and complexity.He is a member of the Society for Organizational Learning, of the World Cafe’ community of practice and is a certified Action Learning coach.







  1. Cleveland Bell on January 8, 2013 at 11:21 pm

    Hi Adriano I have enjoyed this article very much it has create a sense of wanting to read more. Are there other book and magazine that you can recommendation . I can identify with some of things on how how one learn i love learning .
    keep the faith

  2. Cleveland Bell on January 8, 2013 at 11:27 pm

    Great Job is there more.
    keep the faith