“Intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble.Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexcusable imperative.”
H.G. Wells

“Trolley-ology” – the study of moral dilemmas – forms an important part of West Point’s philosophy course for young cadets.  In an effort to establish a consistent ethical code among future military officers who will one day be required to grapple with life-changing impasses, academy plebes are required to take a course on “Just War” theory that includes a series of trolley-based military conundrums. The classic “trolley problem” is an ethical thought experiment where an individual is faced with the moral dilemma of selecting between two unacceptable choices. Do nothing, and allow a runaway trolley to kill five people, or pull a switch and divert the Pullman onto an alternate track where only one person is sacrificed. Originally introduced to undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin in 1905, the quandary can be further complicated when the one person to be sacrificed is identified as the switchman’s child.

North Korea is Trump’s Trolley. Less than five years away from developing a nuclear-tipped missile that could reach the west coast of the United States, international consensus on a measured response to North Korea’s aggressive arms buildup remains indecisive.  Vowing no-win catastrophic consequences if policy makers in Washington were to take pre-emptive steps, North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, has indicated that his nation is prepared to take “tough counteraction against any and all provocateurs.” The question that President Trump is now forced to ponder as he reconsiders America’s current diplomatic philosophy of “strategic patience” is, “what lever will most successfully stop North Korea’s runaway trolley?”

Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian general and military theorist, once said that war “is the continuation of politics by other means.” Stressing the moral and political aspects of no-win military situations, his advice was to never launch a war that one had not already won.  Reminiscent of the Ancient Greek Pyrrhic battles (279) that exemplify victories at the expense of one’s own ruin, Clausewitz characterized the no-win scenario as a high-cost struggle whose gain of victory is outweighed by the premium extracted.

The Kobayashi Maru is a pop-cultural cinematic narrative that cogently illustrates the Clauewitzian aspects of Trump’s Trolley. Based on the multi-billion dollar Star Trek entertainment franchise, the SS Kobayashi Maru is the name of a disabled spaceship at the center of a military training simulation. Introduced in the opening scene of the blockbuster film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), the Kobayashi Maru Test is the infamous no-win scenario at the center of the curriculum for command-track cadets enrolled at the fictional Starfleet Academy.

Should the cadet rescue the immobilized civilian spaceship, and thereby jeopardize interplanetary peace and the safety of his/her ship and crew? Or should he/she leave the Kobayashi Maru to certain destruction? Unbeknownst to the 23rd Century trainee, the hour-long captain’s chair war simulation was programmed to guarantee failure.  Whatever the choise, the ordeal was considered a no-win scenario because it was impossible for the student to save the stranded starship and simultaneously escape intact from an enemy’s neutral zone. The trolley-based test was consequently not intended to be overcome, but rather, used to assess a cadet’s discipline, character, and command capabilities.

Unsurprisingly, James T. Kirk was the only cadet in Starfleet history to ever outwit the Kobayashi Maru Test. With a natural capacity for adaptive thinking, Kirk rejected the artificial premise that leaders must learn to surrender control and capitulate in the face of no-win scenarios. As such, after taking the test and failing it twice, he surreptitiously reprogramed the simulation to create the conditions for a more auspicious conclusion to the military dilemma. Remarkably, instead of being reprimanded for cheating, Starfleet presented young Kirk a commendation for “original thinking.”

Apart from presenting a hypothetical framework for addressing President Trump’s most pressing Pyrrhic impasse, the Kobayashi Maru provides an opportunity to discuss a valuable leadership aptitude for grappling with difficult dilemmas, namely “adaptive capacity.”

According to the reasoning of adaptive capacity, difficult situations should be considered as crucibles, scrutinized according to flexible rather than rigid strictures. When faced with two equally ominous choices, leaders with adaptive capacity search for options that are less obvious. When presented with detrimental results, adaptive leaders redraw the rules, change the dynamics, and thereby enable the possibility for more favorable outcomes. Such was the optimism that characterized Kirk’s rejection of the artificial no-win conditions of the Kobayashi scenario.

In their Harvard Business Review article, “Crucibles of Leadership” (2002), the renowned business thinkers, Warren Bennis and Robert J. Thomas conclude that one of the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership “is an individual’s ability to find meaning in negative events and to learn from even the most trying circumstances.” Bennis and Thomas outline four essential skills that such leaders possess: (a) the ability to engage others in shared meaning, (b) a distinctive and compelling voice, and (c) a sense of integrity that includes a strong set of values. The 4th and most critical proficiency is adaptive capacity, which the authors characterize as “applied creativity—an almost magical ability to transcend adversity, with all its attendant stresses, and to emerge stronger than before.” According to Bennis and Thomas, adaptive capacity is the combination of two primary qualities: (a) the ability to grasp context, and (b) hardiness. They argue that the combination of hardiness and the ability to grasp context, “allows a person to not only survive an ordeal, but to learn from it.”

The implications of employing the principles of adaptive thinking to contemporary Kobayashi Maru crucibles should not be relegated to civic, military, or philosophical classrooms, but equally applied to other leadership contexts. Apart from the legionnaire, lecturer, and legislator, the non-profit leader would be well served to utilize the dexterities of adaptive thinking to overcome their current organizational mêlées.

America’s nonprofit sector is comprised of a vast collection of private, tax-exempt hospitals, conservatories, day care centers, nursing homes, symphonies, health, social service, and faith-based agencies. In recent years, leaders of these entities have been forced to choose between two competing imperatives – survival or distinctiveness.

According to the 2016 Nonprofit Sector Brief published by the URBAN Institute, approximately 1.41 million nonprofits are registered with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and contributed an estimated $905.9 billion to the US economy. Public charities accounted for just over three-quarters of the nonprofit sector’s revenue and expenses ($1.73 trillion and $1.62 trillion, respectively) and more than three-fifths of nonprofit assets ($3.22 trillion). According to Giving USA (2015), total charitable giving rose for the fifth consecutive year in 2014. Nearly 26% of US adults volunteered with an organization in 2014, contributing an estimated 8.7 billion hours, valued at approximately $179.2 billion.

Despite America’s capacity for volunteerism and philanthropic generosity, societal needs are not adequately met through charitable organizations. Apart from grappling with a deteriorating funding environment, contemporary nonprofits are being victimized by novel circumstances and struggles. Two reports commissioned by the National Survey of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations (NSNVO) identify the most pressing challenges to nonprofit organizations as (a) changes in the funding environment, (b) availability of volunteers, (c) varying public and media expectations, (d) competition for resources, (e) increasing regulatory and legislative restrictions, (f) leadership scarcity, and (g) intensifying demands for financial accountability.

In their report, Nonprofit Workplace Challenges For 2017, the Nonprofit Times predicts that leaders will be forced to deal with (a) funding instability, (b) structural staffing changes, (c) organizational clustering, (d) education as a focal point, (e) integrations, (f) rise of foundations, and (g) advocacy. Like the National Council of Nonprofits, the Times strongly suggests that philanthropies develop their organization’s adaptive capacities in order to effectively prepare to overcome upcoming instabilities. Finally, the most recent Nonprofit Trends to Watch Report (2015), published by the National Council of Nonprofits, indicates that for the third year in a row, 52% of American nonprofits were unable to meet the demands of the previous year.

 Adaptive leaders will most certainly consider the aforementioned challenges as valuable opportunities to rethink the mission of their respective organizations. In a paper prepared for Management Consulting Services (2004), Carl Sussman observes that nonprofit leaders who employ the principles of adaptive capacity to confront the complexity of cultural disruptions will have the agility to make continual adjustments to improve performance, relevance and impact. As such, the resolute will make difficult administrative decisions concerning who they will serve and how they can continue to advance their respective missions. They will also seek to identify new services and actions that will be required to retain the distinctiveness of their philanthropic entity.

In order to navigate through this period of unique challenges and immense need nonprofit leaders will not be able to rely on business-as-usual approaches. On the contrary, they will be required to pursue adaptive strategies that build long-term sustainability, capacity, and viability. In order to successfully overcome their respective Kobayashi-styled existential questions concerning the survival of their respective philanthropic mission, such leaders will have no other choice but to develop and/or refine their organizations’ adaptive capacity.

What is adaptive capacity and what are the dispositional aptitudes that will enable nonprofit organizations to proactively confront their sector’s Kobayashi-styled challenges?

Adaptive capacity may be characterized as organizational nimbleness, the ability to successfully respond to change, challenges, and crises. It is one of the essential organizational capacities for enabling nonprofits to achieve their missions. Adaptive capacity is, additionally, the ability of a nonprofit organization to monitor, assess, and respond to internal and external environmental changes.  Adaptive leaders have the capacity to effectively address organizational challenges by looking beyond the immediate and familiar for novel solutions.

In his report, The Sustainability Formula (2009), Peter York, Senior Vice President and Director of Research for the TCC Group, suggests four key capacities for evaluating a nonprofit’s ability to sustain itself and be successful: (a) adaptivity (b) leadership, (c) management, and (d) technical. Apart from being committed to seeking new information and relationships inside and outside their fields, adaptive leaders demonstrate several dispositions: (a) self/organizational awareness, (b) responsiveness to constituents needs and interests, (c) ability to motivate, (d) innovativeness, (e) ongoing evaluation, (f) inquisitiveness, (g) external network connectedness, and (h) continuous learning to enhance organizational performance.

Like York, Nancy Strichmen, outlines a theoretical model of adaptive captivity that can be applied to both leaders as well as their organizations. In her book, The Adaptive Capacity of Social Change Nonprofits (2004), Stichmen outlines five interconnected capacities of adaptivity, namely (a) shared vision, (b) inquisitiveness, (c) evaluative/thinking systems, (d) social capital, and (e) external focus/network connectedness.  The author insists that adaptive capacity is essential if nonprofit institutions desire to enhance organizational performance in the face of obstacles that challenge the advance of their mission.

In their book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World (2009), Harvard leadership professors, Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky, describe adaptive leadership as “a practical framework that helps individuals and organizations adapt and thrive in challenging environments.”  According to authors, adaptive leadership entails four paths to improvement, each of which can be used or combined as circumstances demand: (a) system diagnosis, (b) self diagnosis, (c) deployment, and (d) thriving.

Apart from exploring internal systems that need to be diagnosed and then adjusted, the authors outline a practical guide for leaders interested in courageously assessing their own personal levels of adaptivity. Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky explain that self diagnosis is the means by which adaptive leaders can develop the ability to (a) stay connected to purposes, (b) engage courageously, (c) inspire by speaking from the heart, (d) run experiments to learn their strengths and weaknesses, (e) thrive through healthy personal support networks that engender ongoing renewal and, (f) thereby, develop capacity.

While valuable, however, the authors warn that the current trend towards capacity building often results in an over-attendance to internal processes. Adaptive capacity provides a vital corrective to such a myopic view of an organization’s effectiveness and impact. While not synonymous, the dispositions of adaptive capacity are somewhat related to the internal reengineering of core organizational processes of capacity building.  Adaptivity, however, requires that leaders equally concentrate on the complexities that exist in the rapidly changing conditions outside of their organization.

Understanding that their organizations are means and not ends, adaptive leaders stress external orientations. Their outward-focused deportment provides the framework for resisting the tendency towards administrative introversion, isolation, and insularity. This is all the more true for the small or medium-sized community parish, temple, or nonprofit, which can advance their mission and expand their influence through interdependent external partnerships. By developing adaptive capacity, leaders ensure that their entity will permit external data, ideas, and perspectives to permeate and inform their decisions. As a result of their high opinion of information obtained through acute external scanning, such philanthropic agencies are in a better position to proactively leverage their respective capacities, resources and services.

Adaptive capacity is the ability of a nonprofit organization to monitor, assess, and respond to internal and external threats.  In broader terms, adaptivity refers to an organization’s ability to change based on its capacity for learning. In their book, High Performance Nonprofit Organizations (1999), Christine Letts, William Ryan, and Allen Grossman, describe three elements that improve the learning capacity of effective nonprofit organizations. In particular, the authors assert that adaptive capacity includes (a) environmental alignment, (b) organizational learning, (c) responsiveness to clients, (d) innovativeness to create new programs, and (e) motivation of staff and volunteers. The authors conclude that when nonprofits do not have sufficient opportunities for adaptive learning to ensure that they deliver on their mission and remain competitive, they are unable to achieve and maintain high levels of performance and impact.

Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod describe six characteristics of high impact nonprofit organizations.  In their book Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits (2008), the authors insist that successful agencies (a) advocate and serve, (b) leverage market forces to achieve social change on a grander scale, (c) inspire evangelists to promote mission and core values, (d) nurture networks and collaboration, and (e) share leadership and distribute power throughout the organization in order to be a stronger force for good. In particular, like Letts, Ryan, and Grossman, they argue that adaptive capacity is the most vital characteristic of exceptional organizations that, unlike their counterparts, have mastered the ability to listen, learn, and modify their approach based on external cues.

Research indicates that ongoing learning and innovation are important dispositions of organizations with high levels of adaptive capacity. According to Crutchfield and McLeod, institutions enhance their philanthropic impact and societal relevancy by developing a culture of innovation. As a generative process of creativity, the authors contend innovation begins with the complementary facility of challenging accepted norms and behaviors. Over time, however, even the most innovative organizations tend to seek the safety of established routines. As a result, they become less resilient and less able to adapt. In contrast, adaptive nonprofits consciously nurture a proclivity towards innovation thereby ensuring that they continue to transform and remain viable.

In his book, Managing the Nonprofit Organization: Practices and Principles (1990), Peter Drucker identifies several obstacles to the development of adaptive capacity in both leaders and their organizations. According to the author, nonprofit leaders are often too inward focused, and hierarchical, thereby, inhibiting creativity and innovation. In addition, Drucker maintains that adaptive capacities are stymied when (a) bureaucracy miss-aligns mission, (b) rules and process block innovation, and (c) silo thinking is allowed to create competitive environments that impose limits on innovation and communication channels.

Alternatively, in his celebrated book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (1990; 2006), senior M.I.T. lecturer Peter Senge, describes high-performing organizations as “inquisitive, adaptive, and voracious learners.” They are highly adaptive in that they seek and use information as a tool for improving programs and performance. He asserts that such learning organizations are “continually expanding their capacity to create their future.” While Senge stresses the necessity of “survival learning,” he also emphasizes the need for organizations to simultaneously seek “generative learning” – learning that enhances the capacity to create.” Nonprofits that can develop the appetites of ongoing learning and inquiry will be better postured to initiate change, improve performance, and effectively leverage their distinctiveness in response to new circumstances.

The following diagram (click link) outlines the vital dispositions of adaptive capacity and compares them to the deleterious organizational dilemmas the aptitudes contravene.


 Effective organizations all recognize the importance of adaptive capacity. In particular, more and more leaders of high-impact non-profit agencies, are beginning to value the capacities of adaptivity for effectively responding to the technological, economic, social, and political Kobayashi Marus in their respective philanthropic sectors. In the final analysis, the economic effects and vulnerabilities of increasing globalization, terrorism, and military threats perpetuated by nations such as North Korea, will require religious, non-profit, business as well as civic leaders to develop and exercise vigilance, flexibility, critical thinking, and the innovative creativity that characterizes adaptive capacity.

In the final scene of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Commander Spock is faced with a no-win crucible for which he chooses a most heroic solution. With destruction of his starship imminent, Spock enters the vessel’s radioactive energy chamber and unprotectively re-engages the damaged warp drive. By rejecting the existing suicidal parameters and redrawing the problem in terms of sacrificial leadership, Star Trek’s most famous First Officer saves the Enterprise and its crew, at the expense of his own life.  “I never took the Kobayashi Maru test until now,” asks a dying Spock to a sorrowful Kirk, “what do you think of my solution?”

The academies of West Point and Star Fleet are correct. Trolley-based crucibles are ultimately tests of character. Like the Kobayashi Maru, the choices that leaders make in the face of no-win ordeals disclose their particular ethics, values, and morals. Leaders with refined levels of adaptive capacity are in a better position to overcome the restrictions of “strategic patience” by choosing to make the hard and difficult decisions that others are unwilling or incapable of reaching. In contrast, nonprofit organizations with low-levels of adaptivity are frequently characterized by (a) mission instability; (b) risk aversion, (c) social/human capital deficiency, (d) resource scarcity, (e) strategic instability, (f) hierarchical leadership, and (g) cultural insularity. As a result of their inability to courageously deal with the disruptive consequences of on-coming trolleys, the philanthropic impact of such institutions is, at best, prone to stagnation, and at worse, petrified by fear.

If nothing else, the Kobayashi Maru test unmasks the true nature of a leader. Spock is correct in saying “that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few . . . or the one.” Self-sacrifice and humility are, indeed, at the heart of adaptive leadership. Perhaps this is why Pyrrhic no-win scenarios are so difficult to overcome. One wonders if President Trump has the adaptive disposition to successfully deal with his own run-a-way trolley. What is certain is that his decision will be felt by generations to come.


Dr. Frank Marangos is CEO and Founder of OINOS Educational Consulting. He received a Doctors Degree in Adult Education (Ed.D.) from NOVA Southeastern University (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) and a Doctorate in Ministry and Childhood Education (D.Min.) from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX). He is also a Certified Charitable Estate Planner (FCEP).

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