Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive LeadershipRonald Heifetz teaches the most popular class at the most popular graduate school in the US, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of several books on leadership and proposes a kind of leadership that has come to be known as Adaptive Leadership. Here are some of the key ideas about Adaptive Leadership…

What is Leadership?

The activity of mobilizing the community around you to tackle tough problems.

Technical Problems

These are challenges for which we already know the solutions. They generate only temporary stresses and can be solved with knowledge – eg, a faulty car engine.

Adaptive Challenges

Problems in which the problem or the solution is not clear-cut. An example would be a patient suffering from heart disease; the patient can be restored to operating capacity but only if he takes responsibility for his health by making appropriate life adjustments. Adaptive work requires learning, and a change in values, beliefs or behavior.

Another example of an adaptive challenge is the launch of a new change program that has not been implemented before. This is likely to create unknown situations and uncertainty. A special kind of leadership is required to negotiate the company through this process.

Equilibrium and Disequilibrium

Leaders must balance stability and periods of stress or conflict. Adaptive change tends to require sustained periods of disequilibrium – but it must be carefully paced. A good metaphor for this is a pressure-cooker. If the pressure gets too high, the pressure cooker can blow up. On the other hand, with no heat, nothing cooks.

Adaptive leadership is a balance that shifts people out of their comfort zones but not so far away they can’t handle it. This is like controlled discomfort.

Work Avoidance Mechanisms

People often fail to adapt because they want to resist the pain, anxiety or conflict that comes with engagement with the problem. Examples are holding on to past assumptions, blaming authority, scapegoating, denying the problem, jumping to conclusions or finding a distracting issue.

Charismatic Authority

In times of distress, the community tends to trust those who appear active, who have a vision, and who promise stability. This can prevent people from engaging with problems when they must. Charismatic authority can generate a mindless following, or can devolve into bureaucratic institutions.

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