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Adaptive Leadership: A model for meeting the most difficult challenges. From Adaptive Leadership: Heifetz and Linsky. The Need for New, Adaptive Leadership. Complex, Significant Challenges Myth that Better Execution and Improving Operations Alone will Accomplish Needed Results.

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adaptive leadership a model for meeting the most difficult challenges

Adaptive Leadership:A model for meeting the most difficult challenges

From Adaptive Leadership: Heifetz and Linsky

the need for new adaptive leadership
The Need for New, Adaptive Leadership
  • Complex, Significant Challenges
  • Myth that Better Execution and Improving Operations Alone will Accomplish Needed Results

Leadership Level and Associated Tasks

Facing adaptive challenge, creating meaning.

Innovation, change, dealing with paradigm shifts

Wholistically framing issues, creating context for dialogue, managing creative conflict and tension.

Stimulating/consolidating organizational learning

Adaptive Leadership, Relational Dialogue

Social Leadership

Leadership Level III

Inter-Personal Influence

Relationship-Based Leadership

Leadership Level II

Creating commitment, alignment, motivation, spirit, teamwork, and political skill

Personal Dominance

Leader-Based Leadership

Leadership Level I

Setting direction, priorities, mission, vision, goals, purpose and taking immediate action

Adapted from Drath and Heifetz

adaptive leadership challenges
Adaptive Leadership Challenges

“challenges for which there are no simple, painless solutions-problems that require us to learn new ways… uncompetitive industry, drug abuse, poverty, poor public education, environmental hazards…”

Leadership Without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz, p. 2

adaptive leadership challenges1
Adaptive Leadership Challenges…
  • “Making progress on these problems demands not just someone who provides answers on high, but changes in our attitudes, behavior, and values. To meet challenges such as these, we need a different idea of leadership and a new social contract that promote our adaptive capacities, rather than inappropriate expectations of authority.”

Leadership Without Easy Answers, p. 2

comfortable authoritarian equilibrium
Comfortable Authoritarian “Equilibrium”

Power and trust given to an authority in return for services that maintain tolerable levels of stress:

  • Protection
    • Safety
  • Order
    • Position, roles, belonging, norms, conflict
  • Direction
    • Group and individual activity, needs met


The leadership challenges are complex: there is no one “right” answer

Real risk must be balanced against reward

The leader does not impose a solution: the final solution emerges from the dialogue of all the parties

All parties learn from one another—and learn more about the situation in the process

Everyone must adapt their perspective in order for a solution to emerge

adaptive vs technical challenge
Adaptive vs. Technical Challenge

Problem/Definition Solution Solver

Technical clear Known/Clear Expert

Mixed clear Partially known Expert+group

Adaptive Unclear Unknown All, but > group

adaptive learning
Adaptive Learning

Adaptive challenge

Too hot!

Limit of tolerance


Productive distress


Threshold of learning

Work avoidance



Source: Heifetz & Linsky: Leadership on the Line, 2002

center for creative leadership research on problem types
Center for Creative Leadership Research on Problem Types
  • Technical Challenges: 43% -solvable using current techniques
  • Adaptive Challenges: 37% -solvable only by collectively developing significantly different perspectives and approaches
  • Critical Challenges: 10% -in which crisis response is demanded
albert o hirschman s rhetoric of reaction conditions versus problems
Albert O. Hirschman’s Rhetoric of Reaction: Conditions versus Problems
  • Leadership challenge to convert perception of immutable, “Intractable Conditions” that cannot be modified (the poor will always be with us) to “Actionable Problems” that have more palpable, definable, attackable characteristics.
diagnosing the challenge
Diagnosing the Challenge
  • The System: Structure, Culture, Processes
  • The Challenge: Cycle of Failure, Dependency on Authority, Listen Underneath, Examine Archetypes
  • Diagnose the Political Landscape: Values, Loyalties, Who will Loose, Where are the Alliances.
adaptive leadership tasks
Adaptive Leadership Tasks
  • Discern Adaptive vs Technical Challenges
  • Identify and “Tag” the Adaptive Challenge
  • Focus and Discipline Attention
  • Develop/Share Responsibility
  • Regulate Disequilibrium
  • Infuse the Work with Meaning and Promise
  • Pass It On; Teach a Culture of Adaptive Leadership, Build Adaptive Capacity
leadership on the line pain of change
Leadership On the Line: Pain of Change
  • “The dangers of exercising leadership derive from the nature of the problems for which leadership is necessary. Adaptive change stimulates resistance- it challenges people’s habits, beliefs, and values. It asks them to take a loss, experience uncertainty, and even express disloyalty to people and cultures… loss, disloyalty, feeling incompetent… No wonder people resist.”
the dangers adaptive leaders face
The Dangers Adaptive Leaders Face
  • Marginalization
  • Diversion
  • Attack
  • Seduction
  • Loss
adaptive leadership strategies
Adaptive Leadership Strategies
  • Get on the balcony
  • Think politically
  • Maintain “sacred heart”
  • Orchestrate the process
  • Anchor yourself
  • Hold steady
  • Manage
  • your hungers
getting on the balcony
“Getting on the Balcony”

Gain a wholistic perspective

Systems thinking

Technical vs. Adaptive Work

Simultaneously on the dance floor and above it on the balcony

Observe patterns and people

Discern true meanings and feelings, particularly of authority figures; “song beneath the words”

Personal reflection

thinking politically
“Thinking Politically”

Dance the relationship dance

Encourage supporters

Stay close to opponents

Court the undecided

Acknowledge the loss- uncertainty, disloyalty, and incompetence- change brings

Allow time for transition but leave behind those that cannot make the change

orchestrating the process particularly conflict
“Orchestrating the Process, Particularly Conflict”

Establish safe, stress-ful holding environment, like a pressure cooker

Moderate temperature to pace work progress

Let issues ripen when needed

Balance pain of loss with positive possibility of change for their future

Give the work back to the people

Make interventions short and simple

Don’t take personal attacks personally

hold steady
“Hold Steady!”
  • Take the heat
  • Patiently let issues ripen
  • Focus attention on the issues
  • Ask lots of real tough questions
  • Suspend your reality
  • Do you have a domestic strength or industrial strength pressure cooker in your community, organization, your team, your family, or your own ego?
manage your hungers
“Manage Your Hungers”

Respect the ready availability of and need for power, control, affirmation and importance

Intimacy and delight needs must be met appropriately

Manage your grandiosity remembering people see you more in your role than as a human person

Use transitional rituals to demarcate your roles

anchor yourself
“Anchor Yourself”

Don’t confuse one’s self with one’s professional role

Identify a truly trustworthy confidant who can really tell you what you need to hear

Do not use allies as confidants

Find a sanctuary for retreat, rejuvenation, and personal reflection

Put yourself on the line in leading again!

maintaining sacred heart
Maintaining “Sacred Heart”

Quality of Heart Becomes Dressed Up As:

Innocence Cynicism Realism

Curiosity Arrogance Authoritative Knowledge

Compassion Callousness The “thick skin” of experience

learning methods for adaptive leadership
Learning Methods for Adaptive Leadership
  • “Case in point”
  • Classroom as “studio laboratory”
  • Success and failure stories sharing and analysis
  • Owning up to your part of the mess
  • “Empathic Imagination” and compassion development
  • Intense monitoring of feelings and reflection
  • Journaling
  • Simulations
  • Personal Assessments- 360 degree feedback
  • Coaching
  • Leadership Development Planning
  • Current situation challenge, support, re-assessment
  • “The Fog” and other metaphors
your adaptive leadership challenges
Your Adaptive Leadership Challenges
  • What are two adaptive leadership challenges you face and what is your role in catalyzing relational dialogue and adaptive learning to solve them?
sentinel leadership texts adaptive learning and dialogue
Sentinel Leadership Texts: Adaptive Learning and Dialogue
  • The Practice of Adaptive Leadership by Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky, and Alexander Grashow 2009
  • Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, 2002
  • Leadership Without Easy Answers, by Ronald Heifetz, 1994- 13TH Printing, multiple languages
  • The Deep Blue Sea: Rethinking the Source of Leadership, by Wilfred Drath, 2001
  • Leadership Can be Taught, by Daloz Parks, 2005
  • Real Leadership, Dean Williams, 2005.