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Adaptive Leadership Notes:

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The premise of leadership as an adaptive challenge versus a technical fix is an approach promoted by Heifetz (1994) and Heifetz and Linsky  (2002).  The common metaphor portrays adaptive problems as “clouds” in  contrast to technical problems, which are seen as “clocks.” You fix clocks; you cannot fix clouds—sometimes you cannot even get your hands around them.  Technical fixes are relatively easy—a clock can be  repaired.  Adaptive challenges are more complex; it is impossible to  “repair” a “cloud” and in that sense, there is most likely not one correct answer but a series of possibilities and experiments to be considered in order to get your arms around the cloud.  Adaptive leadership examines the difficult challenges encountered with non-technical problems or—even more challenging—problems which have both clock and cloud attributes.

By introducing the concept of adaptive challenges to the discussion of leadership, Heifetz addresses a dilemma that emerges when leaders face perplexing problems that defy standard responses. Often the challenge in business and community arises through common structures that rely on traditional notions of command and control.  Heifetz’s notion of adaptive work is built on the idea of engagement—engaging the problem, engaging the environment, engaging the people—all in experimental fashion in what often is a successive process of leadership and engagement.

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Civically engaged citizens face more adaptive challenges than technical fixes within a community. Perplexing community issues are adaptive challenges that often require bringing all the stakeholders to the table and managing the factions that emerge and argue against decision making solely by institutional actors—such as city or county officials.  In an adaptive challenge, no single correct answer exists.  Rather, a “better” answer is sought by bringing factions of engaged leaders, employees, and citizens together to negotiate among competing interests to find a collective answer which speaks to potential losses as well as gains in building common goals and values.


Readings and Materials

  1. Journal Articles
    1. Heifetz, Ronald A., and Donald L. Laurie. 2001. “The Work of Leadership.” Harvard Business Review 79, no. 11: 131-141. Business Source Premier, EBSCOhost.
    2. Gary, Loren. 2005. “Ronald Heifetz.” New Zealand Management 52, no. 7: 46. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost.
    3. Heifetz, Ronald A., and Marty Linsky. 2004. “When Leadership Spells Danger.” Educational Leadership 61, no. 7: 33-37. Education Source, EBSCOhost.
    4. Heifetz, Ronald A., and Marty Linsky. 2002. “A Survival Guide for Leaders.” Harvard Business Review 80, no. 6: 65-74. Business Source Premier, EBSCOhost.
  2. Video
    1. Heifetz: Adaptive vs. Technical (Links to an external site.) on TEDEd

Discussion Question:

In the conceptual framework of Adaptive Leadership theory, Heifetz  defines adaptive leadership as “the practice of mobilizing people to  tackle tough challenges and thrive.” This suggests a relationship between leadership, adaptation, systems, and change. Examine the importance of diagnosing adaptive challenges vs technical fixes before taking action. Relate an example of an adaptive challenge you have had to wrestle within your career and compare the ways using the four competencies of diagnosing the situation, manage self, energize others,  and intervene skillfully would have made a difference in the outcome. 

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