I recently read an interesting article by a gentleman named Ronald Heifetz. If you are not familiar, Heifetz is a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Whenever you can, I recommend reading his book Leadership Without Easy Answers. In the interim, the article I speak of is titled "Anchoring Leadership in the Work of Adaptive Progress." Here is the article in its entirety:
Our language fails us in many aspects of our lives, entrapping us in a set of cultural assumptions like cattle herded by fences into a corral. Gender pronouns, for example, corral us into teaching children that God is a he, distancing girls and women every day from the experience of the divine in themselves, and distancing men from the traditionally feminine virtues in themselves.
Our language fails us, too, when we discuss, analyze, and practice leadership. We commonly talk about “leaders” in organizations or politics when we actually mean people in positions of managerial or political authority. Although we have confounded leadership with authority in nearly every journalistic and scholarly article written on “leadership” during the past one hundred years, we know intuitively that these two phenomena are distinct when we complain frequently in politics and business that “the leadership isn’t exercising any leadership.” This is a contradiction in terms, resolved by distinguishing leadership from authority and realizing that we actually mean to say, “People in authority aren’t exercising any leadership.” Whether people with formal, charismatic, or otherwise informal authority actually practice leadership on any given issue at any moment in time ought to remain a separate question answered with wholly different criteria than those used to define merely that relationship of formal powers or informal influence. As we know, all too many people are skilled at gaining formal and informal kinds of authority, and thus a following, but do not then lead.
Moreover, we assume a logical connection between the words leader and follower, as if this dyad were an absolute and inherently logical structure. It is not. The most interesting leadership operates without anyone experiencing anything remotely similar to the experience of “following.” Indeed, most leadership mobilizes those who are opposed or who sit on the fence, in addition to allies and friends. Allies and friends come relatively cheap; it’s the people in opposition who have the most to lose in any significant process of change. When mobilized, allies and friends become not followers but activated participants—employees or citizens who themselves often lead in turn by taking responsibility for tackling tough challenges within their reach, often beyond expectations and often beyond their authority. They become partners. And when mobilized, the opposition and fence-sitters become engaged with the issues, provoked to work through the problems of loss, loyalty, and competence embedded in the change they are challenged to make. Indeed, they may continue to fight, providing an ongoing source of diverse views necessary for the adaptive success of the business or community. Far from becoming “aligned” and far from any experience of “following,” they are mobilized by leadership to wrestle with new complexities that demand tough trade-offs in their ways of working or living. Such is the work of progress. Of course, in time they may begin to trust, admire, and appreciate the person or group that is leading, and thereby confer informal authority on them, but they would not generally experience the emergence of that appreciation or trust by the phrase “I’ve become a follower.” I doubt Alabama’s Governor George Wallace would have seen himself after his conversion on civil rights as a “follower” of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. It is far more likely, and appropriate, for Wallace to have seen himself as a political adversary and colleague of King’s in the struggles of American populist politics. And even among King’s more natural allies, I doubt that Bernard Lafayette saw himself as King’s follower when he went wandering with a bloody shirt through the streets of early 1965 Selma to mobilize middle-class black people to risk their hard-earned security by joining in the demonstrations for the right to vote. I imagine he knew himself as another leader and collaborator in the movement.
If leadership is different from the capacity to gain formal or informal authority, and therefore more than the ability to gain a “following”—attracting influence and accruing power—what can anchor our understanding of it?
Leadership takes place in the context of problems and challenges. Indeed, it makes little sense to describe leadership when everything and everyone in an organization is humming along fine, even when processes of influence and authority will be ubiquitous in coordinating routine activity. Moreover, it’s not just any kind of problem for which leadership becomes needed and relevant as a practice. Leadership becomes necessary to businesses and communities when people have tough challenges to tackle, when they have to change their ways in order to thrive or survive, when continuing to operate according to current structures, procedures, and processes no longer will suffice. We call these adaptive challenges. Beyond technical problems, for which authoritative and managerial expertise will suffice, adaptive challenges demand leadership that engages people in facing challenging realities and then changing those priorities, attitudes, and behaviors necessary to thrive in a changing world.
Mobilizing people to meet adaptive challenges, then, is at the heart of leadership practice. In the short term, leadership is an activity that mobilizes people to meet an immediate challenge. In the medium and long term, leadership generates new cultural norms that enable people to meet an ongoing stream of adaptive challenges, realities, and pressures likely to come. Thus, with a longer view, leadership develops an organization or community’s adaptive capacity, or adaptability.
The subject of cultural adaptability and the practice of leadership that generates it is a big frontier. In this short article, I suggest eight properties of adaptive work. Leadership anchored in the adaptive growth and development of an organization or community begins with an understanding of these properties.
1. An adaptive challenge is a gap between aspirations and reality that demands a response outside the current repertoire. Whereas technical problems are largely amenable to current expertise, adaptive challenges significantly are not. Of course, every problem can be understood as a gap between aspirations and reality. What distinguishes technical problems from adaptive challenges is whether that gap can be closed through applying existing know-how. For example, a patient comes to his doctor with an infection, and the doctor uses her knowledge to diagnose the illness and prescribe a cure; that’s a technical problem.
In contrast, an adaptive challenge is created by a gap between a desired state and reality that cannot be closed using existing approaches alone. Progress in the situation requires more than the application of current expertise, authoritative decision making, standard operating procedures, or culturally informed behaviors. For example, a patient with heart disease may need to change his way of life: diet, exercise, smoking, and the imbalances that cause unhealthy stress. To make those changes, the patient will have to take responsibility for his health and learn his way to a new set of priorities and habits. Philip Selznick described this distinction between “routine” and “critical” challenges in his seminal 1957 monograph, Leadership in Administration.
This distinction is summarized as follows:
2. Adaptive challenges demand learning. An adaptive challenge exists when progress requires a retooling, in a sense, of people’s own ways of thinking and operating. The gap between aspirations and reality closes when they learn new ways. Thus, a consulting firm may offer a brilliant diagnostic analysis and set of recommendations, but nothing will be solved until that analysis and those recommendations are lived in the new way that people operate. Until then, the consultant has no solutions, only proposals.
3. With adaptive challenges, the people with the problem are the problem, and they are the solution. Adaptive challenges require a shift in responsibility from the shoulders of the authority figures and the authority structure to the stakeholders themselves. In contrast to expert problem solving, adaptive work requires a different form of deliberation and a different kind of responsibility-taking. When adaptive work is being done, responsibility needs to be felt in a widespread fashion. At best, an organization would have its members know that there are many technical problems for which looking to authority for answers is appropriate and efficient, but that for the adaptive set of challenges, looking to authority for answers becomes self-defeating. When people make the classic error of treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical, they wait for the person in authority to know what to do. He or she then makes a best guess—probably just a guess—while the many sit back and wait to see whether the guess pans out. And frequently enough, when it does not, people get rid of that executive and go find another one, all the while operating under the illusion that “if only we had the right ‘leader,’ our problems would be solved.” Progress is impeded by inappropriate dependency; therefore, a major task of leadership is the development of responsibility-taking by the people with a stake in the problem.
4. An adaptive challenge requires people to distinguish what’s precious and essential from what’s expendable within their culture. In cultural adaptation, the job is threefold: to take the best from history, to leave behind that which is no longer serviceable, and through innovation to learn ways to thrive in the new environment.
Therefore, adaptive leadership is inherently conservative as well as progressive. The point of innovation is to conserve what is best from history as the community moves into the future. As in biology, a successful adaptation takes the best from its past set of competencies and discards the “DNA” that is no longer useful. Thus, unlike many current conceptions of culturally “transforming” processes, many of which are ahistorical—as if one begins all anew—adaptive work, profound as it may be in terms of change, honors ancestry and history at the same time that it challenges them. Apparently, neither God nor evolution do zero-based budgeting.
Adaptive work generates resistance in people because adaptation requires us to let go of certain elements of our past ways of working or living, which means to experience loss—loss of competence, loss of reporting relationships, loss of jobs, loss of traditions, or loss of loyalty to the people who taught us the lessons of our heritage. An adaptive challenge generates a situation that forces us to make tough trade-offs. The source of resistance that people have to change isn’t resistance to change per se; it is resistance to loss. People love change when they know it’s beneficial. Nobody gives the lottery ticket back when they win. Leadership must contend, then, with the various forms of feared and real losses that accompany adaptive work.
Anchored to the tasks of mobilizing people to thrive in new and challenging contexts, leadership is not simply about change; more profoundly, leadership is about identifying that which is worth conserving. It is the conserving of the precious dimensions of our past that make the pains of change worth sustaining.
5. Adaptive work demands experimentation. In biology, the adaptability of a species depends on the multiplicity of experiments that are being run constantly within its gene pool, increasing the odds that in that distributed intelligence some diverse member of the species will have the means to succeed in a new context. Similarly, in cultural adaptation, an organization or community needs to be running multiple experiments, and learning fast from these experiments in order to see “which horses to ride into the future.”
Technical problem solving appropriately and efficiently depends on authoritative experts for knowledge and decisive action. In contrast, dealing with adaptive challenges requires a comfort with not knowing where to go or how to move next. In mobilizing adaptive work from an authority position, leadership takes the form of protecting elements of deviance and creativity in the organization in spite of the inefficiencies associated with those elements. If creative or outspoken people generate conflict, then so be it. Conflict becomes an engine of innovation, rather than solely a source of dangerous inefficiency. Managing the dynamic tension between creativity and efficiency becomes an ongoing part of leadership practice for which there exists no equilibrium point at which this tension disappears. Leadership becomes an improvisation, however frustrating it may be not to know the answers.
6. The time frame for adaptive work is markedly different from that for technical work. It takes time for people to learn new ways—to sift through what’s precious from what’s expendable and to innovate in ways that enable them to carry forward into the future that which they continue to hold precious from the past. Moses took forty years to bring the children of Israel to the Promised Land, not because it was such a long walk from Egypt, but because it took that much time for the people to leave behind the dependent mentality of slavery and generate the capacity for self-government guided by faith in something ineffable. Figure 6.2 helps depict this difference in time frame.
7. Adaptive challenges generate avoidance. Because it is so difficult for people to sustain prolonged periods of disturbance and uncertainty, human beings naturally engage in a variety of efforts to restore equilibrium as quickly as possible, even if it means avoiding adaptive work by begging off the tough issues. Most forms of failure when addressing adaptive challenges are a product of our difficulty in containing prolonged periods of experimentation, and the difficult, conflictive conversations that accompany them.
Work avoidance is simply the natural effort to restore a more familiar order, to restore social, political, or psychological equilibrium. Although many different forms of work avoidance operate across cultures and peoples, it appears that there are two common types: the displacement of responsibility and the diversion of attention. Both methods function terribly well in the short term for avoiding adaptive work, even if they leave people more exposed and vulnerable in the medium and long term. Some common forms of displacing responsibility include scapegoating, blaming the persistence of problems on authority, externalizing the enemy, or killing the messenger. Diverting attention can take the form of fake remedies, like the Golden Calf; an effort to define problems to fit one’s competence; repeated structural adjustments; the faulty use of consultants, committees, and task forces; sterile conflicts and proxy fights (“Let’s watch the gladiator fight!”); or outright denial.
8. I suggest that adaptive work is a normative concept. The concept of adaptation arises from scientific efforts to understand biological evolution. Applied to the change of cultures and societies, the concept becomes a useful, if inexact, metaphor. For example, species evolve whereas cultures learn. Evolution is generally understood by scientists as a matter of chance, whereas societies will often consciously deliberate, plan, and intentionally experiment. Close to our normative concern, biological evolution conforms to laws of survival. Societies, however, generate purposes beyond survival. The concept of adaptation applied to culture raises the questions, Adapt to what, for what purpose? What does it mean to “thrive”? What should we mean by progress, as a business or community?
In biology, the “objective function” of adaptive work is straightforward: to thrive in new environments. Survival of the self and one’s gene-carrying kin defines the direction in which animals adapt. A situation becomes an adaptive challenge because it threatens the capacity of a species to pass on its genetic heritage. Thus, when a species is fruitful by multiplying and protecting its own kind and succeeds in passing on its genes, it is said to be “thriving” in its environment.
Thriving is more than coping. There is nothing trivial in biology about adaptation. Some adaptive leaps transform the capacity of a species by sparking an ongoing and profound process of adaptive developments that lead to a vastly expanded range of living. Still, thriving in biological systems is defined by progeny.
In human societies, “thriving” takes on a host of values not restricted to survival of one’s own kind. Human beings will even sacrifice their own lives for values such as liberty, justice, and faith. Thus, adaptive work in cultures involves both the clarification of values and the assessment of realities that challenge the realization of those values.
Because most organizations and communities honor a mix of values, the competition within this mix largely explains why adaptive work so often involves conflict. People with competing values engage one another as they confront a shared situation from their own points of view. At its extreme, and in the absence of better methods of social change, the conflict over values can be violent. The Civil War changed the meaning of union and individual freedom. In 1857, ensuring domestic tranquility meant returning escaped slaves to their owners; in 1957, it meant using federal troops to integrate Central High School in Little Rock.
Some realities threaten not only a set of values beyond survival but also the very existence of a society if these realities are not discovered and met early on by the value-clarifying and reality-testing functions of that society. In the view of many environmentalists, for example, our focus on the production of wealth rather than coexistence with nature has led us to neglect fragile factors in our ecosystem. These factors may become relevant to us when finally they begin to challenge our central values of health and survival, but by then, we may have paid a high price in damage already done, and the costs of and odds against adaptive adjustment may have increased enormously.
Adaptive work, then, requires us to deliberate on the values by which we seek to thrive, and demands diagnostic inquiry into the realities we face that threaten the realization of those values. Beyond legitimizing a convenient set of assumptions about reality, beyond denying or avoiding the internal contradictions in some of the values we hold precious, and beyond coping, the work of adaptive progress involves proactively seeking to clarify aspirations or develop new ones, and then involves the very hard work of innovation, experimentation, and cultural development to realize a closer approximation of those aspirations by which we would define “thriving.”
In other words, the normative tests of adaptive work involve an appraisal both of the processes by which orienting values are clarified in an organization or community and of the quality of reality testing by which a more accurate rather than convenient diagnosis is achieved. By these tests, for example, serving up fake remedies for our collective troubles by scapegoating and externalizing the enemy, as was done in extreme form in Nazi Germany, might generate throngs of misled supporters who readily grant to charlatans extraordinary authority in the short run, but this would not constitute adaptive work. Nor would political efforts to gain influence and authority by pandering to people’s longing for easy answers constitute leadership. Indeed, misleading people over time may likely produce adaptive failure.