Discussion | Leadership in Organizations | Park University

Adaptive Leadership Notes:

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.  

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 with in your career and compare the ways using the four  competencies of diagnose the situation, manage self, energize others,  and intervene skillfully would have made a difference in the outcome. 

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