The Work Of Leadership: HBR Must Reads on Leadership Review #4

Being adaptive is what it is all about in leadership, in life and in business. Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie start “The Work of Leadership” with the perfect analogy of how doctors and patients must adapt in the face of critical health challenges as a proxy for how companies must navigate critical decisions. They go on to delineate the shift in leadership that has to occur to allow organizations to be more adaptive. Essentially, leadership must step back and let employees lead from within. They posit that in order to face adaptive challenges, people throughout the organization must be tasked to do adaptive work.

“Solutions to adaptive challenges reside not in the executive suite, but in the collective intelligence of employees at all levels who need to use one another as resources, often across boundaries and learn their way to those solutions.” Heiftez and Laurie
  • Defining An Adaptive Challenge
    • Systematic problems with no easy answers
    • Solutions do not reside in the executive suites
    • Required when our deeply held beliefs are challenged, when the values that made us successful. become less relevant, and when legitimate, yet competing, perspectives emerge
  • Strategies for Adaptive Leadership
    1. Get on the balcony
    2. Identify your adaptive challenge
    3. Regulate distress
    4. Maintain disciplined attention
    5. Give the work back to the employees
    6. Protect leadership voices from below

This is a big, and very welcome, shift in leadership theories from much more stagnant and hierarchical models of leading and working. However, thinking about the utility of adaptive leadership for specific adaptive challenges begs the question of when is the work not adaptive? The obvious answer is never – everything is an adaptive challenge. This is why adaptive leadership is such an obvious evolution of leadership. The key here is to engage in work in a way that allows people throughout the organization to effectively respond to any challenge; because all challenges are adaptive and opportunities waiting to be seized upon. Further, as we discussed in the last article review of What Leaders Really Do, to be truly adaptive to change, understanding of one’s strengths and “why” are critical.

“Great transformations come from simple truths, just as simple truths come from great transformation.”TandemSpring

This model is clearly headed in the right direction and towards a framework for leadership that is much more tangible, applicable, and therefore relevant to humanity. The only challenge is that adaptive leadership is introduced through a deficit-oriented lens of the Corporate Mindset.

  • There is an assumption that “adaptive work will be tough for everyone” without acknowledgement that this will be difficult only in light of more rigid and traditional models of leadership.
  • The key strategies for adaptive leadership are therefore offered as being counterintuitive to traditional models of leadership that encourage leaders to do X, Y, and Z (e.g., the first strategy is “Get on the Balcony” and offers a negative reinforcement “Don’t get swept up in the field of play.”)
  • Similarly, the regulation of distress is the third strategy because there is an assumption, that in the traditional model, to not give work back to the employees is in some sort of juxtaposition to the leader being in and having control.
  • Finally, like Kotter, Heiftetz and Laurie miss entirely the fact that vision and mission must come from strengths, and through strengths, adaptive leadership becomes productive, and often, rather easy.

The main challenge with adaptive leadership as presented by Heifetz and Laurie is that in the Corporate Mindset to remain adaptive is perceived as something painfully new. The authors acknowledge that executives will have “to break a longstanding behavior pattern” of providing leadership in the form of solutions.  Let’s be clear:  most of those solutions, historically, have sucked!  Nobody wanted them, they didn’t work.  So, breaking from this will likely be a great relief, not a struggle.

On the other side of the workforce, adaptive leadership is presented as distressing for the people who are going through it. Through strengths, absolutely none of this has to be the case. In fact, the real truth is that few, if any, of the traditional rules in the Corporate Mindset are, in fact, true. For example, employees have always been in charge of the work, and so there is little need to “give it back” except to acknowledge that it was theirs in the first place. Adaptive leadership is likely to only feel cumbersome as people navigate back to their true and original orientations, because they have been away from it for so long. Have no doubt, muscle memory will kick in. Done right, it will feel liberating for leadership to empower people (e.g., less about protection of self and more about elevation of others) and for people to have more power to turn challenges into opportunities (e.g., less about managing conflict and more about leveraging diversity).  We only see the problems because of the deficit-orientation we are mired in by operating within the Corporate Mindset today.  Once we free ourselves from that set of false rules, we can clearly see what the authors call “adaptive leadership” is really just true leadership, which should be applied every day, universally, and never limited to specific “adaptive leadership appropriate” situations.

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