Module 5


Adaptive Leadership

Ideas from Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky


To evolve.  To grow.  To develop. 

To lead adaptively is, as D. Williams says, “…to help people face their challenge and make adjustments in their values, habits, practices, and priorities to ensure the enterprise is given its best chance to succeed.”

Technique #1 - Diagnose the adaptive challenge

There is a difference between technical and adaptive challenges.  And in most challenges, there are both technical and adaptive elements.   The technical elements are the parts of challenges with solutions leaders can assimilate and adopt.  The adaptive elements require leaders to evolve and grow, to change how they engage people, problems, and opportunities.  It’s not simply what they do, it’s who they become.  Technical is outside the person.  Adaptive is inside the person, team, or organization. 

We treat technical and adaptive challenges differently as leaders.  With technical, we seek to find and implement solutions as clearly, efficiently, and painlessly as possible.  With adaptive, we work with people to build in them the strength, poise, beliefs, orientations, and presence to lead well.

Technique #2 - Get on the balcony

We don’t mean that leaders should “check out” or “disconnect” from what is going on.  That’s not what “get on the balcony” means.  Instead, leaders should develop the habit of seeing the bigger picture of the dynamic of people and priority in the team and throughout the organization.  This requires the skill of getting up off the dance floor and onto the balcony in order to see the dance floor.

We tend to get caught up in our own individual dances.  We interact and react to the people right around us.  Sometimes, this interaction happens apart from the perspective of the whole system, of what’s pushing on people, who is sitting out, what is driving others, and the big picture of all that is going on around us.  This is what it means to get on the balcony: to take a perspective from above the dance floor and pay attention to the systems and dynamics and movements of others throughout the organization.  It also means to see ourselves as part of the systems at work and to pay attention to what forces and dynamics are driving our own way of interacting.

If we can develop the habit of getting on the balcony without losing our place on the floor, we will be able to lead more strategically and adaptively.  We will be more intentional, empathetic, discerning, and oriented to the big picture.  

Technique #3 - Regulate the heat

For most people to grow, there needs to be some pressure, some challenge, some stretch.  Too little stretch and there’s complacency.  Too much stretch and there’s trauma.  The key is to keep people in that zone of productive stretch, or disequilibration, over time. 

This zone, however, is a dynamic place, not a static one.  You usually can’t simply give someone a challenge and then expect them to stay in the zone without giving attention to the ongoing experience of change and growth.  Keeping people here requires the ability to turn up the heat by adding challenge and stretch or to turn down the heat by lowering the amount of disequilibration. 

Technique #4 - Provide a holding environment

There are all kinds of reasons why people get kicked out of their best intentions of growing and developing in adaptive ways as leaders.  People get distracted by technical issues.  They become satisfied with the status quo.  They find the work of growing too challenging and painful. 

Especially when the heat gets turned up and the challenge of evolving looms especially large, we need to increase the strength of the support systems and “holding environments” around people.  This can be done in many ways:  increasing relational supports, increasing the frequency of check-ins, providing a space for people to debrief, decreasing any discomfort associated with the technical aspects of the work environment which aren’t running smoothly.  These strategies, among others, help people stay with the adaptive work in front of them on their growing edge.

Technique #5 - Give the work back

What we don’t mean is that we give the work away or neglect helping others with their work or fail to pick up the slack when a team member has let something go.  Rather, by saying we should “give the work back,” we acknowledge none of us can grow for someone else.  And no one else can grow for us. To relieve someone from the opportunity to grapple with their own learning and development is to inhibit their growth, their possibilities, their future.  In this sense, we can support their growth, encourage their growth, guide their growth, but we can’t actually grow for them.  We have to “give the work back.”

Technique #6 - Hold steady

Leading adaptively usually requires more of us than leading technically.  It’s usually more complex, less predictable, more relational, less neat and tidy.  It means that we have to hold steady to do it well.  At times, we have to absorb the heat that is generated by the discomfort of others.  At times, we have to manage our own hungers, so that our own need to be the “solution-provider” or to be “on top of everything” doesn’t get in the way of the development of others.  At times, we need let the issues ripen, to plant seeds and give people some time to develop readiness for the real work of growing. At times, we need to keep the focus on the adaptive challenges, the difficult and perplexing issues, instead of just addressing the challenges we know how to fix.   And at times we need to be willing to engage courageously and have the difficult, but meaningful, conversations with others instead of just managing people. 

This is the work of adaptive leadership.

To read the Harvard Business Review article on Adaptive Leadership click here. 

To do for Module 5

1.  Design and take an action step to apply at least one of these techniques. 

2. Meet with your triad to debrief

3. Record the key ideas of what you learned on your canvas.  (And read and comment on the canvases of others in your triad)