A book review of Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky “ The Practice of Adaptive Leadership”

Harvard Business Press 2009, done for VBO magazine

There is no shortage of American–style Leadership book (Warren Bennis, John Kotter, Jack Welch etc…), mostly with sound but somewhat mechanical or simplistic advice. The one that questioned me the most is this recent book by a team of Harvard Kennedy School professors who formed their own consulting practice not only in the business but also in the public sector realm. The driving force is Ron Heifitz, a pupil of Dick Neustadt, whose qualifications include that of a brain surgeon and cellist…

Anyone ever put in  charge of an organization which was fit to thrive in yesterdays world, ok in today’s but at risk in tomorrow’s, will  recognize the power of an organizational system to sustain itself  and to avoid or postpone the difficult adaptive challenges. It is especially difficult for people in mid-career, who enjoyed success, to move away from what worked in the past.

The book is about what the authors  call  “ adaptive leadership”, which they define as mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive. Their concept of thriving is derived from molecular biology, which provides multiple insights for organizational change such as the fact that  successful adaptation builds on the past rather than jettisons it,   occurs through experimentation, and relies on diversity. Or that successful adaptations generate loss, and take time.

The authors distinguish between technical problems which the organization must tackle, and true adaptive challenges which require a change in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits and challenges.

Tackling adaptive challenges  in an organization will not make one  popular, because in a sense the organisation is not dysfunctional: it is the way it is because enough important people like the situation as it is , whatever they may say.  As Heifitz et  al. call it: the elegance of the status quo.  If you bring change it is not the change per se that people resist but the loss that the change brings. Hence the need to understand that loss and deal with it.

Adaptive leadership thus is not about meeting or exceeding peoples expectations, but about challenging some of those expectations, finding a way to disappoint them with out pushing them over the edge. In other words finding a productive zone of disequilbrium and conflict. Here formal authority is of little help. This will require patience, and also anticipation and counteraction of the tactics that people will use to lower the heat to more comfortable levels. At the same time, unlike with technical problems there is not a clear linear path. Once you unleash the energy you cannot control the outcome, multiple outcomes are possible, because working through an adaptive challenge always involves distributing some losses, albeit in the pursuit of a higher purpose. Heifetz et al compare it to the flight of the bumblebee: you do not even know if you move in the right direction, and the end solution may be quite different from what you envisaged.

In the second part of the book the authors provide insights to diagnose the challenge of change, the politics around it , and the qualities the organization has or doesn’t. The emphasis on diagnosing the situation is not by accident. It is the authors belief that surfacing the adaptive , conflictual, and systemic aspects of the situation provides the  opportunity for a mindshift in interpretation.

 In the third part they discuss how one can mobilize the system through often unwelcome interventions. For action junkies like myself one of the challenging observations is that the first effective step toward action may be non-action, and slowing down the organizations tendency for a quick response. Another is to stay connected to the opposition, to the change even though that may not be naturally what you like to do, nor be much fun.

In the fourth part the authors provide their insights for building an adaptive culture, where elephants around the table are named, responsibility is shared, independent judgment expected, leadership capacity developed and reflection and learning institutionalised. It is the one part which reeks a bit of the many airport leadership books one finds. The idealized image may be difficult to recognize in the reality of most organizations.

Finally they return to the importance of understanding oneself, one’s loyalties and what the musician in the author  calls ‘your tuning’: knowing how the environment is pulling your strings because of where you came from. Besides your own tuning, you also embody different roles in your organisation. What is the purpose for the organisation you believe in which is beyond your self interest? Have you negotiated your purposes with other key stakeholders? Can you move up and down in abstraction to test the coherence between the broad purpose and direction you are setting and the daily activity in which you engage?

Leadership as Heifitz and al. describe it is an improvisational art. Everything you do in leading adaptive change is an experiment. Always with a chance of failure. Your intervention is evidence of your commitment to your purposes, but it is not your final word on how to get from here to there.

The book of Heifitz et al. reflects a deep understanding of the challenges leaders face and the capacity of organisations to stay mired in their technical challenges, postponing the difficult work of adaptation. It is a call for exceeding one’s authority, and taking the risk of turning up the heat. Provided one stays connected to one’s purpose, inspires others, creates the right conversations and also names one’s own piece of the problem, one may make a difference. It takes combining unwavering optimism and cool realism. The title of Heifitz first book says it all: “Leadership without easy answers”.


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