The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Our Organization and the World
Ronaldf Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky
Harvard Business Press (2009)
Charles Darwin’s concept of natural selection among species also applies to organizations and even to individuals within an organization. Those that do not adapt do not survive; only those that do adapt thrive. Therein lie two of the greatest challenges now facing those entrusted with leadership responsibilities: How to prepare, launch, sustain, and then successfully complete change initiatives? How to respond effectively to change initiatives that originate elsewhere? Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky respond to these and other questions when sharing their thoughts about what adaptive leadership involves and what it requires of those who practice it. Almost immediately, they focus the relationship of adaptive leadership to thriving: It is specifically about change; builds on the past rather than repudiating it; achieves organizational adaptation through continuous experimentation; heavily relies on diversity (i.e. talents, skills, experience, and perspectives); ensures that new adaptations significantly displace, re-regulate, or rearrange whatever is defective, obsolete, or irrelevant; and usually requires (as do biological adaptations) both time, patience, and persistence.
Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky observe, “There is a myth that drives many change initiatives into the ground: that the organization needs to change because it is broken. The reality is that any social system (including an organization or a country or a family) is the way it is because the people in that system (at least those individuals and factions with the most leverage) want it that way…As our colleague Jeff Lawrence poignantly says, `There is no such thing as a dysfunctional organization, because every organization is perfectly aligned to achieve the results it gets.'”
Only after twice re-reading Lawrence’s comment did I fully appreciate how relevant his insight is to so many of the companies that seem dysfunctional but really aren’t. Their inept leadership, flawed strategy, mediocre products, indifferent workforce, and poor customer service are all in alignment. That would not have happened had the companies’ leaders been adaptive. That is, had they possessed the diagnostic skills needed to recognize or anticipate problems and opportunities and then take appropriate action. I commend Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky for their skillful use of several reader-friendly devices, notably the On the Balcony sections in most chapters that enable a reader to step back from a key point and examine from it a wider perspective (e.g. relevance to the reader’s own circumstances) than its context in the chapter allows. They also include On the Practice Field sections in most chapters in which they suggest possible ways to apply key ideas or, in some instances, raise questions for the reader to consider.
Here are two examples, both from Chapter 9:
On the Balcony: “Each of the even steps [when designing effective interventions] can be understood as a skill set. What are your strengths? Where do you need to build your skills?”
On the Practice Field: “The next time you are in a meeting, notice what is going on inside your head while others are speaking. Are you judging their ideas or comments? Rehearsing what you are going to say when it is your turn? In what ways are you staying on the dance floor and leaping into action? Practice avoiding this mental leaping by listening to others and trying to figure out on whose behalf are they speaking, whose perspectives they are representing, and how you can give your perspectives context within the current concerns and subject on the table.”
Those who have read Heifetz’s Leadership Without Easy Answers and/or Heifetz and Linsky’s Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading already know that they (and presumably Grashow) are world-class pragmatists who have an insatiable curiosity to know what works in the business world, what doesn’t, and (especially) why. After identifying the components (i.e. the “what”) of adaptive leadership, they devote most of their attention to explaining how to develop and apply it. For that reason, they insert various checklists and Figures throughout their lively narrative that anchor insights in real-world situations. For example:
The unique challenges of adaptive leadership (Pages 52-53)
How to identify a primarily adaptive challenge (Page 74)
Nonconfrontational ways to slow down organizational momentum (Page 111)
Seven steps to orchestrating conflict (Pages 152-153)
How to personalize the adaptive challenge (Page 193)
Common leadership traps and how to avoid them (Pages 244-246)
How to ease the constraint presented by loyalties (Pages 248-251)
In the first chapter, Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky explain that The Practice of Adaptive Leadership is a “field book” in that it draws upon the vast scope and depth of their combined experiences “in the field” and that they wrote it “for the field” so that it could be of greatest practical value to their reader’s own leadership efforts. On both counts, they succeed brilliantly. Bravo!