Adaptive Leadership: A Fresh Take on What Works

How you think about leadership in political contexts needs a refresh according to Ronald Heifetz of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. This approach, called “adaptive leadership,” can be found starting with his 1994 book Leadership Without Easy Answers.

The dominant view of leadership is that the leader has the vision and the rest is a sales problem. I think that notion of leadership is bankrupt.

Heifetz trained as a psychiatrist, and describes his view of effective leadership with an analogy from medicine. “When a patient comes to a surgeon, the surgeon’s default setting is to say, ‘You’ve got a problem? I’ll take the problem off your shoulders and I’ll deliver back to you a solution.’ In psychiatry, when a person comes to you with a problem, it’s not your job actually to solve their problem. It’s your job to develop their capacity to solve their own problem.”

via Lessons In Leadership: It’s Not About You. (It’s About Them) : NPR.

Leadership is painful because it involves addressing realities that many organizations and individuals want to avoid.  It also deals with reframing, conflict, and persuasion–all difficult challenges that challenges the dominant view of leaders as fast talkers who “tell people what to do.”

What skills will you need to be an adaptive leaders? In an interview with Fast Company, Heifetz explains, in a must read short course:

  • Develop a stomach for conflict and uncertainty with “an experimental mind-set” to accept failure
  • Active listening “fueled by curiosity and empathy”
  • Check your “grandiosity” at the door.  Feeling important is natural, but  thinking we have all the answers is a problem.
  • Survival in an organization or career requires you to not take things personally.

His approach warrants much more discussion and reading, so take a look at these sources:



11 thoughts on “Adaptive Leadership: A Fresh Take on What Works”

  1. I’m really excited about this new approach to leadership that is being popularized. It kind of reminds me of Machiavelli’s famous quip that “it is better to be feared than loved,” except that this approach seems to take the opposite stance. This approach seems to encourage equality and engendering an understanding rather than forceful and overbearing approach to leadership. I am interested in whether this will help make the workplace more conducive to women as many women tend to work better in this sort of leadership situation rather than the harsh, dog eat dog leadership style.

  2. I found this particularly compelling, especially the part where is stated that “it’s your job to develop their capacity to solve their own problem.” I think this is definitely something that political leaders should continue to develop because it is a weakness in today’s politics.

    Another article that I found interesting a few years back was from Time Magazine and was about Nelson Mandela’s 8 Lessons of Leadership.They were:
    Courage is not the absence of fear — it’s inspiring others to move beyond it.
    2. Lead from the front — but don’t leave your base behind.
    3. Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front.
    4. Know your enemy — and learn about his favorite sport.
    5. Keep your friends close — and your rivals even closer.
    6. Appearances matter — and remember to smile.
    7. Nothing is black or white.
    8. Quitting is leading too.

    Obviously Nelson is an idealized leader, but I especially liked his number 8 lesson because I think we’re at a point in American history, where there are some things we need to quit.

  3. This is fabulous stuff! From my own perspective, it has seemed that the term “good leader” has all too often been attributed to those with dominating and coercive personalities for the singular reason that they command respect. Leadership is about affecting constructive change, not about skillful command of inferiors.

    True leaders don’t dazzle, they teach. True leaders don’t achieve consensus, they achieve unity. True leaders don’t just delegate, they empower.

    I have been privileged to follow true leaders, and they always empowered me to be a vital part of a vision. I didn’t feel that the leader valued only my skills and talents, but my potential. True leaders have taught me and inspired me to become more than what I am.

    My final realization was that there can never be a handbook for true leadership because leadership is not taught, it is lived.

  4. I read through some of the comments posted on NPR and I want to point out something that one person mentioned, “Heifetz seems to be advocating dialog and participation; anyone one is capable of those things, regardless of education or access to information.” I agree with this comment. However, one thing that I admire about Harvard is that they often teach simple principles and millions listen. Almost everyone believes that all things with a “Harvard” connection are credible.

  5. The scriptures talk of the results of good leadership “without compulsory means it (your dominion i.e. leading ability) shall flow unto thee forever and ever”. The article speaks of a type of leadership that is more like helping people use tools on their own to solve problems, rather than numbing them down so one can get in there and fix everything. I feel like this method of leadership more closely follows the scriptural precedent of a self sustaining dominion rather than a micromanagement system.

    “It’s your job to develop their capacity to solve their own problem.”

    Heavenly Father is the supreme leader, and he lets us lead in a VERY hands on fashion in a type of “leadership school” whether it be in a calling, or in any position we come to that allows us to do good. He allows us to make mistakes, and he makes us work for the answers and really want it.

  6. I wish people would talk about this kind of thing more. When leaders are good leaders, they’re not flash: they get the job done. Sometimes (and especially during elections) that’s easy to forget. I like the analogy about the doctor vs. they psychiatrist, because it takes the “me” out of the equation in two ways. First, from the doctor’s perspective, how can I (in all my greatness help you). And it also takes it out from the patience perspective (what can you do for me). In the psychiatrist example, the leader works with others to solve the problem. It’s not a show for the leader and the patient isn’t a total dependent not doing anything to help themselves.
    I think this kind of leadership is very Christ-like as well. President Hinckley always said that to best serve others, you have to take yourself out of the equation. I think this guy is getting at that. Be a service leader, and take the me’s and I’s out of the equation.

  7. This idea is not only appearing in new leadership tactics but is also becoming more and more recognized in the world of development. As a leader can tell people what to do but after a while, they will want to make their own decisions and rebel, people in developing countries do not want to be told how to fix their own problems. Powerful people can go in with ideas but they will not be sustained. A much better path is no enable the people to reach their potential. This is the human development approach of creating capabilities and I think it’s great that it is being brought into many setting and relationships as every has something special is them.

  8. I heard echoes of mission leadership conferences in this article. I believe the Church teaches some of the finest leadership principles in the world, and that leaders in the Church are just as well trained as leaders as those who attend Harvard’s Kennedy School.

    That said, I feel this is a much needed breath of fresh air in Western political culture. To an extent, we as human beings are still more swayed and influenced by those who are charismatic, by those who have goals and vision and have the ability to convey their feelings about them to the people they lead. While these types of leaders are powerful and effective, perhaps the psychiatrist-leader will help us find better solutions. Whether we follow them as willingly is up to us.

  9. I think my favorite fictional example of leadership is Ender Wiggin in Ender’s Game. Ender knew how to make others important and contribute to the good of the whole. As Bean says, “Wiggin really doesn’t care as much about himself as he does about these other kids who aren’t worth five minutes of his time. And yet this may be the very trait that makes everyone focus on him.”
    Ender’s leadership came not so much from his brilliance, but from his empathy and His ability to inspire greatness in others.

  10. I feel that it is easy to say that this new form of leadership is better and will be successful, but I don’t think it will be implemented soon. Specifically, politicians hate failing and being wrong because they do not want to disappoint their constituents, as a result, these leaders fight to the very end claiming that their views are correct and that their opponent is wrong. I also think that listening is another thing we find hard to do as leaders, because we are convinced that our way is correct–especially since political leaders have been briefed by their assistants who have read several positions and documents on a specified subject. Basically, our government will not change to such a leadership form in the meantime nor will it ever as each passing year it seems more and more difficult to get opposing leaders to agree with each other or to compromise.

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