Leadership Without Easy Answers (1994) by Ronald A. Heifetz is a timeless treatise on leadership.  There is tremendous value is his differentiation between leading with and without authority—meaning that leaders need to understand how they are constructing their leadership framework.

In the first case (leading with authority), Heifetz points out that authority figures such as doctors often confuse technical and adaptive challenges.  A technical challenge is something which falls under his/her expertise and can be solved.  A clear problem with a clear solution.  It’s a great reminder that those of us in education often hear problems such as literacy, enrollment, or funding defined as technical problems and easy solutions are given.

Adaptive problems are challenges which present problems which aren’t clear-cut.  Take cancer, for example, a condition that doesn’t lend itself to easy solutions.  This requires more learning from the doctor.  And no clear solution.  They might try different approaches and different modulations to treatments.

In those situations, the authority can induce learning by asking hard questions and by recasting people’s expectations to develop their response ability.  In contract, Plato argues in The Republic that people need a philosopher-king to counteract their ignorance.  Using a medical analogy, he asserts that just as one sensibly turns to a physician to solve a medical problem, so also should a polity turn to a properly trained philosopher-king to solve problems of public policy (85).

Adaptive work, then, requires adaptive solutions.  The authority must ask questions and try for novel solutions.  “Getting people to pay attention to tough issues rather than diversions is at the heart of strategy” (113).  And leaders are asked to help direct the decision-making process.  Heifetz offers great suggestions to leaders with authority in the midst of adaptive challenges:

  1. Identify the adaptive challenge
  2. Keep the level of distress at a tolerable level
  3. Focus attention on ripening issues and not on stress-reducing distractions
  4. Give the work back to people, but at a rate they can stand
  5. Protest voices of leadership without authority

Heifetz has a gift for storytelling.  He fills the book with great stories such as Selma, the Tacoma SuperFund cleanup, and Lyndon Johnson’s approach to Vietnam.  He illustrates leadership without authority by sharing the stories of Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and Margaret Sanger and how they dealt with distress without any real authority.

An adaptive challenge consists of a gap between the shared values people hold and the reality of their lives, or of a conflict among people in a community over values or strategy.  In both cases, these internal contradictions are likely to generate distress.  Thus, we can offer the diagnostic principle that distress itself, if it cannot be alleviated through the application of technical know-how and existing procedures, provides a clue to what the adaptive challenge is. (254)

This is the origin of the “get off the dance floor and onto the balcony” advice that peppers so many leadership tomes.  It’s a great read for those concerned about identifying, bringing about, and navigating change in organizations.

Other Resources:

  1. Harvard University Press resources
  2. Book synthesis from Medium
  3. Book review from a blogger
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