Volume 98, May 2009: Adaptive Leadership

Keyzine: An E-zine for Leaders about the People Side of Business

This is a monthly electronic magazine for anyone who wants to be a better leader, coach, facilitator, or simply, to tune up their people skills. It is a complimentary publication, devoted to the next evolution of Quality Thinking.

Publisher: © Key Associates, LLC, 2009 ISSN # 1545-8873

“One of the best ways to persuade others is with your ears.” — Dean Rusk

“The task of leadership is not to put greatness in people, but to elicit it, for the greatness is there already.” — John Buchan

“Adapt or die.” — Fast Company

“Best efforts are essential. Unfortunately, best efforts, people charging this way and that way without guidance of principles, can do a lot of damage. Think of the chaos that would come if everyone did his best, not knowing what to do.” — W. Edwards Deming, The New Economics

“It is the paradox of leadership: you have to be completely committed to what you are doing in order to step out there and take the risks, but at the same time, with equal persistence, you have to hang on to self-doubt, always keeping open the possibility that there is a better idea out there. Otherwise, how can you ever learn and grow?” — Marty Linksky’s Blog, 5/3/09


  • What’s Hot in Leadership
  • Maintaining Yourself as a Leader
  • Frequently Asked Questions from Leaders
  • Educational Opportunities
  • Useful Websites & Newsletters
  • Articles/Publications

What’s Hot in Leadership

  • Uncoupling authority from leadership.
  • Recognizing that your organization is filled with leaders who are stymied.
  • Launching many experiments and identifying innovative solutions with them.
  • Orchestrating conflict rather than resolving it.
  • Being a participant-observer of your endeavors.

Maintaining Yourself as a Leader

There is nothing more stimulating for me than learning, and conferences are an excellent opportunity to harvest new ideas. I have to compliment Vermont Oxford Network for inviting Cambridge Leadership Associates (Jeffrey Lawrence & Kristin Dunlop) to present at their March 19th, 2009 meeting.

The unique idea I took from this was that Motivation has very much to do with overcoming competing commitments, interests, and conflicting values. Leaders are asking people to make great change and often encounter a solid status quo-ism push back. The core idea is that people fear not being able to do a good job, are satisfying many interests and will make very small changes (which looks like resistance) because of the conflict. Leadership’s challenge is to help people refashion their beliefs to make adaptive changes. It is a process that focuses on the person and not the technical challenges of the job.

Frequently Asked Questions

“What is Adaptive Leadership?”
Ron Heifetz (1998) presented a striking new theory of leadership which distinguished between routine technical problems, which can be solved through expertise, and adaptive problems, such as crime, poverty, and educational reform, which require innovative approaches, including consideration of values.
“Adaptive challenges” stretch values and beliefs, ways of being, and identity. These serve as an immune system, neutralizing new initiatives and innovations, only to restore the system to status quo. You appear threatening as a leader, asking for so much change. The way through this logjam is not logic, but an examination of what a person/group can give up and what can be preserved. By identifying the expendable, you create space for innovative approaches. That which appears to be resistance is actually loss – of the familiar, the comfortable, the known (von Donop, 2009).
“What would be the best set of leadership skills/practices?”
  • Diagnose the situation in light of the values involved (and the conflicts among them).
  • Resist authoritative solutions.
  • Accurately diagnose the challenges you are facing – adaptive or technical.
  • Identify the practices that are core to the future and the obstacles to them.
  • Encourage smart experimentation and the testing of new practices.
  • Adapt by integrating new practices.

When these practices are shared across a number of people, the alignment of execution is greater across the organization (von Donop, 2009).

“How can I help people get unstuck?”
The Cambridge Leadership Associates use a case consultation methodology, which is akin to that used in Key Associates’ Peer Coaching process:
  1. Build rapport with your consultee.
  2. Inquire about and understand the problem. What are its essential features? Repeat back your understanding.
  3. Together, generate solutions, which can include: brainstorming, the conduct of experiments, challenging assumptions, using analogies, seeing ways they contribute to their own problem, examining their vision of success. (Do not take over the problem or tell them what to do.)
  4. Collaboratively develop a plan and a mechanism for follow-up.

The key to success is letting go of judgment, control and certainty; and allowing neutrality, empathy, and equality to exist in the relationship.

“Can I help myself, as a leader, with these same kinds of challenges?”
Heifetz & Linsky (2002) coin the phrase “Get on the Balcony,” the title of their Chapter 3. A most difficult challenge is to gain perspective, while you’re in the midst of action. They suggest thinking of yourself as dancing in a big ballroom, with the band playing and people swirling around you. But above is a balcony, from which you can observe a different picture.
Take yourself out of the dance, if only for a moment. But to affect what is happening to you, you have to return to the dance floor to test your observations. Move back and forth. This is the role of the participant-observer.

Exercises And Action Items:

  • Practice the process of coaching your employees, without an authoritative, telling approach.
  • Be curious about what makes others tick: what loyalties, interests, other communities they serve. Find out what they care about and ignite that.
  • Create a vision of greatness, but respond to what is happening in the moment.


Key points in a Harvard Business Review article by Heifetz & Linsky about Leadership on the Line.

Key Associates offers a courses and modules in leadership development, several addressing human motivation and peer coaching. Contact us for more information.

Useful Websites & Newsletters

Send in your leadership dilemmas to leadership@washingtonpost.com and hear a commentary on them by Cambridge Leadership Associates once a week on The Washington Post’s website, Leadership House Call. (Note: This section is no longer active, and no longer accepts email questions.)

Check out Marty Linsky's blog: Linsky on Leadership.

Keyzines on related topics: Coaching, Motivation, Dealing with Difficult People, Personal Change, Pride in Work, Dialogue: Thinking Together, Cynicism, Driving Out Fear, Having Difficult Conversations, and Employee Engagement.



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