The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: A Review

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and World by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky

A Review by Glen Bickford

This book is amazing. It has a depth that takes one’s breath away. It is a secular book, yet talks about leadership in a way that is easily applicable to churches.

Part 1 Introduction

The first insight is the difference between technical problems and adaptive challenges. Technical solutions can be addressed by known solutions to problems with current know-how. Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, require innovation and changes to current belief systems.[1] A good example of an adaptive the challenge is evangelism for an older church that’s used to simply opening its door and have new people stream in. American churches in the 21st century have myriad adaptive challenges.

Part 2 Diagnose the system

When faced with adaptive challenges, the first insight in leadership is to resist the impulse to do something. Rather, it is best to reflect before acting and do a little research. What are the cultural norms and forces which shape the organization? What are its rituals? How can you use these to help the organization adapt? One technique the authors recommend is “balcony thinking” or what philosophers call meta-thinking, thinking about systemic thinking. The authors also recommends trying many new things and not to be afraid of failure along the way. The diagnostic framework on page 74 for identifying adaptive challenge is outstanding. Look for out of scale responses to test initiatives to diagnose the adaptive challenge. Note the gap between expressed and actual values. Adaptive challenge solutions will likely hurt some constituencies. Speak the unspeakable. Understand that diversion of attention and displacement of responsibility are common ways to avoid pain and change. What are the expectations of various constituencies? Realize hidden alliances. This section packs a great deal into a small space.

Five qualities of an adaptive organization are:

Elephants in the room are named

Responsibility for the organizations future is shared

Independent judgment is expected

Leadership capacity is developed

Reflection and continuous learning are institutionalized

“What do I think is best?” not “What would leaders do?”

Part 3 Mobilize the System

Make New Interpretations. Educate the people. Notice signs of unproductive interpretations by people. Name the group’s default interpretation. Use multiple interpretations to generate multiple solutions. Audition your ideas. Keep the work front and center, help resisters deal with fears, get allies to help.

Expand informal authority by strengthening relationships, score early wins, address interests unconnected to the challenges, and sell small pieces of your idea. Identify unlikely allies, stay connected to the opposition. The chapter on orchestrating conflict is priceless:

Seven Steps:


Establish Ground Rules

Get Each View on the Table

Orchestrate the Conflict Encourage Accepting and Managing Losses

Generate and Commit to Experiments

Encourage Peer Leadership Consulting

Suggested Ways:

Push Your Own Limits for Conflict

Accept Support from Unlikely Sources

Change Your Communication Style

Off-site Retreats

Regulate the heat of the conflict by increasing or decreasing pressure and note what happens. Build an adaptive culture by encouraging and rewarding innovative thinking.

Part 4 See Yourself as a System

Know Your Default positions with respect to loyalties, your buttons which can be pushed and your bandwidth (repertoire of techniques for leading change and self-imposed limitations). Get out of your comfort zone: expand your bandwidth. Understand your roles in the organization, your scope of authority, articulate your purposes to yourself and others. Know your limits and own issues well so other people can’t push your buttons

Part 5 Deploy Yourself

Stay connected to your purposes: what will you do and not do to further your purposes? Five things may hold you back in leadership:

Loyalty to People Who Believe Differently Than You

Fear of Incompetence


Fear of Loss

Not Having the Stomach for It

Inspire people. Learn to speak well with emotion, cadence and great content.

Run experiments: leadership is never set in stone

The beginning chapters and sections of the book were more valuable than the last two. When summarizing sections 2 and 3, it was hard not to put down insight after insight. If I were to read only part of this massive 325 page book I would focus on pages 49-180.  Parts 4 and 5 were much less helpful and almost obvious to anyone who has served a congregation. There was nothing in this book that was inaccurate, just unhelpful, summarizing material I have learned elsewhere.

Still, sections 2 and 3 are more than worth the price of this book. It is not easy reading in many places, though the examples are lucid and helpful. It is perhaps better to use this as a reference manual than as a bedtime read, and it is designed in part to be a reference work. This book may be considered a summation of nearly 3 lifetimes’ work. Though dense, it will likely continue as the business leadership gold standard for years to come.

[1] Ronald Heifitz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2009), 19.

Expectations and Competing Values

One of the most difficult aspects of mediation is managing expectations. It is possible to have a “win” in mediation where you get exactly what you want. It’s possible for the other party to get a “win” as well. However, in the vast majority of conflicts parties must decided to give somewhat on their positions or change their attitude. What is helpful is to think of the situation in terms of values. In most cases, it it better to have a conflict solved so that it does no more damage (even if the solution is less than ideal) than it is to let it fester. For example, in child custody mediation, it’s better for the child to have some schedule of parenting time than to have no schedule.

The danger in some circumstances is this: if parties try to totally avoid a conflict, believing an uneasy peace is better than no peace, that’s a problem. Unless an issue is brought up it can never be solved and really avoiding conflict qualifies as no solution.