Exercising Adaptive Leadership


Ronald Heifetz is a professor of public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and he is credited for introducing the groundbreaking leadership model of adaptive leadership. His book Leadership Without Easy Answers provides the theory and framework of leadership for his highly popular course, Exercising Leadership: The Politics of Change. I had the privilege of attending this course in the fall of 2010 and it was altogether a unique learning experience.

Heifetz distinguishes the problems that individuals, organizations and societies face into technical problems and adaptive problems. Technical problems are those that are routine and mechanical and one can look to authority or experts for solutions. However, adaptive problems are those, which do not have easy and readymade answers such as poverty, environmental hazards, and economic and social issues. It is these adaptive problems and the leadership approach necessary to address the adaptive challenges that this book delves into.

We normally associate leaders to someone who is an authority figure commanding power and privileges in the organization or society. But Heifetz makes clear distinction between exercising authority (drawn from organizational/societal authority and power) and exercising leadership. According to him, leadership is an activity that people with or without formal authority can exercise. He views leadership as doing adaptive works, which consists of “ learning to address conflicts in the values people stand for and the reality they face ”.

Heifetz explains his leadership theory and principles using the cases of historical events and personalities in the United States and elsewhere. He outlines five principles of leadership: 1) Identifying the adaptive challenge, 2) Regulating distress, 3) Directing disciplined attention to the issues, 4) Giving the work back to the people, and 5) Protecting voices of leadership in the community.

The author warns about the dangers of exercising leadership. He explains that leaders and authority figures get attacked, dismissed, silenced, and sometimes assassinated and highlights recommendations to maneuver through the risky minefield of doing adaptive work.

Recommended for Bhutanese leaders (with formal or informal authority) who are engaged/venturing into the business of doing adaptive change.

Karma Galleg
Reviewed by on September 6th, 2015