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Competent leaders are needed throughout an infrastructure for implementation.  It is rare to find a description of change that does not point to leadership as an important contributor to success or failure.  For decades, good leaders were known by their good results but the critical skills were not well understood.  How leadership contributes to success now is better understood, thanks to theoretical orientations based on complexity theory (Morgan & Ramirez, 1983; Stacey, 2002), frameworks for describing the salient features of leadership (Hall & Hord, 1987; 2011; Heifetz et al, 1997; 2009), and meta-analyses and syntheses of the literature (Kaiser, Hogan, & Craig, 2008; Rhim, Kowal, Hassel, & Hassel, 2007; Waters, Marzano, & McNulty, 2005).

Technical leadership might be thought of as good management.  The leader is engaged, quick to recognize and respond to issues that arise, organizes groups to solve problems, and regularly produces desired results.  In terms of complexity theory (Stacey, 2002), technical leaders work in the zone where there is substantial agreement about what needs to be done and reasonable certainty about how to do it.  Adaptive leadership is required in the zone of complexity where there is little agreement and less certainty.  The concept of adaptive leadership resonates with leaders who recognize the layers of complexity involved in any large-scale systems reform.

The importance of adaptive leadership was noted by Hall & Hord (1987; 2011) in their analyses of leadership styles in education.  Hall & Hord found a correlation of 0.74 between leadership style and teachers’ use of innovations with fidelity.  The most productive leadership style was what they called the “initiator style” and what Heifetz & Laurie (1997) call adaptive leadership.  Less effective styles were characterized as “responders” (unengaged, reactive) and “managers” (emphasis on following policies and procedures).

To exercise leadership toward the full implementation of effective innovations means moving a complex and entrenched system through meaningful change—and leading through the resistance that can arise in the process.  Transformative leaders learn how to make use of adaptive leadership, which offers useful ways to re-understand the work of leadership.  For example, adaptive leaders understand the difference between “authority” (i.e., a formal position of power) and “leadership” (i.e., the act of helping people through loss to achieve meaningful change).  Heifetz & Linsky (2002) note that “authority” is organized to provide “direction, protection, and order” and maintain a stable system.  When systems undergo change, the natural tendency of those in the system is to look to those in authority to minimize the tension of change and regain stability.  However, when change is the goal, formal authority can get in the way of leadership because it is designed to maintain systems, not to help people overcome their natural tendencies to maintain the status quo.  When organizations and systems are being changed on purpose, adaptive leadership is needed to manage the change process.

Heifetz and his colleagues help us understand that people in leadership positions often mistake adaptive challenges (i.e., challenges that cannot be solved with existing know-how and that require confronting conflict and changing hearts and minds) for technical challenges (i.e., challenges we generally understand and have the skills to fix, even though they can be quite complicated).  Implementation Teams can help leaders and their management teams explore the nature of adaptive challenges and make good use of adaptive leadership methods to resolve difficult issues.