Topic 3: Leadership

We will next focus on the bottom of the Triangle – Leadership. Volumes have been written about the importance of leadership and the many traits needed by leaders to make change, support staff, and sustain outcomes. The use of the Leadership Driver in the context of active implementation focuses on leadership approaches related to transforming systems and creating change.

Implementation Drivers Triangle; Left side (selection, training, coaching); right side (systems intervention, facilitative admin, data systems); Base (leadership); top (fidelity). Leadership is circled.


Different Challenges Call for Different Strategies

Ron Heifetz and his colleagues at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government identify the importance of technical and adaptive leadership strategies. He says that one of the biggest mistakes leaders make is incorrectly identifying the type of challenge they are facing.

Technical Challenges

Technical challenges are those characterized by pretty clear agreement on a definition of the dimensions of the problem at hand. And there is agreement that the problem would be defined similarly by the groups impacted by it and engaged in addressing it. Technical problems also have clearer pathways to solutions. That is, we can be reasonably certain that given the agreed upon problem and the dimension of the problem, if we engage in a relevant set of activities we will arrive at a solution – not necessarily quickly or easily but the challenge and path to a solution are largely known. Technical challenges can be managed. The leader can form a team, make a plan, make decisions, hold people accountable and execute the solution.

This does not mean that technical challenges are easy nor does it mean that there won’t be adjustments to the plan.

Technical Strategies

Technical challenges respond well to a more traditional management approach where problems are defined, solutions are generated, resources are garnered and tasks are assigned, managed, and monitored. A leader guides the overall process and is more “in charge.”

Adaptive Challenges

Adaptive challenges aren’t “solved” through traditional management approaches, because adaptive challenges involve legitimate, yet competing, perspectives — different views of the problem and different perspectives on what might constitute a viable solution.

In this case, the definition of the problem is much less clear, and the perspectives on the “issue” at hand differ among stakeholders.

Viable solutions and implementation pathways are unclear and defining a pathway for the solution requires learning by all. This “all” means that the primary locus of responsibility is not a single entity or person.

These types of challenges require a different type of leadership and often require leadership at many levels.

Adaptive Strategies

Ron Heifetz identifies six broad strategies for addressing adaptive challenges. 1

  1. Getting on the balcony - Stepping out of the fray to see the key patterns and the bigger picture. Leaders also need to recognize the patterns of work avoidance and the potential for conflict.
  2. Identifying the adaptive challenge - Putting the unspoken issues out on the table. It also involves recognizing the challenges to and uncomfortable changes that may be required in values, practices and relationships.
  3. Regulating distress - Creating a safe environment for challenges to be discussed, and creating a space for diversity of opinion, experiences, and values as well as the opportunity to challenge assumptions. Stress is accepted, tolerated, and regulated by the leader.
  4. Maintaining disciplined attention - Being aware of patterns of behavior that indicate that there is a purposeful or unconscious attempt to avoid disturbing or difficult issues. These patterns and behaviors can show up as scapegoating or blaming others; denying that the problem exists or is truly problematic; or diverting attention by focusing on technical issues.
  5. Giving the work world back - Creating conditions that help people take greater responsibility for the work of change, including defining and solving the problems. The leader supports staff rather than directing or controlling them. Giving the work back to the people also requires instilling and expressing confidence in others so that they will take risks, and backing them up when they make mistakes.
  6. Protecting all voices - Relying on others to raise questions about adaptive challenges and provide support and protection for employees who identify internal conflicts in the organization. This includes providing a legitimate space for those who constructively disagree.

2. Heifetz, R. A., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press. Heifetz, R. A., & Laurie, D. L. (1997). The work of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 75(1), 124-134.