24 FEBRUARY, 2011


by Fiona Gringel
Programs and Services Portfolio Manager

Imagine being seated in a large auditorium at a prestigious university. You are with a group of very smart, very successful people who are seeking to get better at what they do. The professor walks to the front of the room, and asks a very simple question: ‘Where do we begin?’ As people in the group shout out what they think the teacher wants to hear, he writes these things on the board. He neither comments on them nor adds to the ideas … he just writes.

This situation goes on for 5-7 minutes. Tension begins to build as people are unsure of how to handle the lack of structure. The group stops shouting out ideas to the teacher and instead starts talking about the situation (meanwhile the teacher has stopped writing and has sat down). At this point, it’s as if the teacher now is no longer in the room. Emotions begin to flare as people hypothesize the reasons why the situation is happening, what it means, and the purpose of the group being together.

I was in that room when this event happened … and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. We were all there to learn about how to teach leadership. Instead we were forced to look at ourselves as leaders’.
(Source: Hoar, J. (2011)

So, where do I begin?

I first came across the concept of adaptive leadership four years ago in the Deakin University library through Sharon Daloz Park’s book, Leadership Can be Taught, while researching the design of our DeakinPrime Leadership program, Building Leadership Capital. The approach to teaching leadership was very different from any models I had come across before and it sounded bothmeaty and meaningful work. So I was keen when the opportunity arose to study with the founders, Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, at their home university, Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For 20 years and more they have worked with leaders to make real change in their organisations and political constituencies. Their books (listed at the end of this article) are the result of what they have observed, learnt and applied over that time.

Assembled to experience this with me were a group of leadership and learning professionals from wide-ranging backgrounds including academic and governmental institutions, private consultancies and multi-nationals, and from different countries including Finland, Zimbabwe, Italy, France, China Australia, the US and Canada. Participants came from such diverse organisations as the Special Armed Forces (US), Google, the FBI, the Pentagon, the international business school INSEAD and even Harvard itself.

Harvard is magical—its leafy, intensely green trees and lawns set against red-brick buildings trimmed with white, its cobbled lanes, and its lecture theatres that still have old-fashioned chalk blackboards, wiped down with large mops dipped in a bucket between sessions.

But there is nothing old fashioned about the thinking.

So, what then is this thing called leadership?

Perhaps it is because leadership has been so hard to define, and has so many facets, that there are so many approaches to developing leaders and leadership capacity. Heifetz and Linsky have a simple but powerful definition of leadership:

The art of mobilising people (in organisations and communities) to tackle tough issues, adapt and thrive.
(Source: Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky 2009, p.71)

At Harvard, it is the professor—standing in front of the podium, the blackboard behind him or her, with us all arranged in a semi-circle of tiered seats focused on this position—who holds the ultimate authority and position of leadership. In the corporate world, it is the person in the biggest office or at the head of the boardroom table.

That first day in the lecture theatre, we all sat expectantly, our eyes to the front of the room, some of us waiting to be ‘told’ what to do next, and those who had read the Daloz Parks book knowing better than to expect that from Marty Linksy! It is an unsettling experience as my fellow participant, Jim, so well described.

Marty, Ron and the rest of the faculty who worked with us, revealed the notion that authority and position do not always equate to leadership, and nor does it equate to being an ‘all-wise, all-knowing’ Wizard of Oz making booming pronouncements from behind a curtain. The curtain has well and truly been ripped aside, with the exposure of so many ethical travesties in the last decade or so, such as Enron and HIH, and the seismic economic shifts still reverberating from the global financial crisis.

What leadership does equate to, or adaptive leadership anyway, is working to open up an honest and sometimes challenging dialogue and to create a space for the people who want to do the work that makes a real difference in their organisations. While it challenged us all as we sat in that lecture theatre, with Marty sitting silently to the side, once the words shouted out had dried up and were written on the board, it also seemed to me like a pretty exciting direction for leadership and leader development.

The journey that we took together at Harvard approaches leadership from a different angle compared to most leadership programs and theories. It is more about a broader perspective, tailoring approaches to fit. It is somehow less prescriptive, less ‘one size fits all’. It says simply this: if you sense that something isn’t working, can see a problem that isn’t getting solved by the old tried and true tactics, then there is a need to explore how to help people change what they—and you—are doing.

Definition of insanity: Trying the same thing over and over but expecting a different result
(widely attributed to Albert Einstein)
(Source: Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky 2009, p.71)

Adaptive versus conventional (technical) leadership

A basic premise of the work is a distinction between technical and adaptive problems. You won’t always need an adaptive approach, but you may often need a blend of the two. Adaptive work arises out of the growing complexity of our organisational work and world environments. Conventional leadership just does not seem to ‘cut it’ anymore. Some basic distinctions in leadership style required are outlined in the table below:

Conventional leadership …
Adaptive leadership …
is about exercise of authority—giving directions.
is about helping others find their own inner authority.
is about maintenance of norms and traditions.
is about challenging norms and traditions.
works within organisational competency.
works at the edge of organisational competency and extends it.
is about technical solutions borne of experience.
is about adaptive solutions which have unknown outcomes.
is most useful in times of certainty.
is most useful in times of uncertainty.
‘Adaptive problems are problems that hold us because they are bigger than us. They are … something for which we must generate options that we can try out … They include things like growing old, taking care of ageing parents, raising a child, building an organisational culture that can respond to the needs of the 21st century, re-inventing politics, climate change, educational reform, world poverty, world security’ (Source: Lecours 2011).

Technical challenges are solved by those old, tried and true tactics, based on past experience and know-how. We get to show our expertise. But when those old practices don’t work, we are most likely facing an adaptive challenge and it is time to change our approach. Ah, that word ‘change’ again, both feared and revered.

Heifetz and Linsky’s work is strongly linked to the change work of their colleagues at Harvard, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. In an unusual collaboration in the competitive academic world, they cross-reference each other’s work extensively. Dealing with change is integral to leadership, and adaptive work provides a probing and illuminating approach to the process.

What does it mean to be an adaptive organisation?

In their book Leadership on the Line, Heifetz and Linsky refer to Henry Fonda’s character in the film 12 Angry Men as an example of the adaptive leader in action. It is a powerful story in which Fonda’s character is the only dissenting juror in a guilty verdict at a murder trial. The way in which he helps the other jurors explore their own prejudices and biases, challenges assumptions in order to consider new perspectives, modulates and escalates tensions as needed (‘turning up the heat’) and by so doing opening up the potential for a truer assessment of the evidence, is a masterful display of adaptive leadership.

As our group moved through the program, much like the characters in 12 Angry Men, there were times when we were tired, cross and confused as we learnt to ‘shift from our default [position] of doing diagnostic from the inside out (what’s happening to me or to others, emphasis on personal motivations, personalisation of issues) to a new skill of doing diagnostic from the outside in (what’s happening to the group, emphasis on perspectives)’ (Source: Lecours 2011). Or what in the language of adaptive work is called ‘getting up on the balcony’, and also naming the elephants in the room (i.e. speaking the unspeakable) that are preventing us from doing the work that needs to be done.

If you are aiming for an adaptive culture in your organisation, we learnt that you need an organisation where:

  • Elephants in the room are named
  • Responsibility for the organisation’s future is shared
  • Independent judgement is expected
  • Leadership capacity is developed
  • Reflection and continuous learning are institutionalised

(Source: Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky 2009, p.101)

In some ways, the lecture theatre became more a learning laboratory in that we were given an opportunity to learn in the moment, to develop our leadership ‘in situ’. This is challenging work, make no mistake. Yet integrated with leadership development content and methodologies that are already popular—such as emotional and social intelligence, authentic leadership, the speed of trust and application of neuro-leadership—adaptive work adds a core element of strength and purpose that enables leaders to have an ever more targeted and powerful impact on their organisations.

So what next?

While this is only the briefest of summaries of their work and difficult to do it justice here, I leave you with some of the questions we faced at the end of our work together at Harvard as summarised by one member of our group:

‘How well do we see the work that we need to do? What is technical and what is adaptive? Where is our focus? Where should it be?
What is our role and place in the system? What do we contribute to what works well and to what we are complaining about?’ (Source: Lecours 2011)

These are the questions all leaders should be asking.

When writing this, I asked for feedback from one of the outspoken, open and generous alumni in my peer learning group, Pierre Lecours, who suggested I include what this all meant for my personal leadership and learning.

So, Pierre, my learning was this. There is deeper and richer leader and leadership development work yet to be done. We, as learning professionals, can do better at making a difference by bringing the adaptive approach into the design of our programs. And we need to do better because our leaders need to get better. Our organisations, our society and our communities all require us to get better because the world has changed and it keeps on changing. All of us in this field of leadership development need to be more courageous, more experimental, more willing to explore different ways of teaching leaders and developing leadership.

I am reminded of Ghandi’s famous quote: ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’ I would add: ‘and be inspired’.


Daloz Parks, S. (2005)., Leadership can be Taught: A Bold Approach for a Complex World, Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston Massachusetts.

Heifetz,R. (1994), Leadership Without Easy Answers, Belknap/Harvard University Press, Boston Massachusetts.

Heifetz, R.A. & Linsky, M. (2002), Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading, Harvard Business School Press, Boston Massachusetts.

Heifetz, R., Grashow, A. & Linsky, M. (2009), The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organisation and the World, Harvard Business School Press, Boston Massachusetts.

Hoar, J. (2011), Jim Hoar, participant ‘The Art and Practice of Adaptive Leadership’, 2011.

Kegan, R. & Laskow-Lahey, L. (2009), Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (Leadership for the Common Good), Harvard Business School Press, Boston, Massachusetts.

Lecours, P. (2011) ‘What did we learn at Harvard: What work can it serve here?’, Presentation to class, Health Canada.

Web links

Marty Linsky: Talking about adaptive leadership

Ron Heifetz: Talking about adaptive leadership