The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World
By Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky
Heifetz and Linsky define Adaptive Leadership as “the act of mobilizing a group of individuals to handle tough challenges and emerge triumphant in the end.” More specifically, they, along with Grashow, have provided a handbook for navigating leadership and its challenges in a complex and changing world. Though written over 10 years ago, the relevance and practical application of this material is as appropriate today as when it was written, and will continue to be so for years to come.
In a very readable presentation, the authors articulate how adaptive leadership enables a leader to thrive. They describe how adaptive leadership builds on the past rather than jettisoning it, that it relies on diversity, that it takes time, and happens often through experimentation. Adaptive leadership works with the DNA of an organization — displacing, reregulating, and rearranging it. Thus leadership in adaptive challenges will generate loss, but they help us understand how and when that can be a good thing. The perspective on leadership, change, and loss is alone worth the price of admission for this read.
With this larger framework the authors unpack a series of steps necessary for successful adaptive leadership. The first of these steps is diagnosis, beginning with diagnosis of your system or culture, then of the adaptive challenge before you, and finally of the political landscape in which you are working. They articulate the process of diagnosis with profound insights, great examples, and practical steps to take on the journey. This format makes the book more than just a reference text, but rather more like a very helpful roadmap.
After helping us diagnose the system, they walk us through the challenge of mobilizing the system by making healthy interpretations and interventions, and help us understand what it means to act politically in a helpful and appropriate way. Part of mobilizing the system includes orchestrating conflict,and building a culture that is effective with adaptive change. Again, their wisdom, examples, and next steps are insightful.
But their insights go beyond the corporate, as they then turn their attention more specifically to the leader, helping us understand our own systemic nature and what that means for our organizations and our role in those organizations.
Throughout their presentation are numerous golden gems that make the book worth reading simply for those individual takeaways. For example, as they talk about the leader’s role in adaptive challenges, they make profound observations about how a good adaptive leader needs to move away from predictability so that others cannot neutralize his/her leadership. In their challenge to diagnose the political landscape, they help us understand some basic steps that will aid in the successful development and rollout of any adaptive response to a challenge.
At the end of the day, as they walk us through the practice of better understanding our organization, ourselves, and our challenges, and then leveraging the strengths and opportunities each provides, they are giving leaders an amazing tool for successful navigation of the significant challenges we face in a changing world. Their insights are applicable to all organizations (big, small, profit and non-profit organizations alike) and all leaders. Anyone interested in being a leader that is effective in a challenging and changing world should read this book. This is exactly why you will hear these authors and this book quoted so often in many leadership discussions. This work is foundational, but also extremely practical and readable. There is additional benefit if you can read it together with other key leaders on your team.
Reviewed by Terry Kaufman