Adaptive Leadership: Not Your Ordinary Problem Solving

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Adaptive Leadership: Not Your Ordinary Problem Solving DRuP3SULwKIAAAAASUVORK5CYII

My colleague, Lisa Negstad, has a new client and she has asked me to assist her on her first project with the organization. The focus is the Executive Director (ED) of a large nonprofit; our work will include: creation of a performance evaluation system, a competency model and a compensation plan for the ED. We recently presented our overall project plan to the board and, during the presentation, Lisa stressed that, in an ED, adaptive leadership skills are crucial. Our work has shown us that effective leaders view leadership of their organizations as an adaptive challenge. By doing so, they learn to identify organizational challenges and address them appropriately with the right solutions.

The Adaptive Leadership framework was created and developed by Harvard professors Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky to help people facing adaptive challenges; its focus is implementing systems change.  Adaptive Leadership encourages leaders to look beyond the surface, to move beyond the traditional methods of addressing adaptive challenges.

What is an adaptive challenge? What makes it unique?  Maybe it’s best to start by explaining what an adaptive challenge is not.  An adaptive challenge is not a technical issue. According to Cambridge Leadership Associates, a leadership consulting practice, technical challenges are those we know how to solve; they are mechanical. (

Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, are complex.  They involve values, beliefs, assumptions, loyalties, and authority; all of these touch individuals’ hearts and minds. And while our tendency may be to use the same techniques we’ve used in the past to address these complex issues, adaptive challenges require learning new ways to approach the challenge. And they require stakeholder involvement to solve them. My colleague, Dr. Mai Moua, notes that adaptive challenges are:

  • Persistent challenges in the organization.
  • Rooted in values and beliefs (individual, team, and organization).
  • Unsolvable using technical solutions.
  • Intertwined with the emotions and psyches of people involved.
  • Causing the behaviors of people with the challenge to shift.

As a consultant who is often called in to develop training to address a “performance problem” or a “diversity issue”,  I know that, in some cases, the client is seeking to address an adaptive challenge with a technical response (training) rather than a better suited, adaptive (systems change) response.

I look forward working with the ED in his efforts to identify and enhance the skills needed for adaptive leadership.