Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Adaptive Theological Leadership

Written by: on March 1, 2023

The paradigm shifting book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, attempts to provide a model that scales leadership across a broad spectrum from family systems to national and international governments. The book addresses the problems associated with organizational change. Though it was written well before the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s offerings are timely and age well.

Heifetz, along with his co-authors, provide many paradigms and alterations to previous paradigms; one being the concept of adaptive leadership.  In the glossary, the authors define Adaptive Leadership as “the activity of mobilizing adaptive work.”[1] It’s clear the authors see leadership, not as a title, but as an activity. Co-author Marty Linsky confirms this in a Ted Talk he gave in 2012 where he makes the distinction between adaptive leadership and authority. Too often, Linsky laments, leaders are rewarded by immediate results, when what is needed is change–change that lets the organization up for long term success, rather than short term comfort. “Leaders” are often rewarded by quick results, which often leave people in the organization/system feeling alienated.

Technical vs Adaptive problems

I found technical versus adaptive problem paradigm foundational, not only for understanding this book, but personally invaluable as I navigate newer waters in the area of spiritual formation. According to Heifetz, all problems dealing with change fall within the technical problems category or the adaptive problems category.

“In this model, there are two types of problems: technical and adaptive. Technical issues rely on protocol, procedures, rules and regulations to solve them. Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, depend on dynamic, people-focused solutions. What’s more: creative solutions strengthen the organization and ensure its long-term success.” Online Summary

Put simply, technical problems deal with change that can, and should be solved with deceive action by leaders (ex. navigating new HR software). Such problems require competent decision-making, and do not rely on culture shifts, and should not unsettle the organization too much. However, adaptive problems are much more complex and deal with group culture, underlying assumptions of “right” and “good” and “how things have always been.

Linsky says later in his Ted Talk that one of the Confusing adaptive challenges with technical challenges. He suggests the first step is to diagnose if a problem is technical or adaptive. Problems are often a mixture of both, so the diagnostic helps with decipher which parts of the problem are technical, and which are adaptive, and require more creative and collaborative processes.


“When you are asking someone to adapt to a new reality […] you’re asking someone to give up something that was important to get them to where they are. Leading adaptive change is difficult because it is about the distribution of loss.” Marty Linsky Ted Talk

My project and research surrounding shadow work and spiritual formation requires a high level of adaptive leadership. Shadow work itself requires one to look at elements of themselves that they’ve previously, for better or worse, consciously or unconsciously, decided to avoid. When my 4 year old is scared of the dark, I turn on a lamp so he can fall asleep, but when an adult is scared of the darkness within, it necessitates deeper investigation than a simple lamp can provide.

I’ve found, at the core of one’s shadow fears to be a theological presupposition about God. These assumptions lead to a hermeneutical confirmation bias when engaging scripture. Theological supremacy®, a term I created to describe the ethnocentric belief that one’s theology is more right than another person or religion, also plays a factor. Ultimately, these elements leave people with a very dogmatic, ego-centric, personal-restoring reality, which unsurprisingly cannot adapt.

We need what Robert Moore calls “ritual leadership” to lead people beyond their stratified reality, and into their unconscious shadows.[2] Our old forms must be reformed, and we must find new symbols. The symbols of the cross, the grave, the sanctuary, and Christ himself have lost their saltiness–better put, such symbols are like maps of reality, which no longer match the terrain of the human experience.


Enough said. Let’s chat!






[1] Ronald A. Heifetz, Marty Linsky, and Alexander Grashow, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, 1st edition (Boston, Mass: Harvard Business Press, 2009). 303.

[2] Robert L. Moore, The Archetype of Initiation: Sacred Space, Ritual Process, and Personal Transformation (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Corporation, 2001).

About the Author

Michael Simmons

- Tennessee --> Oregon - Father to David and Bina, Partner to Liz - Portland Seminary Admissions Counselor - Spiritual Director - Companioning Center Leadership Team - Deep Water Board Member - Ordained Elder, FMC - Aspiring Jungian Theologian

14 responses to “Adaptive Theological Leadership”

  1. mm Andy Hale says:


    Thank you for your insightful post. Since adapting to change can feel like detaching from one’s very soul, do you feel Heifetz equips leaders to prepare people for the emotional, cognitive, and social effects of change?

  2. mm Eric Basye says:

    You write, “It’s clear the authors see leadership, not as a title, but as an activity.” Whay say ye?

    • Yeah this was a nice mini-paradigm shifting thought. Locating leadership in action, rather than title, give onus to those not in power, and provides some accountability to those in power. Leadership is something one does, not a title one possesses. That seems significant. What are your thoughts?

  3. mm Jonathan Lee says:

    ty for your great post Michael. you mentioned, “Shadow work itself requires one to look at elements of themselves that they’ve previously, for better or worse, consciously or unconsciously, decided to avoid.”

    What makes a person avoid the shadow? is it fear or does it come from something else?

    • Yeah good question. One’s personal shadow is comprised of an individual’s unacceptable parts. This allows the individual to meet the culture requirements, expectations, which in turn, help the individual get their needs meet. Shadow work can be terrifying cause it requires us to encounter, love, and accept those parts we previously repressed or denied. We run the risk of losing connection with others, when we engage our shadow. But what we thought was a demon, we discover Christ. What we thought would kill us, only kills our compartmentalized self, and resurrects us into deep integration.

      What do you think?

  4. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Michael, thank you for connecting this week’s reading to your work on your project. If I may, can ask you two questions? 1) You wrote about an insight that struck me as well – technical vs adaptive issues and the need to address each on correctly. “Problems are often a mixture of both, so the diagnostic helps with decipher which parts of the problem are technical, and which are adaptive, and require more creative and collaborative processes.” Since the two issues are often not black/white, but mixed, how does a leader determine a plan of action? 2) Your passion for spiritual formation comes through in your posts and your comments on the Zoom meetings consistently. I curious why you chose the “Leadership and Global Perspective” track vs the Spiritual Formation track?

    • Roy this first one is a thought-provoking question! My first thought in deciphering between adaptive and technical problems is to discern where the nerve points are in a system or group. As I think about my own leadership experiences, I’ve seen people have very emotional responses to technical problems, and nearly primal reactions to adaptive problems–this is a nearly impossible situation to engage within.

      I’d be curious to hear more of your thoughts as a pastor working in church, denominational community. How do you go about this?

      • mm Nicole Richardson says:

        Michael how do you distinguish between emotional and primal? This is intriguing.

      • mm Roy Gruber says:

        Michael, I agree with your word “primal” on the reactions to adaptive change. I believe when people cannot envision the conclusion, fear dominates. My hypothesis about adaptive change assumes that it is best carried out by longer term leaders because that enables people to trust the leader when they cannot see the end of where the change will land. I also believe Friedman’s emphasis on a “non-anxious presence” plays a huge role of keeping adaptive change moving forward. Giving in to the anxious culture will stop the change because people will cast votes in that church setting or vote with their feet if they don’t have a vote. Finally, I believe it’s key to win the influencers who may or may not hold an official role in the church. Bottom line: leading change is just plain hard to do! God help us!!

    • Oh and question #2 – I actually started in the DMin LSF program, for the first year of project portfolio. Liz had gone through this program and it was quite familiar–not to mention MaryKate had first encouraged my to do my DMin. But after a year, I didn’t feel my Jungian framework was very accepted or understood within that program, specifically with my project faculty. In a conversation with Jason, the lightbulb went off and I new I needed to switch. I was also leaving church ministry and a DMin didn’t make sense.

  5. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Michael: How do you see the amygdala hijack playing a role, if any, for people being able to distinguish a technical problem from an adaptive problem?

  6. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Michael how has your Theological supremacy® term been shaped by postmodernism?

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