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