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

Being a Catalyst Within an Organization Fixated on Technical Solutions

Written by: on March 4, 2023

There are few things I love more than sitting in the back corner of a meeting. It ranks right up there with sitting in a café in the center of a busy square or mall. Both situations provide an optimal view of the people and how they interact with the world around them. It is similar to doing a teacher observation and finding the pupils that are the magnetic draw of power and attention in the room.

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World,[1] by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky reminds me of when I taught Behavior Management to perspective teachers. To be an effective public-school educator it is far more than knowing your subject matter. It requires the skills of constant monitoring and adjusting to the individual and collective needs, behaviors, and interactions of students. What are the social, emotional factors that contribute to disruptive behavior or lack of academic performance?[2] Are they coming from within the classroom, the school, home or the community?[3] How is the teacher’s behavior [4] contributing to the undesired behaviors?[5] What technical or relational adjustments can be made to increase self-esteem, appropriated social interactions, and academic success? Who are the stakeholders within this system?[6] How do they contribute to success or are detrimental to student development? What are the viable options, when will they be implemented and for how long before they are reassessed?[7]

Effective educators, like adaptive leaders are skilled at sheep dogging [8] those within their influence to identify the challenges within their circumstances that are preventing optimal growth and performance. These individuals are very much aware that they are one element in a complex system, in order to make significant changes all stakeholders need to be included in the adaptive process.

My passion for observing people in their natural environment has provided a treasure trove of information to aid in the identification of issues. Plus, not being one to shy away from asking why are we doing this? Nor do I hesitate to ask about apparent discrepancies between words, beliefs, and actions. Those questions usually are accompanied by potential next steps.[9] This inquisitive and process orientated engagement was for the most part encouraged within the education settings I have been. However, this was not the case within the mission agency I found myself.

It is interesting how the authors so amply identified the system of the organization. Leadership will identify the system as being a family and say we should not be surprised that it is dysfunctional. Heifetz et al. put it this way the “family is the way it is because the people in that system…want it that way.” [10] Unfortunately, those individuals with the greatest power and the most at stake financially to lose are unwilling to look at the gap between the values and the reality, “the value-in practice.” [11]

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership provides the reader with a step-by-step procedures, tools, and tactics for implementing adaptive leadership. The twenty-three chapters are broken up into five parts:

  1. Purpose and Possibilities
  2. Diagnose the System
  3. Mobilize the System
  4. See Yourself in the System
  5. Deploy Yourself

Each chapter “comprises a wealth of tools, diagrams, reflections, exercises, charts, and tactics” [12] to assist the reader in implantation within their individual context. The overall structure of the chapters “consists of framing ideas and illustrative stories…reflective exercises and low risk” [13] experiments for practitioners test their learning.

The authors Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky are co-founders of Cambridge Leadership Associates. Alexander Grashow is the managing director of the firm. Cambridge Leadership Associates are an international leadership development firm which serves corporate, nonprofit, and public sectors globally. Heifetz and Linsky have been colleagues and collaborators on a number of books, encompassing more than twenty-five years while at Harvard Kennedy School. Grashow has taught executive leadership at Harvard, New York University, and Duke Corporate Education.

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

[2] Ibid., 54.

[3] Ibid., 57.

[4] Ibid., 128.

[5] Ibid., 63.

[6] Ibid., 158.

[7] Ibid., 105.

[8] This is a term I coined to illustrate the technic teachers can use to keep students on task and collectively moving in the same directions in their learning.

[9] Peter Hernon, “Review: The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. By Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky.,” Library & Information Science Research 31, no. 4 (December 2009): 269, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lisr.2009.05.001.

[10] Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, 17.

[11] Ibid., 18.

[12] Thomas Gyuroka, “Book Review: The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World,” The Journal of Applied Christian Leadership 4, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 146, https://www.andrews.edu/services/jacl/article_archive/4_1_spring_2010/16-br_the_practice.pdf.

[13] Ibid., 147.

About the Author


Denise Johnson

Special Education teacher K-12, School Counselor K-12, Overseas field worker in Poland,

3 responses to “Being a Catalyst Within an Organization Fixated on Technical Solutions”

  1. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Denise, based on your post, it sounds like you enjoy being “on the balcony” to use the phrase from the book. My guess is that every leader enjoys the balcony or the dance floor over the other. How would you counsel a leader to find balance so that they are leading from both perspectives?

  2. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Denise: Do you have any sense as to why the questioning was encouraged within the educational systems you were in but not at the mission organization you were with? Was there an underlying ‘elephant in the room’ that you had to avoid?

  3. mm Mary Kamau says:

    Denise, I enjoyed reading your blog and the way you relate adaptive leadership to work of an educator. Thank you for sharing about your experience as an educator and how it helped relate with the book.

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