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

The Textbook On Leadership

Written by: on March 1, 2023

            I cannot remember the podcast’s name, but I do remember the statement: “Your church is perfectly designed to achieve its current results.” Ouch. Whoever said that piercing comment to church leaders got that idea from a trio of leadership consultants named Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky. Classified under general management, this leadership book serves as a textbook on the dynamics of leading change amidst uncertain challenges. Adaptive leadership is the author’s term for the kind of leadership that successfully navigates the intricacies or ambiguities of an organization’s most challenging issues. Technical challenges get solved with known solutions. Adaptive challenges require learning, experimentation, and courageous action. Why is courage a requirement? “Exercising adaptive leadership is dangerous.”[1]Challenging the status quo is bound to unsettle some who like the way things already are.

The authors define adaptive leadership at a high level as “making progress on the most important challenges you face.”[2] Adaptive serves as an adjective, describing a particular approach when solutions are not evident. Corporately, adaptive leadership is “the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.”[3] The authors combine leadership theory with evolutionary biology principles. The specific analogies from other fields to adaptive leadership include:

  • Adaptation is the kind of change that enables the capacity to thrive.
  • Adaptation builds on the past rather than jettisoning it.
  • Organizational adaptation occurs through experimentation.
  • Adaptation relies on diversity.
  • New adaptations significantly displace, reregulate, and rearrange some old DNA.
  • Adaptation takes time.[4]

Adaptive challenges do not present a clear direction forward, requiring consideration of diverse interests and people groups to produce a beneficial outcome for all. The book’s structure contains five sections. Part one helps with defining challenges faced when adaptive leadership gets enacted. Part two details the diagnosis of a leader’s environment, the people in it, and the leader’s role in leading adaptive change. Part three contains critical elements of the process once adaptive change begins. Part four helps a leader to understand one’s role between diagnosis, action, and vital elements of the change. Finally, part five assesses an organization’s system and ways a leader can grow using adaptive leadership.

This book was quoted nine times in Tod Bolsinger’s Tempered Resilience. Bolsinger also used this book’s analogy of the “balcony” and the “practice field” to cast the vision for utilizing diagnosis and action in equal amounts. In contrast to some characterizations of strong leadership as quick and decisive decision-making, Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky argue for leadership decisions that take the time to understand the nature of the issue faced before making a decision. The caution against deciding and acting too quickly reminded me of Kahneman’s appeal to utilize System 2 thinking, which does not act on heuristics but takes time to engage in deeper thinking and reflection.

It would be impossible to relate a comprehensive summary of this dense book. Instead, I will focus on one concept that relates to a ministry context, especially the local church. Let me return to the podcast statement above. This book states, “There is no such thing as a dysfunctional organization because every organization is perfectly aligned to achieve the results it currently gets.”[5] In America, church attendance continues to decline. Some have found new avenues to practice their Christian faith, while others have disconnected from organized faith altogether. Some of the reasons for the current trend I heard expressed in pastor’s gatherings focused on external causes. “People are just not as committed as they used to be.” “Postmodernism is wreaking havoc on the youth.” “Parents are not doing their part to disciple their kids.” A significant takeaway from this book points the finger at leaders for the responsibility and the current status of their organization.

The authors offer a starting point for changing an organization with a model of “observe, interpret, intervene.”[6] When people ask for action, a wise leader might be better served by collecting data to understand the issue. Each step contains its level of challenge. “Interpretating is more challenging than observing.”[7] Interpreting is a skill gained through practice and provides a crucial step before taking an action step. I fear that the church in America observes sweeping changes as only threats, not opportunities, and interprets the current time as a call to stay the course informed by past successes. Political extremes, the advent of a digital age, changing attitudes toward organizational faith, and the like all present constant change as an ongoing reality. Tom Holland in Dominion demonstrated how the church, through its two-thousand-year history, adapted to cultural changes that unfolded more slowly, than today.

            A common myth about change states that people do not like change. Heifetz counters that argument by saying “people do not resist change per se, but changes that accompany loss or potential losses.”[8] What is a leader to do? “To mobilize stakeholders to engage with your change initiative, you have to identify their strongest values and think about how supporting your program would enable your stakeholders to serve those values.”[9] I have served two churches as Lead Pastor. Each time, I led significant changes. Each time, the price paid was high. How I wish I had the insight and direction from this book. I could have benefited by helping more people to embrace change with the insights found in this week’s reading. This book will occupy a prominent and accessible place on my shelf as I envision its value in future seasons of leading change that benefits all, not just me. After all, “Exercising adaptive leadership is at its heart about giving meaning to your life beyond your own ambition.”[10]

[1] Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2009), 26.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Ibid., 14.

[4] Ibid., 14-16.

[5] Ibid., 17.

[6] Ibid., 32.

[7] Ibid., 33.

[8] Ronald Heifetz, “Adaptive Leadership in 12 Minutes,” How to Dialogue 2022, accessed February 28, 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9kVxxfknua4

[9] Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, 92.

[10] Ibid., 224.

About the Author


Roy Gruber

Husband, father, pastor, student, and sojourner in Babylon

12 responses to “The Textbook On Leadership”

  1. mm Andy Hale says:


    Thank you for your intriguing post.

    I was fascinated to learn how Heifetz applies to a congregational setting. Since many churches’ leadership structures are top-down models, do you think that plays into the inability of people to adapt to change? What would it look like if the congregation as a whole played a role in the inevitability of change rather than the aftermath?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Andy, thanks for you question. Yes, I believe the top-down leadership structure creates challenges, or problems in the attempt to enact change in the church. I also believe that the future of all leadership, the church included, has a more “flat” organizational chart and a team approach rather than the single, dominant CEO type of leader. In my experience, the congregational role is a tough call to make. I have seen uninformed, anxious, resistant people oppose needed change. I’ve also seen people get onboard when given the opportunity to engage in the process, offer input, and receive consistent communication. As I reflect on my two times of changing a church culture, I did not tap into the values of the past and proactively seek out those who might have been brought along in the process. I cast vision and brought the change God has blessed that, but I feel that I cost too many unnecessary losses. So much of the effort to win those who are undecided was evident to me in this week’s reading. I will keep it close to my desk for the next opportunity.

  2. mm Eric Basye says:

    Hey there Roy. I also appreciated his comments on “change.” If you could go back and redo those times you served as a change-agent, what would you do differently?

    • Kayli Hillebrand says:

      I was going to ask a similar question, so I’ll pose part b: In light of your learnings from previous seasons of change, how do you desire to position yourself and those you lead differently for the inevitable change that will come in one form or another in the future?

      • mm Roy Gruber says:

        Eric and Kayli, thanks for your engagement and questions. If I had a “do-over” on my leading of change dynamics, as the book encouraged, I would spend more time and energy to connect with the values of the past and honor it in specific ways. Also, I would seek out those who voiced opposition to the changes. As for the future, I believe town-hall type meetings with change will be helpful. Specifically, we are beginning the process of a building project and I want to enact an intentional transition to the next Lead Pastor that will play out over years. I hope to make those efforts a better reflection of what change means and how parishoners can engage it personally.

  3. mm Jonathan Lee says:

    Hi Roy,

    ty for your thought-provoking post. In your experience, how were you able to help or inspire a growth from adaptive challenge from a person as a pastor?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Jonathan, thanks for you question. I have led two churches to change their culture to focus outward more than inward. The results of those changes have proven effective, but I do not believe my leadership was without errors. What I have learned about change management has been learned through trial and error. Often mistakes and hardships help us to grow and I hope I have learned lessons that will serve the church well in the future.

  4. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Hi Roy!
    Thanks for your post. I appreciate your focus on your local church context. I was thinking about you as I read this book. I’m curious how you have in the past or might currently engage a broader diversity of stakeholders to address the challenges of your local congregation?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Denise, thanks for you question. I can think of one specific example of involving people in change with a positive result. About five years ago, we tried to change one section of the church’s constitution. The members vote on that and we need more than 75% approval and just missed that. In 2021, we did a comprehensive rewrite that would change almost all of the constitution, except for the theological section. We held two town-hall type meetings and gave people direct access to the team working on the changes. Drafts were sent out to members before the town-hall meetings and edits were suggested and incorporated. When it came time for the vote, we received unanimous approval. That lesson taught me the value of engaging people toward a specific goal that helps the church as the constitution had become a restricting document because of its slow processes. Any change efforts in the future will look like that scenario.

  5. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Roy: How you started this blog–I had never heard that quote before. Ouch is right. This book does such a great job of being practical and not just sharing theories of leadership. And your last quote from the book is so critical too. Personal ambition is always lurking behind the curtain. I wish it wasn’t so.

  6. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Roy, you said, “When people ask for action, a wise leader might be better served by collecting data to understand the issue.” I couldn’t help but think of how Friedman would raise an eyebrow on this thought….he might say that the leader’s urge to collect more data is driven out of anxiety….more data and more expertise. How might one balance the tension here?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Nicole, thanks for your question. That certainly can be the reason for someone to gather data and gaining understanding. I think that comes down to when the decision needs to be made or the change instituted, will it be done? I worked with a staff member in the past who always rethought things and never made the call. My tendency is to move quickly. There are a couple of large-scale change issues that I led without taking the time “on the balcony” like Heifetz et al. recommend. Leading change is a bit of tightrope walk of not moving too fast nor too slow. My correction comes from more input and less impulse.

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