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Adaptive Leadership Practices

Technical and Adaptive Challenges

According to Cambridge Leadership Associates (CLA), a leadership consulting practice, technical challenges are those we know how to solve, they are mechanical. Adaptive challenges on the other hand require changing people’s minds and hearts. People have to learn new ways and choose between what appear to be contradictory values. If you throw all the technical fixes you can at the problem and the problem persists, it’s a pretty clear signal that an underlying adaptive challenge still needs to be met (PLD training, 2005). Most social problems are adaptive challenges.

Cambridge Leadership Associates (CLA) -

Distinguishing Technical from Adaptive Challenges

What’s the work?
Who does the work?
Apply current know how
Learn new ways
The people with the problem
Heifetz & Linsky, 2002

In thinking about adaptive challenges, the following example may be helpful:

Using the goal of having more children with disabilities included in the general education classroom, a starting point may be the inclusion of children with disabilities in their strongest academic area within the general education classroom.

The technical challenge may be to identify what you need to know, such as: what does the law say about inclusion, or what is the local school policy on inclusion?

Once you understand the current status of the issue then you will begin to look at the adaptive challenges involved in attaining your goal.

For this example consider whether an adaptive challenge may be the need to change school policies and if so what leadership skills would you need to employ to meet this challenge?


  • Identify adaptive challenges
  • Identify what learning, new skills, behaviors need to be acquired
  • Identify what loss will occur
  • Center Yourself- Find a quiet place within yourself/breathe.
  • Give work BACK- Involving others and holding them responsible for their piece of the work.
  • Holding Steady- Not backing down.
  • Get on the “Balcony”- Step back and see the big picture. In the midst of action, recognize each person’s position. See what they can offer and the constraints that are holding them back from acting in the situation.
    • Distinguish between Technical and Adaptive Challenges
      • Technical Challenges- Are problems we know how to solve
      • Adaptive Challenges- Require learning and changing people’s hearts and minds. Most social problems are adaptive challenges.
    • Find out where people are at.
    • Listen to the song beneath the words- Listen to what’s not being said by reading authority figures (and others) for clues by looking at non-verbal signals such as body language and other social clues.

“Every day an opportunity for leadership stands before you”
(Heifetz & Linsky, 2002).

According to Heifetz & Linsky, “to lead is to live dangerously because when leadership counts, when you lead people through difficult change, you challenge what people hold dear- their daily habits, tools, loyalties, and ways of thinking- with nothing more to offer perhaps than a possibility” (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002, p.2) .

So we ask the following questions:

What is leadership?

Is leading a risky business?

What is a technical challenge?

What is an adaptive challenge?

How do you distinguish between the two?

What is the difference between authority and leadership?

Why is it important to understand the difference?

Heifetz, R., & Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading. Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA.

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For any issues related to the website or any general comments, suggestions,
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Created by: Amy Brennan
Last Updated: July 19, 2005

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