Adaptive Leadership Practices
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
Leadership Associates (CLA)
Technical from Adaptive Challenges
does the work?
current know how
people with the problem
thinking about adaptive challenges, the following example may be
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
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
Identify adaptive challenges
Identify what learning, new skills, behaviors need to be acquired
Identify what loss will occur
Yourself- Find a quiet place within yourself/breathe.
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.
between Technical and Adaptive Challenges
Challenges- Are problems we know how to solve
Challenges- Require learning and changing people’s
hearts and minds. Most social problems are adaptive
- 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.
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
a risky business?
is a technical challenge?
is an adaptive challenge?
you distinguish between the two?
is the difference between authority and leadership?
it important to understand the difference?
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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on the PLD Project or collaborating organizations,
please see our About PLD page.
general information about the PLD Project, please e-mail James Kohnstamm
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or for assistance, please contact Amy Brennan at email@example.com
July 19, 2005
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