The work of leadership
Companies today face adaptive challenges, changes in societies,
market, customers, competition and technology around the globe are
forcing organization to clarify their develop strategies, values and
learn new ways of operating.
Often the toughest task for leaders in effecting change is mobilizing
people throughout the organization to do adaptive work.
Adaptive work is required when our deeply held beliefs are
challenged, when the values that made us successful become less
relevant, and when legitimate yet competing perspectives emerge.
We see adaptive challenges every day at every level of the work place
when companies restructure or reengineer, developer implement strategy,
or merge businesses.
We see adaptive challenges when marketing has difficulty working with
operations, when cross functioning teams do not work well, or when
senior executives complain, “We do not seem to be able to execute
effectively”. Adaptive problems are often systematic problems with no
Mobilizing an organization to adapt its behaviours in order to thrive
in new business environment is critical. Without such change, any
company today would falter. Indeed getting people to do adaptive work is
the mark of leadership in a competitive world.
Yet for most senior executives, providing leadership and not just
authoritative expertise is extremely difficult.
Why? We see two reasons. First, in order to make change happen,
executives have to break a longstanding behavior pattern of their own:
providing leadership in the form of solutions.
This tendency is quite natural because many executives reach their
positions of authority by virtue of their competence in taking
responsibility and solving problems. But the locus of responsibility for
problems solving when a company faces an adaptive challenge must shift
to its people. Solutions to adaptive challenge reside not in the
executive suit but in the collective intelligence at all levels, who
need to use one another as resources, often across boundaries, and learn
their way to those solutions.
Second, adaptive change is distressing for the people going through
it. They need to take on new roles, new relationships, new approaches,
and new values, new behaviours to work. Many employees are ambivalent
about the efforts and sacrifices required of them.
They often look to the senior executive to take problems off their
shoulders. But those expectations have to be unlearned. Rather than
fulfilling the expectation that they will provide answers, leaders have
to ask tough questions.
Rather than protecting people from outside threats, leaders should
allow them to feel the pinch of reality in order to stimulate them to
adapt. Instead of orienting people to their current roles leaders must
disorient them so that new relationships can develop.
Instead of quelling conflict leaders have to draw the issues out.
Instead of maintaining norms, leaders must challenge “the way we do
business” and help others distinguish immutable values from historical
practices that must go.
Business leaders must be able to view pattern as if they were in a
balcony. It does them no good to be swept up in the field of action.
Leaders must see a context for change or create one. They should give
employees a strong sense of the history of the enterprise and what is
good about its past, as well as an idea of the market forces at work
today in shaping the future. Leaders must be able to identify struggles
over values and power, recognize patterns of work avoidance, and watch
for the many other functional and dysfunctional reactions to change.
Without the capacity to move back and forth between the field of
action and the balcony, to reflect day to day moment to moment, on the
many ways in which an organization’s habits can sabotage adaptive work,
a leader easily and unwittingly becomes a prisoner of the system.
The dynamics of adaptive change are far too complex to keep track of,
let alone influence, if leaders stay only on the field of play.
Adaptive work generates distress. Before putting people to work on
challenges for which there are no ready solutions, a leader must realize
that people can learn only so much so fast. At the same time, they must
feel the need to change as reality brings new challenges. They cannot
learn new ways when they are overwhelmed, but eliminating stress
altogether removes the impetus for doing adaptive work.
Because a leader must strike a delicate balance between having change
people feel the need to leadership and having them feel overwhelmed by
change is a razor’s edge.
A leader must attend to three fundamental tasks in order to help
maintain a productive level of tension. Adhering to these tasks will
allow him motivate people without disabling them.
First a leader must create what can be called a holding environment.
To use the analogy of a pressure cooker, a leader needs to regulate the
pressure by turning up the heat while also allowing some steam to
escape. If the pressure exceeds the cooker’s capacity, the cooker can
blow up. However, nothing cooks without some heat.
Second, a leader is responsible for direction, protection,
orientation, managing conflict and shaping norms. Fulfilling these
responsibilities is also important for a manager in technical or routine
situations, but a leader engaged in adaptive work uses his authority to
fulfill them differently.
A leader provides direction by identifying the organization’s
adaptive challenge and framing the key questions an issues. A leader
protects people by managing the rate of change.
A leader orients people to new roles and responsibilities by
clarifying business realities and key values. A leader helps expose
conflict, viewing it as the engine of creativity and learning.
Finally, a leader helps the organization maintain those norms that
must endure and challenge those that need to change.
Third, a leader must have presence and poise; regulating distress is
perhaps a leader’s most difficult job. The pressure to restore
equilibrium are enormous. Just as molecules bang hard against the walls
of a pressure cooker people bank up a against leaders who are trying to
sustain the pressures of tough, conflict-filled work.
Although leadership demands a deep understanding of the pain of
change the fears and sacrifices associated with major readjustment – it
also maintain the tension otherwise, the pressure escapes and the
stimulus for learning and change is lost.
A leader has to have the emotional capacity to tolerate uncertainty,
frustration and pain. He has to be able to raise tough questions without
getting too anxious himself. Employees as well as colleagues and
customers will carefully observe verbal and nonverbal cues to a leader’s
ability to hold steady. He needs to communicate confidence that he and
they can tackle the tasks ahead.
Different people within the same organization bring different
experiences, values, assumptions, beliefs and habits to their work. This
diversity is valuable because innovations and learning are the products
of differences. No one learns anything without being open to contrasting
points of view.
Yet managers at all levels are often unwilling-or unable to address
their competing perspectives collectively. The frequently avoid paying
attention to issues that disturb them. They restore equilibrium quickly,
often with work avoidance maneuvers. A leader must get employees to
confront tough trade-off in Values, Procedures and Operating styles and
In short, the prevailing notion that leadership consists of having a
vision and aligning people with that vision is bankrupt because it
continues to treat adaptive situations as if they were technical: the
authority figure is supposed to divine where the company is going, and
people are supposed to follow leadership to reduced to a combination of
grand knowing and salesmanship.
Such a perspective reveals a basic misconception about the way
businesses succeed in addressing adaptive challenges. Adaptive
situations are hard to define and resolve precisely because they demand
the work and responsibility of managers and people throughout the
organization. They are not amenable to solutions provided by leaders;
adaptive solutions require members of the organization to take
responsibility for the problematic situations that face them.
Leadership has to take place every day. It cannot be the
responsibility of the few, a rare event, or a once-in-a lifetime
opportunity. In our world, in our business we face adaptive challenges
all the time.
When an executives is asked to square conflicting aspirations, he and
his people face an adaptive challenge. When a manager sees a solution to
a problem-technical in many respects except that it requires a change in
the attitudes and habits of subordinates. They face an adaptive
When an employee close to the front line sees a gap between the
organization’s purpose and the objectives he is asked to achieve, he
faces both an adaptive challenge, the risks and opportunity of leading
Leadership, as seen in this light, requires a learning strategy. A
leader, from above or below, with or without authority, has to engage
people in confronting the challenge, adjusting their values, changing
perspectives, and learning new habits.
To an authoritative person who prides himself on his ability to
tackle hard problems, this shift may come as rude wakening. But it also
should ease the burden of having to know all the answers and bear all
To the person who waits to receive either the coach’s call or “the
vision” to lead, this change may also seem a mixture of good news and
The adaptive demands of our time require leaders who take
responsibility without waiting for revelation or request. One can lead
with no more than a question in hand.