Adaptive Leadership, Part 1: Technical or Adaptive Challenge?

Editor’s Note: This is a three-part series on adaptive leadership by NAIS President Donna Orem. Look for the forthcoming blog posts in May and June.  

According to the 2023 Ipsos Global Trends Report, six “Macro Forces” will continue to affect the way we live and work in the coming years: 

  1. Societies are in flux, driven by aging populations, community migration, and growing racial and ethnic diversity. 
  2. Tech acceleration is bringing artificial intelligence (AI) advances and increased automation and efficiencies and, at the same time, taking its toll on humans. 
  3. Inequalities are on the rise as the middle class shrinks, employee/employer power dynamics shift, inflation spirals out of control, and generational wealth disparities grow. 
  4. Environmental emergencies are becoming more commonplace driven by climate change and over-development. 
  5. Political splintering is changing institutions, eroding trust, and increasing geopolitical conflicts. 
  6. And well-being is at an all-time low, driven by a growing mental health crisis and systemic health inequality. 

 Any of these forces alone is enormously impactful and hard to manage, and today, these forces are intertwining to create a polycrisis. In the Ipsos report, Columbia University Professor Adam Tooze describes a polycrisis as a situation “where the whole is even more dangerous than the sum of the parts.” 

Across all industries, leaders are feeling ill-equipped to deal with these challenges. Although they have faced aspects of these issues before, the combination effect is creating new and far more complex scenarios. For example, the Ipsos study delved into how these forces are working together to fuel the divisions we are feeling in society: 

“The existence of disagreements on multiple fronts—from the climate to human rights, immigration to fiscal policy, gender fluidity to data privacy, and around the ethics of artificial intelligence and synthetic biology—means that it’s hard to build a coalition to solve any of them. Sometimes the fault lines are clear. Sometimes new factions align in nontraditional ways on one issue while warring on others. The technology and tools that connect us are also able to drive us apart. Headlines highlight divisions between us every time we log on.” 

The result is that change is occurring faster than our ability to deal with it, and that is really turning up the heat for leaders because leading through change is a complicated mix of reconfiguring people, tasks, institutions, and culture. It often requires upsetting the status quo, which can lead to people feeling a profound sense of loss. And, when people feel loss, their instincts are to halt progress. 

Defining Challenges  

How can leaders move their community forward? I believe the most effective path is to adopt the tenets of adaptive leadership. Ronald Heifetz, King Hussein bin Talal Senior lecturer in public leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School, first laid out this theory in his 1998 book Leadership Without Easy Answers. He later joined with Marty Linsky and Alexander Grashow to create a more practical guide to employing the theory, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. Both books are must-reads for school leaders today. 

To understand adaptive leadership, it’s helpful to first step back and gain some insight into the nature of two distinct types of challenges—technical and adaptive challenges. Heifetz suggests that leaders most often view challenges as technical problems, with known root causes that can be addressed by employing tried-and-true solution frameworks or by bringing in someone with a particular expertise. Because humans like to solve problems, we tend to attack all challenges as if they were technical ones. That can be a problem if a challenge is an adaptive one or has an adaptive component.  

Adaptive challenges tend to be tied to values, loyalties, and relationships; thus, the solutions are found not in the actions of the leader but rather in collective action. These types of issues can’t be solved with yesterday’s solutions and, most importantly, they can’t be solved by one leader alone. In fact, leaders going it alone risk being pushed out of the community. Heifetz refers to this as the “practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.” 

Leaning into Adaptive Leadership 

The acceleration of change spurred by the pandemic and the intertwining of so many forces is placing numerous adaptive challenges at school leaders’ doorsteps and affecting the ability of school communities to thrive. People are feeling whipsawed from the pace of change and predictably seeking status quo. School leaders, on the other hand, are feeling an imperative to move forward change initiatives to serve communities effectively in a quickly changing landscape. The case for change has never been stronger—from changing workforce skills to inequality in the classroom to accelerating AI to students’ social and emotional needs.  

So, how can leaders mobilize the community to support a new educational paradigm? That is the core challenge of adaptive leadership. Heifetz says we need “to engage people in distinguishing what is essential to preserve from their organization’s heritage from what is expendable.” The purpose is to make progress on a tough collective challenge—to live the polarity of tradition and change.  

It is important to acknowledge that this is not an easy process. In fact, it can often be painful, as we first experience change as loss. Heifetz suggests that “adaptive leaders need the ‘diagnostic ability’ to recognize those losses and the predictable defensive patterns of response that operate at the individual and systemic level, as well as knowing how to counteract those patterns.” Leaders also need to learn how to manage themselves in this uncomfortable environment and to help people tolerate the discomfort they are feeling. And crucial to success is allowing the time and space needed for collective learning. It may feel like taking two steps forward and one step back, but in the process of bringing people along on the change continuum we are building an adaptive culture, one that is creating new norms and processes that will help them face future collective challenges.  

Look for the next blog post in this adaptive leadership series in May. It will cover specific actions leaders need to take to identify adaptive challenges, mobilize the community in addressing them, and move forward needed change initiatives without burning out in the process. 

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Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.