The Leadership Challenge

Here’s a great video of Ron Heifetz of Harvard, author of Leadership without Easy Answers. He’s my favorite thinker on issues of leadership.  I first read about him in Harvard magazine back in the 1990’s and then went and got his book.  I think his idea about breaking down the issues that confront us into adaptive and technical problems is huge.  Adaptive problems are things that confront us that force us to go beyond our current “know how.”  Therefore they require new solutions and new approaches.  Technical problems are solved by doing what we’ve done before, but bigger, faster, stronger, etc.

Our culture also confuses leadership and authority.  Leadership, Heifetz argues, is finding adaptive solutions and this requires change.  In congregations, change meets resistance. Authority is power granted to perform a service. For example, we cede the Post Office the authority to set the price of stamps because we get the service of having our mail, more or less, delivered to our door every single day.  We cede the minister authority over worship services because we have a worship service every Sunday.  When someone exercises the power of an authority but doesn’t provide the service, that’s authoritarianism.

Heifetz argues that the big leadership failure is people in “authority” keep throwing technical solutions at adaptive challenges and wonder why nothing works, and people in society or congregations keep wondering why nothing is working while at the same time many people wonder why the “leaders” aren’t fixing things and everyone is frustrated.  Real leadership is, in a sense, getting things done.  You don’t need a title or a position or an office, you just need to do the adaptive work.  If things need cleaning, clean them. If money needs raising, raise it. If people need bringing together, bring them together, organize.  Sounds easy, but the challenges in these areas may be adaptive, not technical.  There may also be people in the way who hold positions of authority (and power) who are threatened by people who are getting results by performing the adaptive work, and thus becoming “leaders,” and causing others to lose interest and trust in the old authority (and power) structures.  The people getting the adaptive work done then become the new leaders (and authorities) and this causes a crisis in “leadership.”

Another challenge to this situation is that many organizations do not discuss the nature of leadership so when this dynamic occurs, resentment builds up, and no one is sure who is responsible for what, who is “in charge” and some people feel like others are not “doing their jobs.”

Here’s Heifetz on some of the basics: