Effecting change through effective, adaptive leadership

Posted April 08, 2011, at 4:47 p.m.
Last modified April 10, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

Perhaps there is a leadership lesson for all of us as we watch Gov. Paul LePage struggle to set an appropriate tone for change. I’m reminded of water. As an object of resistance, water can be either hard or soft. Smack into it at high speed, as from jumping off a high bridge, and the effect can be the same as hitting a concrete sidewalk. However, push slowly and water simply flows around an intruding object. Water is accommodating when given time to “adjust.”

Likewise, people need time to adjust or they can put up stiff resistance. This is particularly true in the case of adaptive leadership in which those attempting to exercise leadership entice their constituents to accept change and … adapt. Adaptive leadership is more of an art, and Maine offers plenty of examples of this being done well or poorly.

At Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Profs. Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky have developed useful principles for the exercise of adaptive leadership, and we Mainers might do well to consider their teachings as we face the challenges of making Maine friendlier to business, more environmentally sustainable and more promising for our young people.

For starters, Heifetz and Linsky distinguish between leadership and authority. The covenant of authority is that constituents grant power in exchange for the authority’s performance of a service. This service is usually some form of direction, protection and order, and the authority’s ability to perform derives from some combination of position and expertise. And authorities do this work for the people. For example, if the power is out, constituents typically wait for the authorities to perform a service for them, namely reestablishing “normal.”

In comparison, leadership can be exercised with or without authority. Unlike authority, the power of leadership comes primarily from credibility, trust, shared vision or goals, sometimes shared pain and always from relationships between those who aspire to exercise leadership and those who choose to follow.

With most adaptive challenges, “the people” are part of the problem, and therefore they have to be part of the solution. They have to do some of the work. The challenge of leadership is to frame and enable this adaptive work.

To expedite this, Heifetz and Linsky suggest principles of “holding environments” that enable people to engage collectively and constructively in their work of adaptation. These principles include:

• Identify and engage all stakeholders — not just those who would implement and-or benefit from proposed changes, but also those that feel threatened and could be tempted to block progress. (For example, the implications of this for Maine are that Gov. LePage should expand the participants in the discussion of how to make Maine more “business” friendly. We need to engage not only advocates, but potential opponents.)

• Create an environment by which this diverse group can collectively learn. Techniques include: Public hearings, study commissions, fact-finding panels, guest experts, etc.; studying similar issues in other environments; conducting test projects; collaboratively planning the process by which issues are addressed; academic research and teaching; peer support groups for those facing loss; and allowing time for ideas to “ripen.”

• Use the power of authority to enable these engagements:  Call meetings, frame issues, commission studies, lend support and prestige to the participants. (Again, an opportunity for the governor.)

• Assess and orchestrate the various stakeholders’ levels of discomfort. Some need more discomfort to give them an incentive to engage with the issues. Others need less discomfort to give them hope and keep their engagement productive.

• Use all the techniques of diplomacy and persuasion: The most powerful of these are listening and humor.

• Those exercising leadership can’t do the work for the constituents. Rather, they need to “give the work back to the people.”

So the idea for those exercising leadership is to engineer processes that facilitate the adaptive work of constituents. For those interested in learning more, I would recommend the book, “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership,” by Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky.

One of my favorite quotes from Marty Linsky is that the challenge of adaptive leadership is to “disappoint people at a rate that they can tolerate.” As with water, the rate is important.


James Shaffer is dean of the University of Southern Maine’s College of Management and Human Service. He is a former media executive who served as the chief financial officer of the Los Angeles Times before coming to Maine in 1991 to be CEO of Guy Gannett Communications, which was based in Portland and had TV, newspaper, and other media properties in seven states.