Heifetz & Laurie: Mobilizing Adaptive Work

Chapter 3 within “The Leader’s Change Handbook” tackles some difficult material in terms of leadership: what do we do when authorities don’t know the answers? Mobilize adaptive work.

Too often, we confuse leaders with authority, causing us to complain about the “lack of leadership” shown by our bosses, supervisors, or coaches. But instead of looking to our hierarchical superiors in times of crises, Heifetz & Laurie say that “we should be calling for leadership that summons us to face the problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions – the challenges that require us to learn in new ways” (56). This is where adaptive work comes in: finding solutions by demanding learning and often requiring changes in people's values, attitudes, and habits.

In order to improve problem-solving and leadership dilemmas, Heifetz & Laurie ask leaders to note the differences between leadership and authority, as well as distinguish between technical and adaptive work (56). A failure to recognize these differences, they say, leads us to seek out the wrong kind of leadership, the kind of leadership that leads to “quick fixes” and incomplete innovation. Heifetz & Laurie believe that the best solutions require looking beyond technical fixes. "Hard to define and even harder to resolve, adaptive situations demand the work and responsibility of managers and works high and low," making adaptive work collaborative and messy - but certainly plausible in our shared-power world (63). Thankfully, “Mobilizing Adaptive Work” presents five principles of leadership for mobilizing people to do adaptive work:

  • Identify the adaptive challenge
  • Regulate distress
  • Maintain disciplined attention
  • Give the work back to people
  • Protect leadership from below

I appreciated Heifetz & Laurie's honest and concise closing remarks on adaptive change: "Focusing managment team and front-line workers on adaptive change is among the leader's most difficult tasks...Adaptive challenges have no ready solutions" (85). Further, the conclusion reminded me of our discussions during last week's class regarding 'learned leadership' and 'change forward': "Leading adaptive change requires a learning strategy. To learn the way forward, each manager facing an adaptive challenge must ask who needs to learn what and how."

Questions for you...

  1. Reflect on a situation when authority figures did not meet your expectations of leadership. How did this affect your personal definition or vision of leadership?

  2. Can you think of a situation when you and your team or colleagues implemented an adaptive work strategy to solve a problem? If not, can you cite an experience about how a problem facing your team struggled due to the limits of technical work?

  3. Do you think that the five principles of leadership as presented by Heifetz & Laurie are realistic for today's leaders? Why or why not?

  4. Do you think that any one of the five principles is more important than the others? Why or why not?

Thanks for reading! I look forward to your comments and insights.


Thank you for your insightful thoughts and questions about this reading. When I was younger I always placed authority figures on a high pedestal thinking that they had all the answers and were superior to all those who worked under them. It was not until I had had a few different jobs that I realized that not all people in authority positions had the right answers or were even the “best person” for the job. At one of my jobs I had a manager that would frequently go to the bar across the street from where we worked when she finished her shift. She would typically stay there and drink for 3-4 hours until she was pretty drunk, and then she would have a taxi take her home. Needless to say the next morning when it was time for work, she would be hung-over. Some days she would be late and ask for us to “cover” for her if anyone was looking for her or asked where she was. Other days she would show up and then go directly to her office to “work on paper work” or something but would actually go there to sleep off the hang-over. When she did this, she would just delegate her work to other employees who were lower on the chain than she was. I remember this was one of the first experiences when I realized that just because you were a manager in an authoritative position, it did not mean that you had to be good at it. It was really disappointing because she definitely did not model the proper role of a manager. It also put many of us who worked under her in an awkward position because any movement up in the company would have to be through her, so we did not want to burn any bridges by calling her out on her actions etc…

This situation definitely changed my vision/definition of leadership, but not necessarily in a bad way. I think it made me realize that you can have good leadership and bad leadership and that just because you are in a leadership/authoritative role does not mean that you are the best candidate for that position. I think in the long run the poor leaders eventually get weeded out either by their own actions, or from others seeing the lack of potential somewhere down the road.

I have some personal experience with what Michael has stated about placing authority figures/leaders on pedestals and the ensuing confusion at a young age when those authority figures are not able to live up to the expectations of leadership. My experiences have actually taught me over the years to have greater compassion and empathy to those in leadership positions who struggle.

I would just like to make a short comment on the principle of "giving the work back to the people" and my own perception of the words. In the past when I have had the opportunity to work with other people, and to delegate tasks in the process, they rarely seemed as liberated as when they were able to take the role and run with it. Giving the work back to people allows their creative juices to flow and increases the likelihood of an adaptive solution to the project or challenge at hand. An adapted statement taken from a person I greatly admire is, "teach correct principles, or give the work back to the people and then let them govern themselves". Although this may be a difficult challenge for some it also has great rewards.

I think that the five principles presented by Heifetz and Laurie are realistic and attainable for leaders of today. It is important that Heifetz and Laurie did list some principles that leaders can follow in promoting adaptive work. When you read about the situations within the airlines presented in this article and think about your own situation you realize how very hard it is for anyone – a leader to an individual contributor to understand adaptive work and to make it happen. The five principles give the reasons why adaptive work is important and advises a leader to structure their thinking as well as gain the support of the employees in the organization. I also agree that pieces of each of the principles should be used together in collaboration for successful adaptive work to take place. At some points you may use one perspective more than another but keeping in tune to all five principles will help the organization
For me, I like the informality of adaptive work. It does require a lot of work, but does allow for the creative individual to be innovative and seems to hold true to pieces of the shared-power model. As Heifetz and Laurie did mention it is messy. You have many people with many ideas and thoughts with an opportunity to speak about them. This really does allow a leader to see the problem or work from the inside-out. As a leader you need to help direct these thoughts and tackle them within context and priority but also give a lot of substantial thought to the outcomes and direction of each action.
One last thought - I found that Heifetz and Laurie seem to follow many of the same rules and guidelines found within many of our other readings. The shared-power model as defined in Crosby and Byson was found in the principle: Giving the Work Back to People (78), creating a sense of urgency (Kotter), was noted in the principle Maintaining Disciplined Attention (76) and allowing others to fail as we seen last week in Light (144) was noted in the principle; Protecting Leadership Below. Many of the principles tied to the personal and organizational vision, mission, and values were found throughout Kouzes and Posner. I don’t think that many of the statements were new but it was useful information to be thought about in a different way and applied in your daily work life.

1. Reflect on a situation when authority figures did not meet your expectations of leadership. How did this affect your personal definition or vision of leadership?

I worked for an art museum a few years back. The new director was, in short, a man who gained his power by having a solid network of people around him. While this is important, the "solid" network was primarily rich old men who were long lost in self-preservation. What this did for his leadership within the museum was made him a totem leader, one who always stayed in his office, only to come out when we held big exhibitions or when someone with money came through the door. By observing the way he was scrutinized by the staff, and watching his brief interactions with people throughout the community, I made a decision at that point that, if that's how the successful art community acted, sheerly out of money and wine parties, I would not be a part of it. Thankfully, I became involved with other artists who worked creatively without money. Their work inspired me to succeed as an artist by making my choices based around simplicity rather than philanthropy. How did this director affect my vision? He made me realize quickly that there are different ways to identify as artists and leaders. Thanks to him, I am now very aware of what I "do not" want to create as a leader in the art community.

2. Can you think of a situation when you and your team or colleagues implemented an adaptive work strategy to solve a problem? If not, can you cite an experience about how a problem facing your team struggled due to the limits of technical work?

I graduated from a charter arts high school, which at the time, was in the development stages of growth. During the year I was there, the teachers were constantly being shuffled within the organization, creating a real mess when it came to what the students were learning. I can remember specifically having four different teachers try to introduce Eastern Philosophy to a class of 15 high schoolers. If it weren't for the independent motivation from the students to structure the classes, the school would have crumbled no doubt. Specifically, in the example of the Eastern Philosophy class, the students shared our interests for what we wanted to learn, and pretty much designed the classes around that. We were able to experience anime (Japanese animation), the art of watercolor, and meditation. We even went to a mosque! It is important to point out that we were in a school which gave us the freedom to be creative. Not all schools foster this in their students. But maybe they should...

3. Do you think that the five principles of leadership as presented by Heifetz & Laurie are realistic for today's leaders? Why or why not?

I actually think that they are very realistic, especially in today's society. With the new leadership in America, and a growing awareness of the need for creativity within our problem solving (ways to working within structures to regulate distress; identifying troubled structures as challenges instead of failures...)

4. Do you think that any one of the five principles is more important than the others? Why or why not?

I think they are all essential in order to successfully mobilize people. I want to highlight "giving the work back to the people" because this principle often becomes hidden when active leaders take on all the responsibility then don't let it go. Or when stakeholders fail to realize that their involvement is key to sustaining the process.

Your summarization of the reading was very well defined. Thank you for the stimulating questions.

I think that everyone had the common experience of mistaking authority for leadership when they are young. There is usually a shift at some point in your young adult life, when your thinking starts to be more critical and you make that switch in your way of thinking.....on just because someone is an authority figure, doesnt mean they are a leader at all, you can have one with out the other. There are many leaders that come out of non authorty positions.
As far as giving the work back to the people, yes this is very important, I think you just need to make sure this doesnt turn into someone just delegating all their work on to everyone else though.
I do think that that first principle "Identify the adaptive challenge" is the key and most important. If you dont do this, than the rest of the five principles dont matter. Or if you identify it incorrectly, then the rest also become meaningless. The last 4 all play off of the first principle, so that is the most important in my opinion.

Heifetz and Laurie’s “five principles of leadership for mobilizing people to do adaptive work” (63) may not provide enough direction for someone who has not identified his or her values and honed the necessary leadership skills.

I believe a leader who regularly demonstrates Kouzes & Posner’s Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership (or some similar set of behaviors) is more likely to be successful with Heifetz and Laurie’s principles.
* Model the Way
* Inspire a Shared Vision
* Challenge the Process
* Enable Others to Act
* Encourage the Heart

In the section titled Regulating Distress Heifetz and Laurie describe the Colin Marshall’s decision to fire 60 of British Airways’ top 160 managers shortly after becoming the company's CEO. “People in authority often feel the pressure to protect others from painful adjustments. But leadership requires letting people feel the pinch of reality -- sometimes even forcing them to” (71).

Often there are very good reasons to fire people, including top managers. But the idea of firing people with any hope to “stimulate” adaptive work strikes me as highly risky, especially if you cannot explain very clearly to those who remain employees of your organization why their colleagues were fired. In my experience, legal risk leads such dismissals to be communicated with vague language like, “Bob is no longer with the company.” The lack of information is often a great catalyst for the rumor mill, and can quickly undermine trust.

It seems that Heifetz and Laurie have failed to acknowledge the human heart in their discussion of adaptive work and their five principles:
* Identify the adaptive challenge
* Regulate distress
* Maintain disciplined attention
* Give the work back to people
* Protect leadership from below

Perhaps they are not familiar with Kouzes & Posner secret to successful leadership.

I would like to address the first question:
Reflect on a situation when authority figures did not meet your expectations of leadership. How did this affect your personal definition or vision of leadership?

After reading Michael's blog I feel as though he and I shared the same manager. I just landed my first real job of my adult life - I had to wear a suit every day! I had high aspirations and I felt very comfortable in my new position, even though I had a lot to learn. What I did not expect from my new job was the atypical behavior from my manager. The manager was the authority of the company; he was our leader. He came across as being a very nice person, who knew a lot about the profession. He also liked going out for "happy hour" with some of the employees. It was a small company, so anytime he wanted to leave work early he would pick and choose his favorite employees (my colleagues) and go out. The problems that I ran into were that I had to finish the work for them. My work load increased while their fun increased at my expense. The next day the stories, which were usually inappropriate, from the previous night ran rampant throughout the company. My working environment was not very pleasant. It's one thing to go out and have a good time, but it's another thing when the manager goes out with only certain employees and then talks about it in front of the rest of the employees the following day. This occurred at least three days a week which is a lot considering the work week is only five days long. The same with Michael's manager, he too was hung over and unavailable when the employees, including myself, needed assistance or guidance. He could have been a really good manager if only he did his job which was to provide guidance, create a supportive atmosphere, and lead. He failed on all three.

1. Reflect on a situation when authority figures did not meet your expectations of leadership. How did this affect your personal definition or vision of leadership?

Reflecting on situations that did not meet my expectations, I think I have been most disappointed when leaders have:
- Put their interests ahead of the interests of the company or organization in an unprofessional way, not in a normal way. An example would be in a board, when somebody pushes their own personal agenda instead of focusing on the mission or health of the organization.
- Acted unethically or abused their power
- Not been willing to accept/admit weakness, imperfection – and instead have pushed things off on other people or refuse to take ownership of their own faults.
I have worked with so many managers that haven’t been good leaders, and it has fostered an attitude of cynicism in me. I don’t expect a leader to be perfect and lead with imperfect, but I do expect and hope that a leader will guide ethically and well.

2. Can you think of a situation when you and your team or colleagues implemented an adaptive work strategy to solve a problem? If not, can you cite an experience about how a problem facing your team struggled due to the limits of technical work?
I’ve worked for a few small businesses, and it seems that in that environment there are always blurred boundaries, things to be learned, and a need for collaboration.

3. Do you think that the five principles of leadership as presented by Heifetz & Laurie are realistic for today's leaders? Why or why not?

I think the principles, within the context of adaptive work, are realistic. They incorporate an aspect of change and flexibility not present in many structures. I don’t think that these are the only principles that should be present, however.

4. Do you think that any one of the five principles is more important than the others? Why or why not?

I can’t really pin one of the principles noted here as more important than the others, but all mesh together as part of the process. In my opinion, open, direct and responsive communication should be present throughout. I agree with Stacey, the Five Principles of Exemplary Leadership are better, more realistic guidelines for holistic leadership.

I liked how the authors were able to put into words what I had seen as a problem throughout many situations in my personal and professional life. Having authority doesn’t not necessarily mean one is a leader. I have always taken issue with those who reside in positions of authority, but have never been a true leader, being given or wearing the title of leader.

I have had bosses that ran their organization by the authority of their position alone. When speaking of the organization to subordinates as well as people outside of the organization, they referred to everything as "theirs". This is what I have done (work completed by a dedicated staff). My organization has done this (the main focus of all operations). There was little of what I would call leadership involved with what they did. They were quick to take credit for successes and quicker to place blame on subordinates for mistakes.

It was during this time that my personal definition of leadership was formed. Having had previous bosses who ruled by intimidation added to having a boss who was focused solely on their personal success made me really look at what I considered a leader. In simple terms, to me a leader is a person who takes a group of individuals and provides purpose, direction, and motivation to a cause while showing through personal action and participation that everyone in the group is in it together. A leader won’t just show you what they expect to be accomplished, they will also work with the group and in order that everyone arrives there together.

I really enjoyed this reading- it is very important to distinguish between an authority and a leader. A good leader creates a rapport with employees, and fosters confidence in an employee’s ability to do a job well done. An authority figure is a person to report to or a person to serve as a central point of reference. Not all those who are in positions of authority use that authority for good, just as not all leaders use their position of authority over others.

An example I have is the difference between the two managers in the restaurant I work at. (If you have been paying attention to my stories about the restaurant, don’t worry- I really like and respect these two, this isn’t another horror story.) Both managers are very effective, but in completely different ways. The first manager- though always present and involved- works in the office, does scheduling, handles complaints, and will delegate tasks to be completed. He normally wears dress pants and a tie to work, and the day I see him bus a table will be the day I die. The second manager is always in the dining room or the kitchen, always has an apron on and will act as a hostess, busser, dishwasher or whatever is needed to see that things run smoothly. She is hands-on and involved, which makes her an excellent adaptive manager. Under her guidance, the employees are attentive and hard-working and there are few problems. Two of the characteristics of an adaptive leader are to give the work back to people and to protect leadership from below. This essentially means that the leader is not merely a figure at the top of the chain overseeing the workers, but more of a peer to the rest of the group. The first manager is more of an authority figure. He doles out tasks and side work, but is rarely involved in any of the jobs himself. He does not supervise from below, as she (the other manager) often does while acting as a wait assistant, but rather manages from above, from the office. He provides the authority services as defined on page 57: direction, protection, orientation, conflict control and norm maintenance. In our restaurant, the two managers actually work well as a team- bringing both leadership and authority to the wait staff.

I am sure we have all had authority figures that did not have the characteristics of an adaptive leader, as mentioned in the reading, or the characteristics of a good leader as defined by Kouzes and Posner. There are also many leaders who are not effective authority figures- they don't provide organization or reference to the employees. It seems to me that although it is important to have a good leader, it can be just as important to have a central authority figure for guidance.

There have been a few situations where there has been someone in an authority position who I did not feel was a good leader. The example that has affected me has been a situation where the authority figure not only did not show leadership, but in addition expected everyone else to adhere to standards that he did not regulary meet. It was frustrating to work very hard, and be very dedicated to the organization, and then this individual would show up late to work, take long lunches, and then spend the rest of his time chatting with people around the office. I became very frustrated with the situation, as this individual was the Executive Director, so I felt he should show the highest level of leadership. Yet, in the end, the true leaders in the organization were everyone else who worked hard each day to accomplish the goals of the organization. This changed my view of authority figures, as I realized some people make it to high level positions, but that still does not make them leaders. It also made me recognize the importance of making sure to be the best leader possible no matter what position I am in. It can be hard in the moment to remember that just because they are an authority figure, does not mean they are a leader. Likewise, just because someone is not in an authority position, does not mean they are not a leader. Leadership can come at any level.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs