More and more companies today are facing adaptive challenges: Changes in societies, markets, and technologies around the globe constantly force businesses to clarify their values, develop new strategies, and learn new ways to operate. The most important task for leaders in the face of such challenges is mobilizing people throughout their organizations to do adaptive work. In this HBR article from 1997, the authors suggest that the prevailing notion that leadership consists of having a vision and aligning people with it is bankrupt; this approach ignores the fact that many work situations are adaptive rather than technical. Heifetz and Laurie instead offer six principles for leading adaptive work. The authors say leaders should be able to spot operational and strategic patterns from high within the organization and set or create a context for change rather than get caught up in the field of action. They need to pinpoint just how a company's value systems or methods of collaboration must change as well as to regulate the inevitable distress that adaptive work generates. They also need to maintain disciplined attention among employees as well as give the work back to people, letting employees take the initiative in defining and solving problems. And finally, they need to protect the voices of leadership coming from below. An example of adaptive change at KPMG Netherlands, a professional services firm, illustrates these principles.
To learn how leaders can engage employees throughout an organization in addressing problems posed by changing markets, competition, and technology.
Change management, Corporate culture, Employee attitude, Employee empowerment, HBR Classics, Human resources management, Management styles, Organizational learning.
The Work of Leadership is an Investment
Although people like Jim Collins can conduct research showing what leadership behaviours really makes a difference and how such behaviours characterise the best organizations, the lessons can be overlooked by the vast majority of those responsible for the future. It is easier to feel that one is making a difference now. Too often the “boss” can get off on seeming to wield power by shouting, threats and other intimidatory behaviour. To no avail except to drive the hapless employees to bad behaviour, sometimes with worse consequences. Ronald A. Heifetz is cofounder of the Center for Public Leadership in the John F Kennedy School fo Government at Harvard University, is the author of “Leadership Without Easy Answers” (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1994) and “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading”, written with Marty Linsky (Harvard Business School Press May 2002). His research focuses on how to build adaptive capacity in societies, businesses, and nonprofits. (Heifetz speaks and consults extensively in the United States and abroad and is also a physician and a cellist.) In “Learning to lead: Real leaders say, “I don’t have the answer” (Ivey Business Journal January/February 2003), Heifetz and Donald L Laurie (of Oyster International, a Boston consulting firm) observe, “As the downfalls of CEOs in the past three years illustrate, staying the course can lead to distaste. The times are certainly challenging, but today’s leader can succeed only by creating and promoting an environment in which he or she and managers learns to respond in new ways, in effect unlearning traditional responses, especially the ones that sees the CEO say, “No problem, I’ll fix it.”" In their article, “The Work of Leadership” (Harvard Business Review January/February 1997, p 124), Heifetz and Laurie elaborate on the major themes of their work over past decades. Talking of the increasing changes in organisations and in societies, markets, and technology and the changes being forced on organisations to clarify their values, develop new strategies, and learn new ways of operating,...
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