Leadership Without Easy Answers

One of my favorite books about leadership is Leadership Without Easy Answers, by Ronald A. Heifetz [1994, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press]. Congregational life is complex and the leadership issues can be complex, too.

Heifetz first makes the distinction between technical challenges and adaptive challenges. Technical challenges are problems that are pretty easy to solve. The canvass comes in short, and the Board has to decide what to do – cut programs or figure out ways to bring in more money. The situation is familiar; the solutions are pretty obvious.

Adaptive challenges are more complex. These problems can be identified because they have to do with values. “We say that we value accessibility; yet our building is not accessible to people who use wheelchairs.” There’s a gap between the value we hold and the reality we’re living in.

Heifetz says that when adaptive challenges are present, leaders need to do four things: “identify the adaptive challenge, regulate the level of distress, direct disciplined attention to the issues, and give the work back to the people.”

Part of the responsibility of being a leader in our congregations is taking the larger view, doing the deeper assessment, looking for the gaps between what we say we value and where we are now. Identifying an adaptive challenge is an example of that work. It’s part of the leader’s role to notice and to point out those areas where our stated values don’t match with our actions.

Second, the leader needs to regulate the level of distress. Simply pointing out the gap will cause some distress, in and of itself. It’s not enough to keep crying ‘wolf!’, however. People have the capacity to understand new information and adapt, but effective leaders will manage the pace at which people are confronted, so problem solving becomes possible. If there’s no distress, it’s the leader’s role to produce some. If there’s too much distress, the leader can calm the system to allow for productive work to be done.

Next, the leader must direct disciplined attention to the issues. It’s easy for congregations to be distracted by lesser matters. Effective leaders frame critical issues in ways that invite congregation members to give attention to them. Heifetz writes, “Urgency, well framed, promotes adaptive work.” [p. 116]

Last, the leader works to create a strategy that shifts the responsibility for the problem to the primary stakeholders. By giving the work back to the people, the leader ensures that those who have the ownership of the problem also take ownership for the solutions. The leader’s role here is to create and monitor the process to allow it to happen.

What are the adaptive challenges for your congregation? What are you, as a leader, doing to raise the issues? To influence the level of distress about them? To keep the attention focused on the issues? To manage the process for working on them? I’d love to hear from you about it. If you click on the Comments section at the bottom of this paragraph, you’ll be invited to leave a comment. If you don’t want it to appear on the blog for others to read, please indicate that in your comments.


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