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How to Guarantee a Leadership #Fail

So I assume that you aren't reading this post because you really want to guarantee that you will fail at being a leader. However, if that is why you are reading this, well then you’ve failed because you won’t find that here. Congratulations! I guess you actually succeeded at failing?!?

For the rest of you, I want to discuss some ways to enhance your leadership skills. It’s a topic that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’m currently participating in the Minnesota Council of Nonprofit’s Nonprofit Leadership Institute, and we spend quite a bit of time learning about, discussing, and developing ways to become more effective leaders.

First of all, I want to make clear my opinion that anyone can be a leader, regardless of job title, level of education, etc. Leadership is an activity. It can be exercised by anyone within an organization or family or classroom. It may seem harder to be a leader without the official authority that certain individuals are given, but leadership and authority are very different things.

Much of the work we do in the Leadership Institute focuses on the work of Ronald Heifetz a Harvard professor, researcher, and lecturer in the field of leadership. One of the key points that I’ve taken with me from our work is this quote from his co-authored book, Leadership on the Line:

The single most common source of leadership failure we’ve been able to identify—in politics, community life, business, or the nonprofit sector—is that people, especially those in positions of authority, treat adaptive challenges like technical problems. –Heifetz & Linsky

So how do we avoid this mistake? First we need to understand which problems or issues we are dealing with require adaptive work and which can be treated with a technical fix. 

In a technical fix, an authority figure solves a problem by applying a solution that already exists “in the system.” For example, the director of an after-school reading program may want to address the problem of students who aren’t making adequate progress in their reading proficiency. In applying a technical fix, this director would mandate an increase in the number of volunteers who work with the students in the program.

Adaptive work is different. Rather than solving a problem by applying a solution that already exists in the system, it requires changing the system. This requires creating new ways of thinking about and solving the problem. Adding more volunteers may put more bodies in the room with students, but it doesn’t necessarily increase their reading proficiency. Solving that problem may require rethinking the way the students are learning, being served, and how the reading program operates.

As you might imagine, adaptive work is messier than technical work. Even if everyone agrees there is a problem that needs to be solved—and often, getting everyone to agree is a challenge—it’s up to everyone within the organization to take responsibility for solving the problem and changing the way the organization functions.

Returning to the after-school example, let’s say your program director and volunteers recognize the problem of poor reading proficiency, it is very possible that neither may have any interest in tackling this large challenge. We call this “work avoidance,” and it happens for one of two reasons:

  1. Their heat is too high–they are too stressed out, feeling like nobody else cares, the problem is too big, etc.
  2. They don’t feel enough heat–they figure it isn’t their job, the problem isn’t that important, etc.

No matter what you do, applying adaptive work will create feelings of discomfort, pain, or loss. Those involved in the process—like the program director, the volunteers, and the board members—should all be asked hard questions, and be challenged on how and why they do things the way they do. An effective leader needs to recognize and acknowledge these feelings, but also understand that these feelings are necessary if adaptive change is to occur. If these feelings aren’t present, people will likely go back to doing things the way in which they are comfortable and nothing will change. 

To keep the process of adaptive change moving forward, people have to be under the right amount of heat. And leaders constantly have to be raising or lowering that heat on different people at different times during the process. One of the great lines that stayed with me while studying adaptive leadership was:

Effective leaders are constantly disappointing people at a rate they can tolerate.

It doesn’t really make those of us trying to do adaptive work feel very comfortable ourselves, but I guess that is the point, right?

Have you ever gone through this process of adaptive change? Have you had someone try to solve a problem with a technical fix when it really required an adaptive change? I know there are some great stories out there, and I’d love to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly.


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