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5 strategic principles of leadership: Part 2 of 3

By Dr. Pressley Rankin

In Part 1 of this series, “The Art of Leadership and Managing Change,” ideas of formal and informal leadership and how they help leaders deal with adaptive challenges were discussed.  Heifetz (1994) described this process as Adaptive Leadership.

Adaptive Leadership is a theory that helps leaders deal with challenges that are not easily defined or solved. This theory includes Five Strategic Principles of Leadership.  The use of these strategies helps leaders manage adaptive challenges and also times of change in their organization. Principles 1, 2 and 3 are discussed below; the remaining two principles will be discussed in Part 3.

Principle 1: Identify the adaptive challenge

Principle 1 asks the leader to clearly identify the challenge that the organization is facing.  Adaptive challenges are not easily definable.  The strategic goal is identifying, not defining.  Look at the challenge and think about who it affects, the different organizational units that are impacted, how the challenge is connected to the organization’s mission and values.  Setting these parameters creates the foundation or the stage for your followers to begin to define the challenge.

Principle 2: Leaders as a “holding environment”

Principle 2 refers to the concept of the “holding environment.”  Leaders hold the attention of their followers and as a result they feel the stresses, fears, hopes, and anxiety of their employees, because that is directed to them every day.  Heifetz (1994) found in his studies that leaders are often tempted to jump in and try to solve a problem, even an immediate solution is not known.  This is done in order to relieve the stress that is being sent into the holding environment.

Ultimately, if a leader relieves the stress of their followers, the followers are less likely to try to overcome the challenge.  They will wait for the leader to fix it.  Leaders must learn to “hold themselves back” and allow the stress in the group to increase to a level that it spurs action in the followers.  The art of this science is in not letting the stress get intolerable, because that will derail the effort and burn out the followers.  This leads to Principle 3:

Principle 3: Focus attention on ripening issues, not on stress-reducing distractions

In Principle 3, the leader engages the holding environment to its full advantage.  The leader keeps the followers working on the issues and problems that arise, instead of letting the followers reduce the stress through distractions like scapegoating, externalizing, pretending the problem has an easy fix, attacking people rather than focusing on the issues, etc.

People often avoid solving difficult problems because they cannot manage the stress they are feeling.  This is where the leader – as the principal of the holding environment – works to manage the process instead of doing it all themselves.

Principles 4 and 5 will be featured in Part 3 of this series: Give work back to the people at a tolerable rate, and protect the voices of leadership without authority. Part 1 discussed the art of leadership in a changing environment.

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Heifetz, R.A. (1994) Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.