Colorful windows

The art of leadership and managing change, Part 1: adaptive challenges

By Pressley Rankin, Ph.D.

Defining leadership

I am often asked to define or describe what leadership is. The truth is that there are many definitions of what constitutes a true leader and leadership.

However, there are some overarching beliefs that seem to be shared.  One is that leaders are often looking at the big picture and focusing on long range plans.  Another belief is that leaders are often called upon to manage change.  Finally, many researchers believe that leadership isn’t necessarily connected to a role or position.

Ronald Heifetz (1994) in his seminal work Leadership Without Easy Answers, discussed the concepts of formal and informal authority and how they apply to leadership and connect to all of the above beliefs.

Formal authority is the power that is given to a leader by an organization.  This type of authority is dependent on the power that comes from that organization.  Informal authority is given to a leader by their followers.  Leaders can hold both formal and informal authority.  However, a leader holding only formal authority without informal authority will have many more problems and issues.

Formal versus informal authority

Leaders use both their formal and informal authority when they solve problems.  Heifetz (1994) discussed how those problems can be either technical or adaptive in nature. He defines technical problems as those that can be easily defined and there is a known proven solution.  For example, the copier breaks down and the service department is called.

On the other hand, adaptive problems are those that have no proven solution and are hard to define, meaning that they require additional information or research in order to understand them and solve them, such as gender disproportionality in technology companies.

Change is often seen as an adaptive challenge.  Leaders have to learn to manage these types of challenges in order to manage change.  Managing these adaptive problems requires the leader to create a holding environment for their followers.  Heifetz (1994) defines a holding environment as “any relationship where one party has the power to hold the attention of another party and facilitate adaptive work” (p. 105).

Leading others is an art

This is where the art of leadership comes into play.  Being comfortable holding the attention of a group of followers who are fearful or worried is no easy task.  Since there is no easy answer, leaders need to allow their followers to feel the tension and stress to a high level that is enough to motivate them to act by defining the problem and seeking a solution.

The trick is to not let the stress get so high as to make the followers unproductive or overly stressed.  A leader will naturally want to help solve the problem. Resist this desire. Change is more meaningful and solutions are more likely to work if the group is involved in creating them.

Lead the way with your doctorate in educational leadership at CityU. Designed for working professionals. Online, 90 credits. Part 2 of this blog series will discuss Heifetz’s (1994) Five Strategic Principles of Leadership

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