By B.J. Rogers

When a messy problem confronts us – our organization, field, community, or world – one of the most common responses is to look for a hero to save the day. Just shy of flashing the Bat Signal in the sky, we often turn to so-called (and sometimes self-proclaimed) experts, to consultants, or to people in positions of power or formal authority. We look for that perfect person to use their wisdom and experience to fix what’s broken.

On occasion – when the problem is pretty technical and the solution easily identified – that approach works. More often though, there’s a different kind of work called for (namely learning), in order to realize progress. These are foundational elements of the Adaptive Leadership framework. Popularized by Drs. Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, adaptive leadership is one proposal for how to respond to the toughest of challenges – those “wicked problems” that are tangled and complicated. They’re problems that are so significant, we often lack clarity as to what the real root even is. Is it a simple behavioral issue? Or is it poverty? Is it a lack of resources? Or is it. . .climate change?!

When we come across a challenge that feels over-whelming or beyond our current expertise or capacity to solve – say, poverty, world hunger, systemic racism – that’s when we tend to rush to the rooftop and ready the beacon. It’s when we look for a hero to swoop in and rescue us. We mistake those people for “leaders”, but heroes more often than not generate dependency, and it’s capacity – not dependency – that is the mark of true leadership. But we don’t need heroes; what we need is courage

At the heart of the Adaptive Leadership Framework is an understanding that leadership – true leadership – is the courageous work of creating and holding the space needed for people to face difficult realities, rumble with the work that has to be done, and realize the progress that is possible. Space where stumbles and failures are inevitable and precious for the learning they provide. This theory uses terms like disequilibrium, threshold of learning, and limit of tolerance – all of which are terms I love – but it really boils down to something pretty straightforward, simple even. When confronted with a beast of a challenge, what we need more than anything is the space to learn what needs to be learned in order to identify the problem, develop approaches to tackle it, try those approaches out, fall and get back up, and make meaningful progress over time. Notice I didn’t say this was easy; there’s a substantial difference between easy and simple. 

The most difficult of problems to solve or address are those whose cause or causes aren’t always obvious. In fact, the problem itself may be less than clear. Symptoms are easy to identify, but they can also be misleading. 

Say you’re tired all the time. Conventional wisdom might suggest the obvious; you’re not getting enough sleep. But what if tired – or even not getting enough sleep – is just a symptom? Is it the quality of your bed? A consequence of your diet? An environmental issue? And let’s say it IS your diet. What if you live in a home where food = love and the food of your culture or economic status or most within the skill set of whomever does the cooking is high in characteristics that promote lethargy? What’s the real problem here? Your habits? Your family dynamic? Sometimes challenges are complex, made up of more than one contributing factor, and in need of real discovery to identify what’s up. That’s when learning is critical – and that’s when leadership is called for. 

Of course, creating and holding space for an individual or group of individuals to confront complicated realities is both easier said than done and not without dangers. And that’s why it’s courage we need. 

We’ll talk more about what it means to create and hold space next time. In the meantime, check out this visual representation of adaptive leadership and ask yourself, do I have the courage to take the risks to facilitate real progress? See you back here – same bat inbox, some bat URL!


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