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Life Guards

Are you a transformative leader? Or are you something more like a manager, a bureaucrat, or like the prophet Isaiah described, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (you have great ideas but are stymied in their implementation)? We all want and expect our leaders to change things for the better, but only a small minority seem to deliver. So what does it really take to lead a positive transformation within a group, a community, or an organization? What are the different pieces to the puzzle and how might we get better at putting it all together?

Some of the best thinking on this subject (in my humble opinion) comes from Ron Heifetz, a renowned professor of public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School1. He’s developed a kind of taxonomy of challenges facing leaders today. Lucky for us, there are only two types, so they’re easy to remember. The first type are routine, “technical” challenges for which there are known solutions. In these cases, the leader’s job is relatively straight-forward – apply the right technical expertise to make the problem go away. For example, if you damage your car, you might feel like a hero simply by finding a great mechanic. However, if you repeatedly find yourself at your auto body repair shop with your bank account drained and your driver’s license under suspension, you might have a different type of problem on your hands. One that requires you to carefully consider your own thought patterns and behaviors and perhaps make some difficult but necessary changes. Prof. Heifetz calls these deeper issues “adaptive” challenges, and they are at the core of transformational leadership


Are you facing a difficult change, a chronic issue, or a crisis that doesn’t seem to resolve after repeated efforts to address it? There’s a good chance that there’s an “adaptive” challenge at its roots. It’s also likely that you’ve been pursuing superficial, “technical” kinds of approaches that don’t address the real issues and so have zero chance of succeeding. But there is hope. Lifeguards know that when a person is drowning, he’s is often his own worst enemy, and so the lifeguard might need to inflict some pain in order to help. Jesus allows Peter to experience psychological pain as he calls him out of the safety of the boat onto the stormy sea, stretching Peter’s belief system to its breaking point to change and grow him (Matt. 14). The shifts in mindset necessary for real transformation are never easy. Are you up for this ultimate leadership challenge? Take the assessment below to evaluate yourself across four key dimensions of “adaptive” leadership?     


“Adaptive” Leadership Self-Assessment

  • Vision – How often do you articulate the shifts in mindset, cultural norms, and behaviors that are necessary to bring about a difficult but necessary change for your organization? (scale of 1-5; 5- frequently, 1- hardly ever)
  • Execution – How effective are you in recruiting key influencers and allies to join the cause and how effectively do you engage with detractors to address their concerns? (scale of 1-5; 5- highly effective, 1- not effective)
  • Compassion – How well do you empathize with people through the difficulty of change? How “winningly” do you communicate across different groups of stakeholders? (scale of 1-5; 5- high compassion, 1- low compassion)
  • Resilience – How well do you bounce back from setbacks, delays, and personal attacks? How consistent are you in staying on message or do you easily get sidetracked and taken out of the fight? (scale of 1-5; 5 high resilience, 1- low resilience)

SCORING – What’s your overall score? (close to 20 means you’re an adaptive leadership superstar) Which areas are weakest/strongest for you and how might you go about shoring up the weaker areas?


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