Leadership Drivers

Technical and Adaptive Leadership

The importance of leadership is noted in just about every discussion of implementation.  The absence of leadership support is a well documented barrier, and success is attributed to the presence of leadership support.  For example, Szulanski (1996, p. 31) described the difficulties faced by leaders who encounter “The reluctance of some recipients to accept knowledge from the outside (the ‘not invented here’ or NIH syndrome) ….  Lack of motivation may result in foot dragging, passivity, feigned acceptance, hidden sabotage, or outright rejection in the implementation and use of new knowledge.”

The quality of leadership usually is noted after the fact (Drucker, 2004; Kaiser, Hogan, & Craig, 2008; Kotter, 1996).  That is, good leaders are identified by the good work that had been accomplished with their support; poor leaders are identified by their less than desirable outcomes.  Post hoc analyses and speculation may provide some guidance but are not necessarily predictive.

For Active Implementation, leadership must be identified, nurtured, and developed so that good outcomes can be achieved and sustained in the future (Baron et al., 1984; Day, 2000; de Vries & Manfred, 2005).  Initially, good leadership is identified during the Exploration Stage activities.  Individuals already in executive leadership positions must make informed decisions to invite the use of effective innovations and effective implementation and agree to fully participate in the process to change the status quo and develop an aligned and integrated organization.  Once the change process is underway, leadership is developed and nurtured in multiple units and individuals.

How leadership contributes to success now is better understood, thanks to theoretical orientations based on complexity theory (Morgan & Ramirez, 1983; Stacey, 2002), frameworks for describing the salient features of leadership (Hall & Hord, 1987; 2011; Heifetz et al, 1997; 2009), and meta-analyses and syntheses of the literature (Kaiser, Hogan, & Craig, 2008; Rhim, Kowal, Hassel, & Hassel, 2007; Waters, Marzano, & McNulty, 2005).  Implementation Drivers include technical and adaptive leadership.

Technical leadership might be thought of as good management.  The leader is engaged, quick to recognize and respond to issues that arise, organizes groups to solve problems, and regularly produces desired results.  In terms of complexity theory (Stacey, 2002), technical leaders work in the zone where there is substantial agreement about what needs to be done and reasonable certainty about how to do it.  Adaptive leadership is required in the zone of complexity where there is little agreement and less certainty.  The concept of adaptive leadership resonates with leaders who recognize the layers of complexity involved in any large-scale system reform.

The importance of adaptive leadership was noted by Hall & Hord (1987; 2011) in their analyses of leadership styles in education.  Hall & Hord found a correlation of 0.74 between leadership style and teachers’ use of innovations with fidelity.  The most productive leadership style was what they called the “initiator style” and what Heifetz & Laurie (1997) call adaptive leadership.  Less effective styles were characterized as “responders” (unengaged, reactive) and “managers” (following policies and procedures with little deviation).

To exercise leadership toward the full implementation of effective innovations means moving a complex and entrenched system through meaningful change—and leading through the challenges that arise in the process.  Transformative leaders learn how to make use of adaptive leadership, which offers useful ways to re-understand the work of leadership.  For example, adaptive leaders understand the difference between “authority” (i.e. a formal position of power) and “leadership” (i.e. enacting a vision; helping people through loss to achieve meaningful change).  Heifetz & Linsky (2002) note that “authority” is organized to provide “direction, protection, and order” and maintain a stable system.  When systems undergo change, the natural tendency of those in the system is to look to those in authority to minimize the tension of change and regain stability.  However, when change is the goal, as it always is with implementation, formal authority can get in the way because it is designed to maintain systems.  On the other hand, leadership helps people overcome their natural tendencies to maintain the status quo.  When organizations and systems are being changed on purpose, adaptive leadership is needed to manage the change process. Implementation Teams can help leaders and their management teams explore the nature of adaptive challenges and make good use of adaptive leadership methods to resolve difficult issues.