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Leadership for Change: Adaptive Thinking

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
April 3, 2021

Change is inevitable—gradual or abrupt, expected or unexpected. Our success is dependent on finding the means to adapt. Albert Einstein noted, “”We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” We must learn to work outside the norms—to create new norms—if we are to be successful in dynamic environments.

The concept of adaptive leadership suggests effective leadership is concerned with identifying the need for change, and then managing it. One of the most intriguing and challenging aspects of the theory is that of the authorizing environment. Within this model, leadership only includes what happens outside of formal roles. In other words, leadership is about deliberately not doing the “job.”

The authorizing environment is created through explicit and implicit authorities. These authorities are granted through laws and organizational policies and procedures, written or oral. Some authorities are rank-based framed on hierarchical levels. Other authorities are position-based premised on specific functions such as the authorities tied to a budget or safety official, held only as long as an incumbent fills a specific role. Some authorities might be implicit based on responsibility, recognizing no documents can capture all authorities necessary for success. These are all critical, but these authorities—these management functions—do not equate to leadership within this model. Leadership is what takes place outside the “circle of authority.”

According to Heifitz, Grashow and Linsky, in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, leadership only occurs outside the authorizing environment, when one works beyond the formal structures of laws, policies, procedures and norms.

Leadership is exhibited when one recognizes current practices no longer support success, given changes in the environment. Moving into this unknown requires managers (those possessing authority and working within the authorizing environment) to become leaders (those working outside the authorizing environment), enabling others to do so as well. In doing so, managers transition from a knowable, predictable and controllable environment with lower levels of risk into an area of the unknowable, the unpredictable and the uncontrollable, where risk is higher. The further one works outside of the authorizing environment, the less clarity there is and the greater the risk.

Adaptive leadership creates a unique challenge for the organization, as it requires the organization to develop in employees an understanding of when to bend or break organizational policies, procedures and rules. In the past, we have tended to focus on doing the “job,” but now we must look beyond this, focusing on the mission, on values and on empowerment.

  • Mission Focus: Public service must be concerned with achieving the needs and expectations of the community. This should be an integral part of the mission—of the organizational “why”—and everyone in the agency should focus on accomplishing this. If this can be done working within existing policies and procedures, it should be the approach. However, if following existing policies or procedures might lead to sub-optimal outcomes, or worse, mission failure, employees must move beyond the authorizing environment to serve the community.
  • Values Reinforcement: For an employee to work outside the authorizing environment effectively, he or she requires a framework for decisionmaking. Decisions must not be premised on individual values, which vary extensively, but rather on core organizational values reflecting the values of the community. Leadership must ensure organizational values have been clarified and communicated, and then reinforce them through discussion, policy and, most importantly, by modeling. The mission provides the target; the values suggest the appropriate paths to take.
  • Unleashing Employees: This, for many, will be the most challenging aspect of adaptive leadership as it requires permitting employees to determine, by themselves, when they should work beyond the authorizing environment. This “by themselves” is important. It is as if they ask permission to do so, and we are redefining the authorizing environment, prohibiting the exercise of leadership within the model. To be successful, we must prepare employees, we must encourage them and we must trust them to act independently.

Clearly, the challenges of developing a culture of adaptive leadership are notable, but overcoming these challenges might contribute to powerful outcomes for the community. If we train and trust our employees and they make good faith efforts, we must recognize this. We must prepare and empower employees, mentoring, coaching or counseling them as necessary. If they succeed, we should reward them. If they fail, but their decisions were mission-focused and values-based, we should embrace it as a learning moment, sharing it throughout the agency. If employees believe risk is only acceptable if they succeed, they will be hesitant to assume it. It might be better to adopt the mindset of IBM’s Thomas Watson, Sr. who once said, “Recently, I was asked if I was going to fire an employee who made a mistake that cost the company $600,000. No, I replied, I just spent $600,000 training him. Why would I want somebody to hire his experience?”


Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, MS(HRM), MS(I/O Psych) is an independent scholar and HRM Consultant. Previously, he served in local government for over 30 years, and taught in various areas of public administration for over 15. He currently serves as President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA, and may be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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