The One Expectation That You Don't Have to Fulfill as a Leader: Having Answers to Complex Challenges!

The One Expectation That You Don't Have to Fulfill as a Leader: Having Answers to Complex Challenges!

The One Expectation That You Don't Have to Fulfill as a Leader: Having Answers to Complex Challenges!
Posted on May 7, 2020

Adaptive Leadership concepts, first developed by Ronald A. Heifetz, have been a big influencer in my approach to leadership development and executive coaching for more than a decade now. Given the complexity of the challenges we face daily, they always seemed relevant and applicable.

Their relevance is more strong now with a global crisis than ever because there is no doubt of uncertainty and loss of control. I would argue that we never had much certainty and control to start with, but at least we had the illusion of it.

What I find most interesting right now is that the people in positions of authority are intellectually aware that there are no "easy answers" and yet, the pressure to provide quick decisive solutions to problems is getting to them. As a result, I am observing many giving in to approaching adaptive challenges as technical problems.

The best way to identify if a challenge is adaptive or technical is to ask: Can this be solved by an expert who has the know-how, solutions and designs in place? If the answer is yes, go ahead, get it resolved. If on the other hand, the problem requires a response outside of any expert repertoire, you are in the presence of an adaptive challenge.

Most adaptive challenges have technical aspects intermingled. For instance, if the house is on fire you call in the fire response team to put out the fire. This is the technical part. It requires expertise and the fire departments are trusted with their solutions. And once the fire is out, dealing with the loss, restoring life and rebuilding a home does not have straightforward answers and the fire department's expertise does not extend to that far. You will need to engage more resources and most importantly the impacted people have to be part of your solution.

This is a big difference with the adaptive challenge. In addition to people with authority doing their part, it requires people to do their part too. You can't work on solutions in isolation. You may try, but the outcome won't be effective. It is tempting to think that people are not getting it, but typically what it means is that people do get it and they don't like it. Your wonderful solution doesn't sound wonderful to them because there is something more important either threatened or needed. Therefore, they share the responsibility for ownership of the problem. You can't take this on. The people who are part of the problem have to be part of the solution too.

Heifetz tells us there is a big difference between authority and leadership. Providing direction, protection and order is what we expect of authority but has nothing to do with leadership.

It is tempting to tell people what they want to hear: We will take care of it! You just continue to work.

Don't give in to that temptation.


  • Help your teams try to understand how the world is different now than the world we are used to.
  • Help them try to think about how we are going to change our behaviors, our way of looking at things because the times are different.
  • Help them process their loss.
  • Marty Linsky puts it so well: "The role of the leader is not to provide the right answers but instead frame the right questions for which the answers will be collected overtime by the collective intelligence of the people.
  • What are the right questions that you can frame right now?
  • In what ways can you involve the people to be part of the solution?

Leadership on the Line: Staying alive through dangers of Leading is a fantastic book that explains all of these concepts as well as providing a step by step approach of practicing Adaptive Leadership.

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