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Speed Review: The Practice of Adaptive Leadership

Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World

by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow & Marty Linsky

Speed Review: The Practice of Adaptive Leadership
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Four Paths to Leadership Excellence

Solving systemic problems can be tough work, but the authors of The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World understand what it takes to empower leaders to do it. All three authors teach leadership at Harvard. In The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, they offer leaders the keys to improving their system-fixing skills.

Diagnosis and Action

One aspect of The Practice of Adaptive Leadership that sets it apart from other change management books is the authors’ original approach to the subject matter. Their unique method takes four paths to leadership improvement, each of which can be used or combined as circumstances demand.

The first path they explore is the diagnosis of the system that needs to adapt to a change program. The next path is the action that needs to take place to help the system change. Dividing the systemic adaptation process into these two distinct parts is crucial to the authors’ plan. They explain that the adaptive leadership process involves figuring out what is going on first so a leader’s actions are much more effective.

The next two parts of The Practice of Adaptive Leadership also separate diagnosis and action for the same reason, but this time the authors focus on the leader as an individual. Self-diagnosis is vital for adaptive leaders, and the advice the authors offer centers around the concept of seeing yourself as a system. This means identifying your multiple identities, prioritizing your loyalties, knowing what triggers activate you, discovering your tolerances, understanding your leadership roles and articulating your purpose on the planet.

Once you have diagnosed yourself, you are ready to take action. The authors offer a practical guide to show adaptive leaders how to deploy themselves effectively using what they have learned during the diagnostic stage of their development. They explain that smart action entails staying connected to your purposes, engaging courageously, inspiring people by speaking from your heart, running experiments to learn your strengths and weaknesses, and thriving through a healthy personal support network and regular renewal.


“Thriving” is a vital part of the adaptive leadership equation. The authors write, “Adaptive leadership is the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.” This final aspect of adaptation is a valuable ingredient in the authors’ prescription for long-lasting leadership success, since many leaders have created powerful organizations only to fail as a result of burnout and exhaustion.

In evolution, thriving means that a successful species doesn’t just continue to survive. It also discards the traits that do not help it succeed and creates new ways to flourish in new environments. Similarly, adaptive leaders thrive by nurturing what made them successful in the first place.

On the Balcony

One powerful analogy that the authors use throughout The Practice of Adaptive Leadership is the comparison between leading a change initiative and observing a dance floor in action. The activities on a dance floor might seem like they are in perspective from down on the floor, but a better view of the intricacies of the event can be better monitored and analyzed from up above, on the balcony.

To make this analogy useful, the authors round out each chapter with a set of “On the Balcony” reflections that can help a leader move a change initiative forward. Then, to help drive the action necessary after the diagnosis is complete, the authors provide “On the Practice Field” exercises that serve as experiments that can help leaders put those lessons into action while engaging with others.

By combining diagnosis with action, and system thinking with experience, the authors have created a powerful workbook that shows leaders how to activate an iterative process that can help them master changes and thrive.

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