Adaptive Leadership 

In light of celebrating 25 years of amazing service and leadership in the Tacoma community the Northwest Leadership Foundation will be hosting a short blog series of some ways we can increase effectiveness in our fellow community leaders. One of the main issues those doing work in the community are plagued with, is the difficulty of solving tough issues that don’t yet have answers. These problems are more often than not, systemic, and require unconventional sometimes controversial solutions.


“…A person who has heart disease. You can re-do the plumbing to their heart through very sophisticated surgery. But your still left after surgery with the problem of how to get that person to live a healthier life; much easier to fix the heart than to change it.” -Robert Heifetz



The Stanford Social Innovation Review had some interesting points to make regarding some suggestions to those in leadership. Here are some of the important takeaways.

  • Many fundamental social problems that foundations seek to address – from reforming education to ending hunger and homelessness – are adaptive. But in contrast to technical problems, merely throwing money at an adaptive problem rarely, if ever, works.
  • Complex social problems, like improving the public schools, are fundamentally different from technical problems, and the effective exercise of leadership depends on understanding this distinction.


  • The tendency to fight adaptive problems with technical tools may be the single greatest barrier to foundations’ effectiveness, and the reason that many multimillion dollar foundation initiatives fail to create lasting social change.


  • If foundations are to become effective institutions of adaptive leadership, they must understand the value of employing their expertise, political access, media skills, and bold strategies, rather than just their grant dollars, to generate change in society. They should reject the artificial dichotomy between proactive and passive grant-making, and firmly lead social change without imposing the answers.

In essence, don’t be afraid to think outside of the box and allow others to help lead when the answer seems unknown. Here are a few links to more information on this style of leadership:

  1. http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/leading_boldly
  2. http://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2012/11/09/leadership-2-0-are-you-an-adaptive-leader/
  3. http://www.cambridge-leadership.com/index.php/adaptive_leadership/
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