No Answer Leadership?

How important is it for the leader to have the answers to the problems facing an organization? Some would say essential. “How can you lead if you don’t know where you are going?” Or “Isn’t it the leader’s job to get things fixed?”  The answer is, it depends. 

One of the real temptations of leadership is to be seen as the one who has all the answers. Leadership scholars call this “heroic leadership.” Visions of the Lone Ranger, Zorro, or Superman come to mind. There’s something inside us that wants to be a part of the cavalry galloping to the rescue. It’s a temptation we must resist. Why? 

Harvard leadership scholar Ron Heifetz (see Suggested Reading – Leadership) suggests two situations make up challenges that face organizations (actually he’s more nuanced but two will do for this post). The first requires what he calls a “technical” fix. Hire an expert, tweak some management procedures, concentrate on better management in general, these are the things that will meet this kind of everyday challenge.  The challenge may be serious or not, but its solution will lie in the scope of behaviors, skills and thought-patterns that have already served the group well. So, answers are good here.

The second kind of challenge is more difficult. Heifetz calls it the “Adaptive challenge.” Here new ways of thinking must be invented, new attitudes/values must be adopted in order for the group to survive. The adaptive challenge is usually identified by someone who knows the industry, who can see what’s coming down the road. In sailor’s terms, someone who “see’s where the wind is.” Finding solutions is adaptive work. 

If new thinking is to be invented, new attitudes adopted, new behaviors implemented, then Change, with a capital “C,” is necessary. When such Change is mandated from the top down, it rarely lasts and risks “blowing-up” the organization. Lasting change requires the organization’s people to find solutions. They must be mobilized by someone who understands the adaptive challenge and can lead the group to do the inventing, adopting and implementing necessary to meet the challenge and thrive. What’s needed is not an “answer man” but a leader prepared to ask good questions and help people do the work necessary to make the group thrive. 

Have you seen this kind of leadership?


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