Sunday, June 17, 2007

Leadership for the long haul vs KISA

People often come to me to fix their problems, particularly at my work place. Sometimes they just need a decision and don't want to or can't make it themselves. I try to encourage my managers to come to me with a proposal and often all they get is my blessing to go ahead. When I have additional information, though, I can suggest modifications to their proposal, and it will be a better solution.

The line that struck me most in reading Ronald Heifetz in
Leadership without Easy Answers was on p. 87. "First, an authority figure exercising leadership has to tell the difference between technical and adaptive situations because they require different responses. She must ask the the key differentiating question: Does making progress on this problem require changes in people's values, attitudes or habits of behavior?”

I think we treat far too many issues as technical and not adaptive, and I wonder how it is we can learn to distinguish the two? All too often we think that our credibility, and thus our informal authority, depends on having the answer. We have to change our own habits and ways of thinking so that we know we don't always have to be the expert.

The other thing that struck me was that the people need to learn, and we must empower them to do so. I once fired a manager who could not learn how to learn--well, it's a longer story, but in this context, he just could not do adaptive work and his technical expertise was a hammer in a place that sometimes needed a screwdriver or a sponge. It was enormously difficult because he had been quite a good hammer, and then things changed.

A friend in my leadership class was describing a situation where his inner KISA (knight in shining armor) was tempted to step in and fix everything. Adaptive work takes time, and is not conducive to easy fixes. In technical work the problem is clear and so is the solution and what is required is expertise in a leader. In true adaptive work neither the problem nor the solution are clear and both require learning on the part of the leader and those being led, but the greater responsibility lies with the people. One of the keys to good leadership in these situations is giving work back to the people at a rate that they can stand.

My fantasy series recommendation to my friend was the Valdemar series by Mercedes Lackey that starts with
Arrows of the Queen, Arrow's Flight, and Arrow's Fall. In it the heroine learns the differences, and the consequences for each, between leaders (Heralds in Valdemar) who plunge into the rescue, save the day, and ride away, and those who have to stay there day after day and deal with the results of their actions.

But I like the metaphor of the knight or herald as leader because at least you can get off your high horse sometimes and let people do their own learning, even though, of course, you might be able to do it so much better...

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