I work in a conservative 150-member church made up primarily of older people. Recently, a group of 40 students joined the church and their numbers will likely continue to grow. But the blessing of growth came with some unexpected challenges. The students’ different values and expectations are clashing with the more traditional mindset of the older members in the congregation. Both sides demonstrate limited understanding for each other and are appealing to me to straighten out the other party on the basis of my pastoral authority. You may have faced similar circumstances, in which there is no standard answer because the adequate response has yet to be developed.  Situations like this have often left me feeling awkward and thinking, “If I were a better leader I certainly would know what to do.” Heifetz’s adaptive leadership theory helped me to grow in my understanding of how to deal with situations that seem to defy simple solutions.

The term “adaptive leadership” originated in the work of Ronald Heifetz in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers (1994), in which he unfolded the understanding of adaptive leadership. This approach was expanded in Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leadership (2002), which he wrote with Marty Linsky. The current book is coauthored with Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky.

Heifetz et al. (2009) maintain that it is important to redefine popular Thomas Gyuroka, M.A., is the Senior Pastor of the SDA Church in Graz, Austria. misconceptions of leadership. In their understanding it is imperative for leaders to distinguish between leadership and authority and between technical and adaptive tasks. Many leaders fail to lead when they mistakenly treat adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems.

Technical problems, although potentially complex and critically important, have a known solution within the expertise of those in authority. In contrast, adaptive challenges usually need a learning experience which requires an adaptation of habits, attitudes and values, or of organizational roles, norms, and procedures. Technical problems usually are solved by a person in authority who has the answers, decision-making power, and the power to enforce necessary steps. But adaptive problems do not need someone who exerts authority; rather, they require a leader who is willing to frame and ask tough questions, to confront reality, draw out issues, challenge current procedures, and, most importantly, to transfer the responsibility for solving the problem to the people who need to learn and who have to do the changing.

In contrast to Heifetz’s first and second books, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership does not discuss the theory of adaptive leadership. Rather, this book tries to put adaptive leadership into practice. It com prises a wealth of tools, diagrams, reflections, exercises, charts, and tactics which can be used to work through adaptive challenges in all kinds of organizations. For those who are not familiar with adaptive leadership, the authors include a chapter called “Theory Behind the Practice.”

Heifetz et al. take their concept from evolutionary biology, which sees successful adaptation as necessary to preserve DNA, to discard unnecessary DNA, and to create new DNA that can flourish under new circumstances. From this background they come up with the following basic assumptions:

  • Adaptive leadership is about change that enables the capacity to thrive.
  • Adaptive change interventions build on the past rather than jettison
  • Organizational change happens through
  • Adaptive leadership relies on
  • New adaptations have the potential of significantly displacing, re-regulating, and rearranging old
  • Adaptive change takes

Adaptive leadership theory starts with the realization that there are really no dysfunctional organizations because all organizations function at the level of adaptation they are willing to engage in (p. 17).

Organizations unwilling to adapt may become non-viable and eventually die. Some existing organizations, though appearing dysfunctional, may in reality be best equipped to achieve their current purpose. Thus, organizational development processes are “mostly not about change at all” (p. 23) but about preserving those aspects which guarantee the survival of the organization thus far while at the same time producing successive small changes so as to adapt the organization to the changing conditions of its environment.

The best leadership laboratory for learning adaptive leadership is life itself. Leadership development at its best happens when the reader discovers the many opportunities to exercise adaptive leadership in the different areas of his or her life. The book, however, is not simply a handbook of best practices and tactics.  It builds on a systems view with the self as the most important system in order to move an organizational system forward. Like an organization, a leader is a complex unit with competing values, interests, preferences, tendencies, aspirations, and fears. Understanding the personal system will help a leader to make the choices necessary to lead an organization successfully through adaptive challenges.

One of the most important principles of adaptive work is “getting on the balcony.” Often leaders are so swept into the field of action that they are no longer able to diagnose problems and understand their roots. Leaders therefore need the ability to step back and to see the different processes as if standing on a balcony in order to see the whole picture. Only then are they able to identify value conflicts and power struggles, recognize patterns of work avoidance, and watch out for dysfunctional system procedures.

The book comprises 23 chapters divided into 5 sections. Each chapter consists of framing ideas and illustrative stories followed by reflection exercises and a low-risk experimental exercise that encourages trying out some ideas in the personal leadership practice. A whole section of the book deals with understanding an organization’s structure, norms and forces, default interpretations and behavior, the diagnosis of adaptive challenges and the political landscape, and the presence or absence of the important qualities of an adaptive organization.

How does adaptive leadership apply to Christian leadership? Its major merit lies in the fact that it helps the reader to differentiate between technical problems and adaptive challenges on the one hand and the appropriate reaction of authority versus leadership on the other hand. It also offers good diagnostic tools for organizations and gives practical help for the personal development of the leader.

Since Christian leaders do not derive their leadership theory from evolutionary biology but from biblical principles, they will not be able to agree with all the principles this book suggests for bringing about adaptive change. For them change interventions do not build on the past in the first place but on God’s plan for the future. Some readers may not agree that “there is no such thing as a dysfunctional organization” (p. 17), since the standard for any Christian organization does not come from the people in that system, its leaders, or the jointly held values, but from outside the system, from the eternal God.

Christian leaders might also dispute the notion that the answers for all adaptive changes can be found within the system. In a world of sin and broken relationships—horizontally as well as vertically—Christian leaders find that change often has to come as an intervention from God, because what is needed is not only adaptation, but renewal and a new creation. Also the notion of political thinking (pp. 89-100) at times might be a difficult concept for spiritual leaders.

Personally, I profited from studying Heifetz’s theory of adaptive leadership. It is not a reference book for change initiatives but rather a carefully thought-out theory of action which can serve as a foundation for action. Those who are willing to invest time and energy into a careful study and Christian reflection about adaptive leadership will certainly advance in their leadership abilities.

Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky are cofounders of Cambridge Leadership Associates; Alexander Grashow is the Managing Director. This international leadership development firm has clients from corporate, nonprofit, and public sectors all over the globe. Heifetz and Linsky have been colleagues and collaborators at the Harvard Kennedy School for over twenty-five years. Grashow has taught leadership in executive education programs at Harvard, New York University, and Duke Corporate Education.

Related Literature

Heifetz, R. A. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Heifetz, R. A., & Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the line: Staying alive through the danger of leading. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
















Dissertation research often reaches a rather select audience of a few. In an effort to extend that circle of researchers on servant leadership, we are featuring in each issue a new section featuring dissertation and research

conference notices. I invite seminaries, graduate ministry and other depart- ments to submit Ph.D. and Ed.D. dissertation (and on occasion D.Min.) notices and abstracts (less than 150 words) of studies of interest to Christian leaders. If you are planning research conferences dealing with servant leadership or leadership issues of interest to Christian leaders, you are welcome to send an official note to the editor of this journal.  Please see the instructions for submission of dissertation notices on our website:


Dissertation Notices

Aufderhar, Michael J. (2010). Clergy family systems training and how it changes clergy leadership attitudes and practices. Ph.D., Andrews University.

Barber, Robert. (2009). ‘Apo poimen eis paidagogos: From pastor into schoolmaster: A study of maturing servant leadership. Ed.D., Rowan University.

Bernard, Patricia. (2009). The stressors and coping strategies of women in leadership positions. Ph.D., Andrews University.

Christensen, Thomas W. (2009). Crisis leadership: A study of leadership practice. Ph.D., Capella University.

Falk-Dindoffer, Tamara. (2010). A description of how women presidents and vice presidents in Michigan Christian universities make meaning of their experience. Ph.D., Andrews University.

Fowler, Shedrick L. (2008). Fostering leader-follower interaction as a consumptive experience in the Baptist Church: An investigation of the dramaturgical value of servant leadership. Ph.D., Capella University.

Gober, Robert S. (2010). Holistic Christian formation for enduring leadership. D.Min., Asbury Theological Seminary.

Goldstein, Efraim M. (2010). The common characteristics of mentors of new believers in Israel. D.Min., Asbury Theological Seminary.


Holsinger, James Wilson, Jr. (2009). Christian leadership in the local church: Mentoring new Christian disciples. D.Min., Asbury Theological Seminary.

Ling, Stephanie. (2008). Sustaining organizational change through faith-based leadership. Ph.D., University of Toronto.

Kulah, Jerry Paye-Manfloe. (2010). The leadership of the UMC as a prophetic community for the holistic transformation of post-conflict Liberia. D.Min., Asbury Theological Seminary.

Marshall, Kim R. (2010). A case for culturally congruent leadership development: A model for teachers and administrators in Christian schools. Ph.D., Walden University.

Oyebamiji, Isaac O. (2010). The influence of cultural coloration on conflict resolution by African Christian leaders: A study of Christian leaders and conflict resolution in Jos, Nigeria. D.Min., Asbury Theological Seminary.

Reyes , Albert L. (2010). Intercultural relationships in organizational transformation: A single-case study of Baptist University of the Americas. Ph.D., Andrews University.

Stiffney, Rick. (2010). The self-perception of executives concerning their role and work in shaping the faith identity of nonprofit Mennonite/Anabaptist organizations: A collaborative case study and narrative approach. Ph.D., Andrews University.

Williams, Valerie Evangeline. (2009). Organizational change and leadership within a small nonprofit organization: A qualitative study of servant-leadership and resistance to  change.  Ph.D., Capella  University.

Wolf, Thom. (2010). Lifecode: An examination of the shape, the nature, and the usage of the oikoscode, a replicative nonformal learning pattern of ethical education for leaders and community groups.

Ph.D., Andrews University.

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