Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

Administering The "Injection"

I've been reading Ronald Heifetz' book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Great reading about the highest form of leadership – developing the capacity of the led to meet their own challenges. An admirable goal, and not always popular!

The premise of the book, and of the Adaptive Leadership concept behind it, is that not all challenges are technical in nature, even if most are approached as if they were. Technical challenges are those that respond well to the application of existing know-how. For example, a cavity in your tooth is a technical challenge. The resolution can be carried out by a technician (your dentist) who has been highly trained and has a very high rate of success.

There is another kind of challenge, a much more difficult one, that has no technical resolution. It requires the involved parties to adapt (change) against their will. Heifetz calls it an adaptive challenge. A high cholesterol level is a good medical example of an adaptive challenge because the patient will have to change his/her lifestyle in order to get resolution. Not many people really want to do that, and their doctor can't do it for them. But the doctor can help them do it themselves. Doctors who are successful in helping their patients make that change are practicing what Heifetz calls adaptive leadership.

In his words:
"To practice [adaptive] leadership, you need to accept that you are in the business of generating chaos, confusion, and conflict, for yourself and others around you."
Not what you signed up for? Get over it – your value as a leader (especially today) is that you are willing and able to move people and organizations out of their comfort zones, but not so far out that they shut down or descend into chaos. It's a neat trick.

A key tool for you is being able to confront people with truths they don't want to hear. I'm sure you know the drill: you name the inconvenient truth, they resist, and you, the leader, are marginalized, shunned, attacked, or even dismissed. Only your skill at adaptive leadership (read the book!), the support of your allies, and your other external resources help you weather that immediate storm long enough for he truth to begin to work. Once that shift starts, the adaptation process has begun.

I call this phenomenon "the injection" because it reminds me of the provocative medical immunization treatment of the same name. The "injection" hurts and causes a defensive reaction in the system. But if the dose is correct, that reaction is just sufficient to stimulate the system's defensive energies without driving it into abject rejection. And those energies are what is required to help the system grow its adaptive capacity.

I have given "injections" in the workplace, and it's not for the faint of heart. To get your nerve up, I recommend that you start administering "injections" to your own family.

Have you stopped laughing? I'm serious, and, you know, you probably already do it. For example, I recently said something to my twenty-something son that was completely true, that he needed to hear, and that he didn't like at all – the "injection". The leadership challenge for me was to let myself see his disappointment, risk feeling like a harsh parent, and appreciate the difficulty for him of realizing his incompetence at that moment – all without backsliding into remorse and apology, which I did not do. The result? A few day's later he told me that the conversation had been a turning point in his acceptance of more responsibility in the world. Nice!

So go administer some injections at home. When you've gotten good at it, you can start doing it at work. If you're brave enough you might even volunteer to get one.

P.S. I neglected to tell you that I've also administered "injections" to my wife (and she to me). So everyone is fair game. That's all I'm going to say about that.