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Harv Bus Rev. 1997 Jan-Feb;75(1):124-34.

The work of leadership.

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John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA.


More and more companies today are facing adaptive challenges: changes in societies, markets, and technology around the globe are forcing them to clarify their values, develop new strategies, and learn new ways of operating. And the most important task for leaders in the face of such challenges is mobilizing people throughout the organization to do adaptive work. Yet for many senior executives, providing such leadership is difficult. Why? One reason is that they are accustomed to solving problems themselves. Another is that adaptive change is distressing for the people going through it. They need to take on new roles, relationships, values, and approaches to work. Many employees are ambivalent about the sacrifices required of them and look to senior executives to take problems off their shoulders. But both sets of expectations have to be unlearned. Rather than providing answers, leaders have to ask tough questions. Rather than protecting people from outside threats, leaders should let the pinch of reality stimulate them to adapt. Instead of orienting people to their current roles, leaders must disorient them so that new relationships can develop. Instead of quelling conflict, leaders should draw the issues out. Instead of maintaining norms, leaders must challenge "the way we do business" and help others distinguish immutable values from the historical practices that have become obsolete. The authors offer six principles for leading adaptive work: "getting on the balcony," identifying the adaptive challenge, regulating distress, maintaining disciplined attention, giving the work back to people, and protecting voices of leadership from below.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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