The difference between adaptive leadership and operational management

Article by Ken Thompson, last updated April 2017


According to the highly acclaimed 1994 leadership book “Leadership without Easy Answers” by Ronald Heifetz there are 3 very different types of decision and learning challenges leaders encounter in organisations:

TYPE I DECISIONS – Both the issue and its potential solutions can be clearly defined

TYPE II DECISIONS – The issue can be clearly defined but learning is required before the potential solutions can be identified

TYPE III DECISIONS – Neither the issue nor its potential solutions can be clearly defined without learning happening first.

The author describes Type III issues as requiring a different form of leadership which he calls Adaptive Leadership in contrast with Type I and Type II which are more Operational Management (He calls it Technical Leadership). Heifetz talks about leaders "orchestrating the conflicts inherent in the inclusion of competing value perspectives" which despite being a bit of a mouthful seems to capture the essence of adaptive leadership.

So.... What is the current balance of your leadership priorities? And .... Have you got the right balance between simply managing operations and living too much in the future?

What top leaders do differently: They resolve the 6 “Meta Dilemmas” better!

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More about Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson

Ken is a practitioner, author and speaker on Leadership, Collaborative Working, High Performing Teams, Change Management, Project Management and Business Acumen. His work has featured in major publications including The Guardian , Wired Magazine, The Huffington Post and The Henry Ford Magazine. Ken has also spoken at many international events including TEDx, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), Learn Tech (London) and NASA.

Ken is Founder of Business Simulations Ltd.

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