Blog Post

Who Needs to Do the Work?

By: Ken Embley

Are you having fun with the Presidential debates?  There seems to be something for everyone; a real Clint Eastwood cultural touchstone “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” type of affair.

Despite the rancor, the dominant view of leadership persists; a view that demands each candidate lay claim to having the answers to our nation’s pressing challenges.  As Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky phrase it in their work The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, “Each candidate is working hard to demonstrate their abilities to provide citizens ‘direction, protection and order.’”

Let’s leave the national stage and consider the meaning of this dominate view of leadership in our lives.  For most of us, we have a natural tendency to trust that the boss will provide needed “direction, protection and order” and in turn we happily bestow the boss with the title of leader and therefore, comply with all the formal or informal practices that effectively anoints the boss leader.  This relationship works well when we have known policies, procedures and answers to challenges that come our way.

However, what happens to leadership when an adaptive challenge comes into play.  An adaptive challenge is one where there are no ready answers, policies, procedures or means to provide “direction, protection and order.”

So—who needs to do the work required to make progress on or resolve the adaptive challenge?  Consider some thoughts. Authors Ed O’Mally and Amanda Cebula argue in their work Your Leadership Edge: Lead Anytime, Anywhere that “Leadership on adaptive challenges is less about implementing solutions and more about creating the conditions for those with the problem to solve the problem. Leadership is mobilizing others to make progress on daunting challenges.  It’s not a group project where one or two smart and organized people take on all the work while others happily defer.  When doing adaptive work, the people with the problem have to solve the problem.”

My observation is that sometimes, our dominate view of leadership effectively stops us from making progress on daunting challenges.  For example, imagine a presidential candidate proudly saying “I’m going to work hard to mobilize others to make progress on any given daunting challenge.”  Well, the other candidates would attack and claim—I don’t mobilize others—I’m going to lead.  I will provide “direction, protection and order.”

So—despite the dominate view of leadership, I have hope.  Bosses, when confronted with an adaptive challenge, please consider an act of leadership; ask who needs to do the work?  “Identifying who needs to do the work is important because you’ll need to tailor your leadership efforts accordingly, shifting from doing the work yourself to mobilizing others.  Often the biggest realization is simply that ‘who’ needs to do the work isn’t you, or isn’t just you, or isn’t primarily you.”

Ken Embley is a senior research associate at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.