The Work of Leadership


By Sandeep Dahiya (LMB)

“I think we made a mistake by trusting you for this job.”

Dinesh walked out of his Bosses cabin after hearing this. He was disappointed and devastated as nothing was working out for him from last three months.

Dinesh was a star performer at work for a long time and was promoted to take charge of product development department for his company. He had been working at shop floor from a long time and was considered one of the best managers around. He could solve almost all problems related to shop floor but this new assignment posed challenges for him. None of his tried and tested solutions seem to be working. The assignment was to build a new generation water purifier system with better features and reduced costs. It involved handling of cross functional team, lot of uncertainty and also required organizational changes.

Dinesh left early from office that day and met his longtime friend Mukesh at a café. Besides discussing their regular personal stuff, they discussed their professional problems also. Mukesh knew about Dinesh’s new assignment and asked about it. Dinesh told him the whole story how his style of solving problems and giving directions to people is not at all working and how his boss was unhappy with the results.

Mukesh understood the problem Dinesh was facing and which many managers face daily throughout their professional career.

“The single biggest failure of leadership is to treat adaptive challenge like a technical problem.”

Mukesh told him precisely that is the mistake he was also making. He was treating an adaptive challenge as a technical problem. He gave him one example. “Dinesh, if you were leader of a team of 16 people who are told to make a square. What you will do?” He replied, “It is very simple mate. I will ask each four of us to stand next to each other and then next four at 90 degrees from first four. The square is done.” Mukesh asked another question, “Now think that all of you are blind folded and don’t know where all you are standing and now you are asked to make a square with a rope which is not with you. What you will do as a leader?” Dinesh took some time to react and said “This may require a different approach.”

“Exactly, that’s the point. First problem is a technical problem and most leaders/managers will solve it the way you told. It is easy to identify and can be solved by authority or expertise.” Mukesh said. “Second problem is an adaptive challenge. No one way of solving it. Perhaps you may not able to solve it yourself at all. First step is to differentiate between these two. We should not treat an adaptive challenge problem as technical problem. Rest all will follow. Your product development problem is an adaptive challenge.”

Dinesh understood that he has to do things differently in his new role.

Like Dinesh, we also deal with lot of problems/issues in our professional domain daily. Some of these are technical problems and some are adaptive challenges. Key is to differentiate between the two and then search solutions. Here are some guidelines to differentiate.

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Concept and title adapted from Ronald A. Heifetz & Donald A. Laurie, “The Work of Leadership” Harvard Business Review, January-February 1997 and Ronald A. Heifetz & Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line, Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

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