A Leader’s Toolbox: Using Authority to Promote Change

In the first post of this series I dealt with how high performers have a greater tendency to operate from a technical mindset, which when questioned often leads to defensive reasoning. In that same grain, technical-minded leaders also have a tendency to use their expertise mostly to provide summative answers–a final answer per se. Nonetheless, even the highest performing leaders and organizations will also face adaptive challenges, in which the summative conclusions formed by technical expertise may fall short in providing a way forward.

Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles for any leader going through adaptive challenges is to know when, how and to what end to use their position of authority. Ronald Heifetz is a leadership scholar who’s written extensively about how to mobilize adaptive work–in other words, how to promote change when change is necessary. He gives us interpretive clues as to how to go about leading people through adaptive challenges. Adaptive challenges are great for bringing leaders and subordinates to a common ground of learning and discovery. Heifetz points out that authority in such moments can be a resource, because it provides the instruments and power to hold a group together to ultimately harness the distressing process of doing adaptive work.

Heifetz also informs us that we are most productive in adapting when we reach a productive zone of disequilibrium. A leader can thus guide his/her group in traversing between the threshold of change and limit of tolerance. Authority thus serves as a constraint, because it is contingent on meeting the expectations of constituents. Therefore, in adaptive challenges, authority is used not to give orders, but to build a safe-space for learning how to navigate when our maps no longer work. During adaptive situations, the mode of operating must shift away from answer-giving authority toward the use of authority to construct a relationship in which to raise and process tough questions.

Heifetz’s perspective is insightful because adaptive challenges often disrupt and rearrange the relational dynamics between a leader and subordinates. With this in mind, authority figures in positions of leadership must be able to tell the difference between technical and adaptive situations because they require different responses. This implies that leaders must be able to engage in reflective work even in the midst of substantive challenges. A leader’s situational awareness while facing change reshapes relational lines, leading to a greater group dynamics that produces a learning environment to tackle the challenge at hand.

During such situations the leader becomes a facilitator of discovery, and uses authority to bind the group together in a process of conscientization. In many ways, this learning approach mirrors Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The leader becomes a facilitator in the learning process by his/her own ability to recognize adaptive challenges. He/she is therefore encouraged to approach challenges through a pedagogy of problematization, asking such questions as, does making progress on this problem require changes in people’s values, attitudes, or habits of behavior?

Using authority to traverse adaptive challenges is requires atypical levels of self-awareness. Throughout my fifteen years of ministry I have attempted to model a type of Christian leadership that distances itself from highly hierarchical structures. I have done this in a couple of ways. Although I am an ordained minister, I have never required anyone to address me by the title of Pastor, Minister or Reverend. I prefer that my colleagues and congregants call me by my first name. I have also sought to abolish the “sage on the stage” approach as the one with all the answers. I encouraged lay leaders to participate in the teaching office of the church as occasional preachers in our main services, and discourage formal dress like preaching robes or other similar attire.

These changes have brought great benefits to church culture where I’ve served, but have also produced a new set of unforeseen questions. The first is the simple question of who is ultimately in charge. I have found that attempting to “lead from below” often confuses the immediate subordinates as to who is actually qualified to perform a certain task. Second is the question of using “answer-giving authority” when technical challenges do arise. Horizontal dynamics can often blur the line between the teacher and the pupil, or the mentor and the mentored.

Heifetz’s insights allow me to understand that formal authority has its uses, particularly when dealing with adaptive challenges where uncertainty needs to be managed. The leader must fully embrace his position, and work as the facilitator and mediator of necessary discussions. Real changes require a certain level of discomfort and pain. In such cases the leader is able to use authority to constrain discomfort and guide subordinates into discovery. Formal authority must not be avoided, but rather embraced in such a way that it reinforces the relational dynamics needed to promote lasting change.

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