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Leadership Fails and What to Do

Updated: Jun 27, 2019

by Douglas Sharp

Leaders have two ways of acquiring the knowledge and experience they need to function in their organizations: success and failure. That’s it. A leader learns something when an idea or plan succeeds and its purpose is accomplished or a problem resolved. When a nascent idea, born of intuition or insight, evolves into a sophisticated strategy and resources can be allocated and deployed, a positive outcome will assure an accumulation of new knowledge and experience that will serve the leader and the organization well into the future. When a seemingly good idea or plan goes awry and fails to achieve its intended purpose, when intrusions of an unexpected sort intervene to divert the energy and resolve needed to bring a project to completion, a leader learns something here too—if the leader will take the time with others to discern and assess the reasons that contributed to the failure. Learning from successes and failures is difficult work. In fact, such learning is different in each scenario. It is easier to identify the factors that contribute to success than it is to ascertain the elements that conspired to bring about failure. Leaders want to maximize the factors in an organization that lead to success, and minimize the problems that have the potential to contribute to failure. Unfortunately, two of the greatest mistakes—the greatest leadership fails—are the inability to recognize an organizational strength that is in fact a fatal weakness, and to deal with organizational problems as though they were isolated and in need of correction. Let me illustrate. It was once my happy lot to work for an educational institution in California that had an extraordinary faculty, an assembly of individuals who were well-known, widely published, and sought-after scholars and speakers. The administration of the school was visionary, lean-and mean, and efficient, and the school was interconnected with several other schools of like purpose. By all accounts, students and money should have been flowing into the school, but that was not the case. Instead, money and students went elsewhere, and soon the school found itself in survival mode on the cusp of death. The school’s executive leadership and governing board assessed the situation and determined that the solution was to appeal to and identify with an altogether different constituency and student market. In effect, the leadership retooled and realigned the institution and its purpose. Rather than throw money at additional staff for fundraising and recruitment, they chose to reinvent the institution in its changed context. At present, this educational institution is doing okayin its niche, but it looks nothing like it did before the transformation. The case of this school is a good illustration of the misunderstood distinction between strengths and weaknesses, purpose and context, efficiency and incompetence, continuity and transformation. A closer examination just might reveal that a strength is undercutting capacity elsewhere in the organization, or the sociocultural context of an institution is fundamentally in conflict with its purpose, or routine activities done reasonably well by some standard are masking ineffectiveness at more basic levels, or the resources invested in organizational stability are really a perpetuation of denial of more inherent challenges. Leaders are routinely presented with problems and challenges that can range from the simple to the complex. Such problems and challenges can be viewed on a continuum—the simpler the challenge, the easier the fix; the more complicated the challenge, the more difficult the response. Because these challenges can be seen on a continuum, it is important to recognize that there is a tipping point where the nature of the problem and the social and organizational context in which it occurs have shifted from being a nuisance to being a threat to the well-being of the organization. In his book, Leadership Without Easy Answers, Harvard University professor Ronald A. Heifetz makes a distinction between “technical problems” and “adaptive challenges” facing an organization. This is an important distinction to make for leaders and organizations trying to weather the changes in our cultural environments. More importantly, it provides a set of insights into how and why an organization’s successes may mask failure or weakness, and how failure or weakness may not be susceptible at all to remedy apart from a thorough alteration of the organization. Heifetz describes a “technical problem” as an organizational flaw or malfunction that is easily identified and quickly resolved without complication. A light bulb burns out, a section supervisor is ill, multiple computer systems fail to communicate, etc. Problems of this sort can be solved by someone inside the organization who has expertise and authority to get it done. Whatever changes may be required are minimal and hardly extensive throughout the organization. An “adaptive challenge,” on the other hand, is an altogether different situation. For one thing, it is much more difficult to identify and very easy to deny. A remedy, should one be considered, will undoubtedly require significant change in internal structures and relationships, a reformation in values, beliefs and roles that are embedded in the organization. Such challenges frequently evoke resistance in people who are reluctant to undergo the personal and professional changes necessary. Moreover, having discerned the presence of an adaptive challenge, leadership recognizes that the expertise needed to affect change must be brought in from the outside; policy, procedures and knowledge base currently in place are inadequate to meet the challenge. Adaptive challenge requires gaining new knowledge and skill, literally a new perspective and way of analyzing, reflecting and working. It requires adaptation to changing circumstances and environments. While adaptive work provides opportunity to cultivate new knowledge and competence, it also involves loss and disorientation because what was routine and familiar is now put aside. A very good illustration of the difference between a technical problem and an adaptive challenge is high blood pressure. Viewed as a technical problem, the solution is a visit to a physician and a prescription for medication—problem solved! But when viewed as an adaptive challenge, the solution requires a fundamental change in lifestyle and activity. It requires learning how to eat healthy, what types of food are good and what types are to be avoided, and how best to prepare them. It requires higher levels of physical activity and focus on lowering stress. And just as importantly, it requires discontinuing activities once thought part-and-parcel of one’s life. We are living in a time of great social, political and economic ferment on local, national and global scales. Environments and contexts are becoming increasingly diverse and this invites reflection on strategies of both technical and adaptive adjustments. Well advised is the leader who reaches and crosses over the tipping point in the ability to recognize the difference—and lead through it to both personal and organizational transformation. The greatest leadership fail is the inability to distinguish between these two, and to view adaptive challenges as technical problems. Now bear with me for a moment. I want to tell you a story about a church—let’s call it “Old First Church,” or OFC for short (name disguised to protect the guilty). A decade ago, OFC was a small-sized church in a suburban community. It had modest growth in the preceding ten-year period, and even though a small number of its older members had passed away, it showed a net gain in membership. It had programs for children, youth, and young adults, though this latter group lacked a critical mass. Most of its members were in the 45+ range, and a full third were over 60. The church had meaningful worship with a strong pastor whose skills were in preaching, administration, and pastoral care. OFC made their budget every year (though not by much), and succeeded in fully subscribing a six-figure financial campaign to do some major repair on the sanctuary building. The congregation had an outreach program and a food pantry that was fully utilized by poor people in the community. The educational programing for adults was rather slim-to-nonexistent, but there was a nice family-oriented feeling that kept people connected. Then the pastor left to accept a call from a new church, and the wheels fell off OFC. They called a new minister, to be sure. But something had changed, and as the new minister and congregation tried to put it together, they found that they just could not get it on track. After a few years of trial-and-error, the new minister left to take a new church. So OFC was once again without a minister and the size of the congregation has become even smaller. To achieve financial stability, the congregation sold its facility before the most recent pastor left, but what followed was continued decline in programming and membership. Old First Church is on the threshold of closing its (now rented) doors forever. It can’t seem to find a reason to exist, one that is substantive, challenging, and sustaining. And, more than anything else, it lacks purposeful leadership that can distinguish between technical problems and adaptive challenges. Sadly, the story of OFC is not an uncommon story, not only for churches but for many other organizations who find themselves at the threshold of closing up shop. It doesn’t require diminished sales or clients or revenue to signal that closing is just around the corner. It can also be the diagnosis in an organization where people languish from the inability to focus on what they could or should be doing to move an organization forward. It’s time to throw in the towel when there is no willingness to change—or even recognize that change is needed. Purposeful leadership, on the other hand, is evident when there is a regular practice of assessing the congruity between identity and purpose. Both of these are not easy to discern, but neither of them achieves clarity without periodic focused attention. The identity question asks, “Who are we?” and the purpose question asks, “Why are we here?” I frankly cannot imagine that any organization could succeed, let alone thrive, without fairly constant attention to these two interrelated questions. What’s at stake in the identity question is the set of principles, values, standards, ideals, and morals that shape and influence both the persons who are committed to the organization and the conduct of the organization as it interfaces with the larger public. The stake in the purpose question is equally profound, namely the overarching and undergirding rationale for existence to begin with, the fundamental goals and objectives that summon the organization into reality and give warrant for the perseverance and tenacity of those who give themselves to it. Fashioning, assessing and reforming identity and purpose all coalesce at the intersection of leadership, organizational life, and larger public. This task involves deep work that is risk-taking and vision-making. As I noted above, in the language of Ronald Heifetz, this task entails adaptive work, not technical work; it’s not solving a problem, but rather transforming the organization. This deep work is a challenge for leaders, and tragically, like the leadership at OFC, the absence of purposeful leadership suggests the greater likelihood an organization will decline. On the other hand, and happily, an organization can be reformed to achieve greater levels of coherence and impact, if its leadership can lead in articulating identity and raise the levels of commitment to an organization’s purpose. Purposeful leaders recognize that an organization can thrive only when it has a purpose that provides both opportunity and meaning to those within the organization. The problem with OFC is that it lacks anything more than a generic purpose; its reason for being is incapable of generating enthusiasm, excitement, challenge or opportunity. “Being there” or “being together” is not sufficient to sustain even a simple, uncomplicated organization. The organization’s fundamental reason for existing both reflects and influences the values and convictions of those who share in its activities. This is especially true of the leadership. Leaders who desire to raise their competence, expand their impact, and strengthen their resilience will need to commit themselves to several disciplines and activities. To begin with, they will make time for reflection and conversation on identity and purpose; this will enhance their ability to engage is strategic planning and the recognition of what is needed to follow through. They will also engage others in their organizational culture in a collaborative effort to assess the extent to which the organization’s structures and activities are consistent with identity and purpose; this will augment the support and buy-in among the principal players. In addition, they will envision the systems and resources necessary for sustaining initiative and increasing capacity to accomplish both the smaller and larger tasks required for collaborative effort toward success; this will assure that an organization is nimble and responsive. And finally, they will be diligent in providing opportunity for individuals to understand, evaluate, and enrich their personal/professional contribution to the overarching and undergirding purpose; this will make it possible for leaders and those lead to “find” and “place” themselves in a complex organization that is purpose-lead. It will make it more likely that an organization will achieve maximal effectiveness in realizing its purpose.

From: Conversations for the Common Good.


These conversations express the belief that faith-based advocacy for the common good is an essential element in Christian life. The discussions explore the issues and intersections of faith and public life with the intent to promote the well-being of all through participation in our political democracy.

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