Any leader who is going to lead a church or an organization into change must recognize that it takes courage. There is not a church in existence that does not have to face varying types of challenges. Matter of fact if a church is not facing any challenges then I would question whether that church is moving ahead with a focused mission. The mistakes that I have seen many churches make and I have made my share of these types of mistakes is identifying whether an issue is a technical issues or an adaptive issue. Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linski state that leading cultural change is dangerous because “a leader can appear dangerous to people when you question their values, beliefs, or habits of a lifetime.” You as a leader place yourself on the line when you tell people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. Although you may see with clarity and passion a promising future of progress and gain, people will see with equal passion the losses you are asking them to sustain.
I can think back to a time that I became the Lead Pastor of a great group of people who had been through some very difficult years of experiencing loss that led to them having to say good bye to many of their previous friends who had attended the church. The church had nothing in place to create any type of relational connection for people before or after service. It took several months but we eventually developed a team which launched a “Courtyard Café’.” Many people were excited and the energy that was created in creating warm hospitality for our “First Time Guests” was amazing. Even through all of the positive outcomes for this decision people were grieved that they no longer had their classroom coffee time that they had for years for with their Sunday School Class. I even received a letter from sincere lady that had been attending the church for well over thirty years that the decision of the “Courtyard Café’” had shattered her Sunday morning Church experience because she could no longer have her time with her friends. In her letter she stated that she would have to stay home from church until she could emotionally get back to the place to forgive both me and the Leadership Team of the church. Whenever people must face the challenge of adapting to a tough reality, and the adaptation requires giving up an important value or a current way of life leadership becomes dangerous as it confronts people with loss.
Leadership would be a safe undertaking if your church or organization only faced problems for which they already knew the solutions. On a daily basis people face problems for which they already have the necessary know-how and protocols to solve them. These are called technical problems. But there is a plethora of problems that we may not have any kind of authoritative knowledge or standard operating procedures. They cannot be simply solved by someone who provides answers from up the food-chain of management. These problems are called adaptive challenges because they require experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places in the church or organization. Without learning new ways- changing attitudes, values, and behaviors – people cannot make the adaptive leap necessary to thrive in the new environment.
A man or woman who is leading adaptive change must understand that people cannot see at the beginning of the adaptive process that the new situation will be any better than the current condition. The sustainability of change depends on having the people with the problem internalize the change itself.
Below I have placed a chart that gives detailed description between technical and adaptive issues:
Thick Skin and A Tender Heart
Often times it is the heart of a pastor to attempt to protect people from the pain of the adaptive change that is taking place. Here is the truth: in mobilizing adaptive work, you have to have to engage people in adjusting their unrealistic expectations, rather than try to satisfy them as if the situation were amenable primarily to a technical remedy. It is a leader with a healthy ego that is able to counteract peoples exaggerated dependency on himself or herself and instead, promote their resourcefulness. A leader who is leading through adaptive issues must be thick skinned in order not to take ownership or personalize people’s criticisms and at the same time keep their heart open to people. This is called being differentiated. Many leaders will take the criticism of people personal and become defensive which only heightens people’s anxiety over their sense of loss. In other words, “Speak the truth in love.” I highlight “LOVE!”
When are beginning to lead adaptive through adaptive issues the following behaviors are helpful:
- Gather as many of the stakeholders together to begin to creatively define what creative possibilities there are to leading through the adaptive changes.
- Ask more questions rather than issuing more directives.
- Build extra time into meeting agendas so that the adaptive challenges do not get either bypassed in favor of more immediate concerns or treated with short-term technical fixes.
- Expand the circle of individuals who need to be consulted in exploring possible solutions to the problem.
- When expanding your circles make sure you have a diversity of ages, gender, and ethnic – diversity when processing through the conversation.
- When implementing the strategy adopt a language that stakeholders will use in clearly communicating what the preferred future is that is congruent with maintaining a healthy culture.
- Finally, emancipate people to come alongside of those in the community that are struggling with the adaptive change.
Remember, habits, values and attitudes, even dysfunctional ones, are part of one’s identity. To change the way people, see and do things is to challenge how they define themselves. It is important that when you are leading through adaptive issues you as a leader do not dehumanize people and simply begin to place labels on them. Be consistently honest. Be an active listener. Be authentically loving. Finally, do not make promises to people that would violate the integrity of the team. In other words, Emphasize the “WE” in the decision making process not the “ME!” This will help people to identify that the adaptive change is for the betterment of the entire community not just for you – the leader.
 Ronald A. Heifetz & Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press, 2002). p. 12.
 Ibid. p. 12.
 Ibid. p. 13.
 Ibid. p. 13.
 Ibid. p 13.
Linsky, Ronald A. Heifetz & Marty. Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.