Essential concepts of collaboration

Importance of Adaptive Leadership

Most of us equate authority with leadership. A traditional leader usually is selected or voted into power by the majority. Once seated, traditional leaders are expected to (1) provide direction and a sense of purpose, (2) protect the people from external threats, (3) maintain the status quo or strictly observe roles and functions, (4) restore order, and (5) maintain norms. A traditional leader is given the authority and power for only a specified period, after which he or she has to step down.

When we treat leadership as an activity, anyone can mobilize people to do something (Heifetz 1994). That means that even if you have no formal authority, you can step up and be a leader. Informal authority stems from your social position or the relationship you have built with your colleagues and friends.

Heifetz (1994) identified two problems that usually are seen in the workplace. The first is when a leader is faced with technical problems. A dentist is a good example of a person with authority, and a toothache can be classified as a technical problem. Once a dentist decides that the tooth is beyond saving, he pulls it out, after informing the patient of what has to be done. Technical problems, as defined by Heifetz (1994), are easily identified, diagnosed, and solved by applying established procedures within a system. The act of extracting the tooth from the patient was a well-established procedure to get rid of a rotten tooth.

Another type of problem in the workplace is what we call an adaptive challenge. It is usually complex by nature and difficult to solve using cut-and-dried methods because attitudes, perceptions, and competing interests of individuals come into play. An example can still be the dentist. This time, a dentist detected that a tooth was in the early stages of developing dental caries. Because development of dental caries can still be arrested, the dentist knew that she had to get the attention of his patient to take better care of his teeth. However, doing so would mean having her patient change his behavior by giving up sweets and using better dental hygiene. But the dentist knew that she must be able to increase the patient’s understanding and awareness of the problem before she would be able to influence him to change his attitude. That example is what Heifetz (1994) calls adaptive work. It “consists of the learning required to address conflicts in the values people hold, or to diminish the gap between the values people stand for and the reality they face (Heifetz 1994, 22).”

To take that example further, adaptive leadership focuses on mobilizing the patient (or stakeholders) to do the work necessary to experiment, learn, modify their behavior, and thrive. To stop his tooth from decaying, the patient would need to change his values, attitude, and behavior. In this context, the dentist facilitated the learning process for the patient so that he could understand the situation he was in.

In practicing adaptive leadership, there are a few key initiatives to keep in mind:


Leadership is a specific and time-bound activity, depending on the situation at hand. As such, individuals can assume leadership regardless of their position within a social structure. Everyone—from a president to a clerk—can be a leader depending on how they use their capacities and skills to address a particular situation.

A leader needs to step away to assess and gain perspective on a certain situation. That will enable the leader to correctly read or diagnose a situation, and from there be able to determine what needs to be done to address that situation.

Seeing yourself as part of the organization and perceiving how others value your role is critical. You can identify and map where your informal authority emanates from and how you can use it to influence and motivate people toward a certain objective.

As a leader, you may need to introduce and pilot interventions based on observations made from the balcony. Experimentation will help determine whether the right issues have been identified and whether progress is being made toward solving complex problems.

In advocating for reforms, the practice of framing and reframing possible interventions to build a support base contributes to a leader’s ability to influence people and for them to treat problems as opportunities for the team to learn to solve problems among themselves.

Adaptive Leadership: The Philippine Case

In 2011, Philippines Commission on Audit (COA) had a total of 6,803 state auditors. Its audit report for that year reflected a total amount of PHP 30 trillion in transactions by 61,418 government agencies from the national, local, and corporate government sectors. The ratio of state auditors to government agencies was 1:9, rendering virtually impossible any auditor satisfactorily completing his or her duties effectively and efficiently. Nevertheless, COA was able to unearth PHP 101.8 billion that had been considered lost resulting from the violation of agency laws, rules, and regulations.*

One of the many problems that COA faced was the diminishing number of state auditors. Every year, more than 100 auditors retired, leaving COA with a very lean workforce. The technical solution was easy: hire more auditors. However, the criteria for hiring were set too high, and the proposed remuneration was set too low. That resulted in only a handful of auditors entering the workforce—too few to meet the demand.

By treating the problem as both technical and adaptive, the current COA chairperson decided to implement the Citizen Participatory Audit (CPA). That change meant transforming an infusing innovation in the current system to adapt participatory audit approaches, and providing avenues for learning for both state auditors and CSO partners. In the end, the adaptive fix resulted in three pilot audits that focused on the performance of government agencies and a policy that institutionalized participatory audits within the Commission.

*Sources: Commission on Audit (COA) 2011 Audit Performance Report and COA Auditors’ 201 Data

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