The Times They Are A-Changin

By Diana Butler Bass 1-08-2008

The new political buzzword is change. Every candidate claims to be the change candidate-and every pundit is contrasting "change" with "establishment." In the midst of the change-din, I would like to suggest that there is an important question to ask the candidates: "How will you lead change?"

Harvard leadership professor Ronald Heifetz has identified two major approaches to change: technical fixes and adaptive change. In her fine book, Leadership Can Be Taught, Sharon Daloz Parks describes Heifetz' distinction between the two.

Leaders who change through technical fixes believe that problems can be solved "with knowledge and procedures already in hand." Technical leaders emphasize expertise, education, and experience as key to resolving difficult issues. They also think that solutions to problems already exist. Leaders must employ solid techniques or processes to make things right. In this model, a technical-fix politician would try to convince voters of his or her competence, management skill, and problem-solving track record.

In contrast, adaptive change-type leaders believe that complex problems "require new learning, innovation, and new patterns." In this mode, "leadership is the activity of mobilizing people to address adaptive challenges." According to this leadership theory adaptive problems are "swamp issues," complex problems involving multiple levels of difficulty that elude regular routines and established platforms. According to Parks, adaptive leaders "call for changes of heart and mind-the transformation of long-standing habits and deeply held assumptions and values."

The presidential candidates all talk about change. But they appear to be talking past one another. Adaptive leaders baffle technical leaders. Technical leaders strike adaptive leaders are cold or mechanical. Yet all the candidates-and the media covering them-speak of "change" as if it has a single definition and that merely invoking it can somehow summon the voters' affections. It is not enough to say one is "ready for change" or that "Washington is broken." How do they intend to lead change? Will they change things by tinkering with systems-attempting to fix what already exists? Or do they believe that existing structures have failed and they must grapple with entirely new ways of thinking and open the way for unexpected solutions to arise?

It appears clear that voters are casting their ballots for adaptive leadership. Although adaptive leaders draw on many skills, two of the most significant include "authenticity and integrity" and "inspiring a sense of commonality amidst diversity." The candidates who understand this appear to be winning the larger cultural argument about change: Change is not about skillful technique; rather, change is about transformation, a new way of seeing and being in the world.

And that is a change that people of faith should cheer.

Diana Butler Bass ( writes, speaks, and teaches about adaptive change in mainline Protestant churches. She is the author of Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (Harper One 2006).

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