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Book Review: Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World

(Coordinator of Pandjer School)


A. Personal Impression
I am so passionate to delve much more about adaptive leadership provided by this book. Indeed, overall, I prefer to conduct a reflective reading to anticipate situating this book as a doctrine which must be taken for granted. It is noteworthy to highlight that this book is designed to combine both leadership concepts drawn from scientific works and practicalities drawn from real field experiences to understand how leadership must adapt and adapted to a wide array of changes. Although this book is not particularly designed for leadership in public sector and given it is much more private sector driven, I argue that this book is relevant to explicate the commonalities of leadership in separable types of organizations, contexts, and actors. Importantly, this book introduces me new insights into leadership theories, which so-called adaptive leadership. The authors claim that adaptive leadership is an art requiring experimental mind-set and people mobilization to address adaptive challenge by managing and leveraging adaptive capacity. In sum, adaptive capacity is understood as a problem-solving cycle consists of observation, interpretation, and intervention to change actors’ interests, beliefs, and loyalties through a recurring process and improvisation skill. Eventually, the most viable and imperative thing should be done in adaptive leadership is act politically, which also depicts my impression of this book.

“…people who think politically discern the formal and informal exercise of power and influence among individuals in their organization. They take time to understand the interests, loyalties, and fears of everyone who has a stake or might be affected by the change. And they understand that relationships count…” (133)

B. Context of this Book
This book emerges in a context where leadership theories (the ideal world) are presumably too abstract in order to understand political instability and world economic crisis (the real world). Thus, this book challenges the existing theories to solve the current organizational challenges to be survived and offering some complementary ideas from the practical experiences across countries, cultures, and jobs. Distinct from other scholarly work related to leadership is that this book brings what may be termed as ‘down to earth theory’, equipped by relevant materials and reflective illustration. It helps the readers to more concrete comprehending leadership in contextual settings rather than hampered by grandiloquent leadership concepts. Nevertheless, generally, I argue that adaptive leadership is conceptually suitable today given that this book posits leadership as a verb that can be applied in broader and durable context, which emphasises the importance of informal power rather than formal power operated in a political or organizational hierarchy. Regrettably, particularly, concerning with evolutionary biology ideas adopted by this book as allegedly both historical and intellectual grounds, it is antiquated to liken leadership with DNA. By the same token, the adaptive leadership is something prevalent and effortless to understand since an organization itself has own mechanism to naturally perform self-immunity and selfhealing. In other words, nothing is new about adaptive and adaptation. Therefore, this context of this book hinges on a dispute, quarrel, and uncertainty circumstances. As far as I have concerned, this book needs conflicts as a prerequisite toward adaptive leadership, which then I am not like-minded with that.

C. Relation to Leadership in Public Administration
As a practical guidance, this book is meaningful for stakeholders in non-profit sector which mission driven and in private sector which profit driven in which flexibility and creative outreach are the must. Yet, when it is applied by stakeholders in public sector which driven by citizen rights fulfilment, this book is less suitable for public leaders for several reasons. Firstly, this book segregates leadership from authority by and from which public leaders (both politic and administrative) work with formalized routinities and rigid bureaucratic procedures. Rather, this book offers informality as effective influence embedded in adaptive leadership to potentially betray the rule of laws and undermine status-quo, which neglecting roles and responsibility within organizations. Secondly, this book claims that formal authority is insufficient and incapable to address adaptive challenge, rather, informal authority is crucial to conduct adaptive leadership. Note, however, this book has not simply failed to characterize public sector organization anatomy and complexity completely different from other types of organizations. This book rather has no cohesive parameter to explain the extent and context in which formal authority can be undermined since the public sector much more relies on formality as a main reference to avoid from corruption risk.

D. Contribution to the Leadership Research
Despite this book contains dubious and allegedly controversial prescriptions to improve leadership ability with less focus on public sector, the concepts of 4 adaptive challenge archetypes can be applied to contribute to investigate how leadership works in political organizations, notably political parties. It can help to examine how politicians relate to their constituency, stand for abundance of interests, deal with political competition in the field, and address organizational pathology.

Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009) Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, Boston: Harvard Business Press.

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