Article: Why the Church Needs Adaptive Leadership, Taught Effectively

Oct 25, 2023


From Problem-Solving to Being the Body of Christ

 By Clara King


Download a printable copy of this article here.


This paper was presented at the Fall Gathering of Grantees from Trinity Church Wall Street's Leadership Development Fund.


Long before the pandemic, a congregation needed to give their sanctuary a new coat of paint. But as they began choosing a color and selecting a supplier, things became so contentious and people treated one another so badly that before long six families had left this small church.  In the end, all they could manage was to repaint the sanctuary in the same color as before.  But even that didn’t solve the problem!  Ten years later, people still used those memories to punish one another when anything bad happened.

Now, we could say that all this happened because the process just wasn’t managed well.  But here’s an alternative perspective.  Adaptive leadership, created by Ron Heifetz and his colleagues at Harvard[1], would argue that this church didn’t have a paint-selection problem; that was merely a symptom.  Their real problem was how they treated one another while they made a difficult decision together­–any difficult decision.   Imagine this congregation trying to address structural racism, or to confront poverty in their neighborhood!  How they treated one another while making difficult decisions was their adaptive challenge.[2] A leader who recognized this could use adaptive leadership to build up a character of respect in this community, liberating them to focus on God’s call to them in the world.

 Here is a different story, about a church that thrived in the pandemic.  Within two weeks of church services being cancelled, this church managed to get every single parishioner onto Zoom for worship, including all the seniors.  Three new lay ministries sprang up seemingly out of nowhere, as people stepped in to care for one another, and pray for each other.  They faced the adaptive challenge of the pandemic by bringing all their gifts and resources together, without hesitation, division, or rancor. 

 The important part of this story?  This church had been damaged by multiple emotionally-abusive clergy.  Over the decades, they had learned to throw one another under the bus in order to keep themselves safe from the bullies that led them. 

In collaboration with the Holy Spirit and an outstanding therapist, a practice of adaptive leadership had begun transforming this wounded congregation three years prior to the pandemic.  Addressing this adaptive challenge allowed them to become a healthy, unified community that was ready to rise spectacularly to the challenges of the pandemic when it emerged. No one knew that the pandemic lay ahead, but two weeks into the lockdown, they were thriving, spiritually and emotionally.  They have been thriving ever since.

Congregations across the church are struggling with the pace of change today because we are trying to fix our problems one by one.  But none of our problems are simply technical problems any longer, they are just symptoms of the underlying adaptive challenges that we face.  These adaptive challenges will keep churning out new problems that resist all our problem-solving efforts and keep distracting us from what we are really supposed to be doing, until we face them head-on.  This is why the Church needs adaptive leadership, now more than ever.  Adaptive leadership can help us get beyond problem-solving and rediscover God’s vocation for the Church, in the world that God so loves. 

Now, I am not the first one to see how helpful adaptive leadership can be for the church.  Many dioceses, presbyteries, and theology schools already offer adaptive leadership training.  So why don’t we see more adaptive leadership being employed to build up the Body of Christ?

One answer is that we aren’t teaching adaptive leadership in an effective way.  You can have the world’s best diet or exercise program, and it still won’t make the slightest difference if it doesn’t change your behaviour.  The same is true for adaptive leadership.  As one colleague said, “I’ve read all the books, I’ve taken every course I can find, and I still don’t know how to use adaptive leadership in my congregation!”

For the wellbeing of the church, I believe we have to figure out how to teach adaptive leadership effectively. 

Why is adaptive leadership such a challenge to teach?  To answer that question we have to understand something of the philosophy underneath it.  Adaptive leadership can address extremely difficult challenges because it understands human communities differently than perhaps any other leadership approach. 

Adaptive leadership recognizes human communities as highly dynamic systems, rather than as collections of individuals.  It is the difference in seeing a community as a crowded dance floor rather than a chessboard.   Rather than things happening one move at a time (while everything else remains static), adaptive leadership sees that everyone in the community is jostling each other all the time, as if we were on a dance floor. [3]  We are all influencing one another in every moment, often far below our conscious awareness. 

In adaptive leadership, this is not a complication to be managed; it is a glorious, messy, inescapable truth: the source of our greatest strengths and most profound difficulties.  Adaptive leadership, when taught effectively, gives us tools to influence, not just the individuals of a community one-by-one, but the emotional whole and imaginative horizon of the entire collective entity.

This understanding of human communities gives adaptive leadership its power; it is also what makes adaptive leadership challenging to teach.  A teacher generally relates to a class of students as a collection of individuals; this practice contradicts the central understanding of adaptive leadership, making the concepts unintelligible. 

Instead, to teach adaptive leadership effectively the teacher must be able to see the classroom itself as a dynamic system, modelling adaptive leadership, even while teaching the concepts.  This way, students feel what adaptive leadership feels like; they observe what it looks like in process; and they can begin to mimic the adaptive leadership skills the teacher is modelling.  The concepts of adaptive leadership then simply aid students to interpret what is happening organically in the classroom itself.

 Even as we work towards teaching adaptive leadership effectively, there is something we must keep in mind.  A person can also use adaptive skills to harm a community significantly.  Think of the stories above: in the first, someone had taught them it was acceptable to take their stress out on each other; in the second, abusers met their own needs at the expense of the community’s wellbeing over many years.  It is important that we teach people to use the skills of adaptive leadership to make a positive difference, all while recognizing that these skills can be used also to harm. 

Thankfully, adaptive leadership gives us skills to discern good uses from harmful ones.  Bullies, abusers, and narcissists thrive best when no one around them notices exactly what they’re doing.  But adaptive leadership can develop our power to notice and discern: is this person building the community up, or tearing them down?  It then helps us contest the power of antagonists in the community’s midst.

As the Church, we need people to have these skills; not just some people, I would argue, but as many people as we can, lay and ordained.  With the skills of adaptive leadership, and working together with the Holy Spirit for God’s kingdom, just imagine how we could address the challenges that lie ahead for us as the Body of Christ. 


Leading Adaptively, Clara’s three-session Zoom course on adaptive leadership is open to clergy and lay leaders throughout North America. Leading Adaptively is made possible in part by a grant from Trinity Church Wall Street and offered by the United Church of Canada.


[1] See Ron Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 1994); Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2002, 2017); Ron Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Alexander Grashow, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2009).

[2] Ron Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Boston: Belknap Press, 1994), 36.

[3] Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line, revised ed. (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2017), 53.