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Adaptive Leadership and Conflict

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What if Fisher and Ury were wrong and the problem really is the people?

In Getting to Yes Fisher and Ury say the first rule of conflict resolution is to separate the people from the problem. They mean that, instead of defining the situation as people in dispute with each other, redefine or reframe it as people in dispute over a situation, allowing them to act collaboratively to resolve the situation, not adversarialy to win a battle with each other.

But I have to admit there have been times when the people or their behaviors have definitely been at least part of the problem. Intransigence or spite can preclude reasonable approaches to resolution, as can a simple unwillingness to work with someone. What then?

In Leadership on the Line Ron Heifitz talks about the difference between adaptive and technical change. Technical change is relatively superficial ­– a change in systems or structure – while adaptive change is more about strategy or culture, things that are not easily changed at all.

He has now applied these concepts to leadership in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, which addresses conflict resolution. In a report on Monday’s NPR’s Morning Edition (11/11) he described the idea that leaders have a vision and then sell it to others as “bankrupt,” as a sales approach that doesn’t work any more. They are providing solutions that may or may not be acceptable to others, but because the vision trumps all other considerations, it has to be followed.

He suggests that leaders act as psychiatrists rather than surgeons, and help others sort out their own issues to find their own solutions rather than impose a cure. Instead of presenting the vision and convincing others to follow, let them find their own vision and lead the way.

In complex situations when whole groups of people might have to change their ideas if agreement is to be reached, it is best to help them find the disadvantages to their current thinking and the value of change so they can construct their own, better ways of doing things rather than imposing a solution from the outside. In peacemaking terms, this means bringing in the people who have been affected by the conflict so that they can be part of the solution, of bringing in influential people who can explain to others the value of this approach, and of creating a process where everyone can contribute and be heard.

I’m not sure, though, that there isn’t room for both kinds of leadership, visionary and adaptive, that the approach has to be one or the other. Leaders should have visions of some kind or they aren’t leading at all. Visionary leadership goes wrong when leaders are so wed to that vision that it prevents seeing the larger and maybe changing picture. Maybe the leader needs to explain the vision of change, bring others in to clarify and focus it, and then use an adaptive approach to find the best ways to make the vision a reality.

These approaches are what mediators and facilitators use in mediation or in any conflict resolution or peacemaking process. Applying mediation approaches to leadership disputes includes people in the process, ensures that their concerns have been heard and respected, draws on the general wisdom of the group, and lets the leader off the hook for finding the magical vision that will make everything right.

Adaptive leadership may be another name for an idea from Ken Cloke that we have heard many times. Ken has always said that it is not the mediator’s job to solve the problem, only to facilitate a conversation and give people tools so they can find their own solutions.

The NPR piece is well worth the time to listen to it. Go to and look for Morning Edition. Then select 11/11, and scroll down the list of titles until you find “Lessons in Leadership: It’s Not About You (It’s About Them)” reported by Shankar Vedantam. Clicking on “full story” gives you a brief print version of the material, but the audio is much more interesting and richer with information. Or do a general search for “adaptive leadership” or Ron Heifitz and get dozens of references. He’s a wonderful writer with valuable ideas.

Adaptive leadership expands our thinking about the responsibility of leaders. I like it. I’m planning to use it.


Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation. MORE >

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