Heifetz and Linsky Lead from Technical to Adaptive Change

Heifetz and Linsky, Leadership on the Line
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky.  2002.  Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading.  Boston:  Harvard Business School Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The March for Life in Washington on March 24 is a call for action to prevent gun violence. While this march represents a felt need, it has not proceeded to the next step in defining the problem. There are, of course, calls for new legislation to reduce gun availability, but past efforts at legislation have failed to alleviate the problem. What then should be done?


In their book, Leadership on the Line:  Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky assert:

we believe you can “walk the line,” [citing Johnny Cash] step forward, make a difference, take the heat, and survive to delight in the fruits of your labor.

In fact, they see leadership providing meaning to life itself in spite of obvious dangers and discouragements (3, 11-12).

Technical versus Adaptive Change

A key insight in Heifetz and Linsky’s work is to distinguish technical from adaptive challenges.  In a technical change, authorities apply current know-how to solve a problem while in an adaptive change people with the problem must learn new ways to solve the problem (14).  A technical change typically requires nothing more than additional budget (or a change in legislation, a kind of symbolic action) while an adaptive change requires an entirely new approach—we must change how we define ourselves, not some budget or any other easy fix (18).

Technical Change

Heifetz and Linsky cite the example of a car that breaks down.  If your car breaks down, then you can take it to a mechanic and get it fixed.  However, if your car breaks down because of how the family drives it, then the problem is likely to come up over and over until the family changes how the car is driven.  The mechanic can fix the first problem (car breaks down), but only the family itself can fix the second problem (repeated break downs; 19). The rub arises because:  Habits, values, and attitudes, even dysfunctional ones, are part of one’s identity.  To change the way people see and do things is to challenge how they define themselves (27). As a consequence, adaptive problems are inherently more difficult and costly to deal with.

Importance of Adaptive Change

Because current leaders were promoted to bring organizations to the point they find themselves in today, part of the challenge of adaptive change arises in dealing with dealing with those with a vested interest in the way things are.  Heifetz and Linsky observe that resistance to change often comes from unexpected places and people.  They see the 4 principal dangers to leaders being marginalization, diversion, attack, and seduction (31).  Marginalization can take the form of tokenism, neglect, or professional pigeon-holing (32-37).  Diversion results in a loss of focus—taking on too many issues or being promoted off-line (38-40).  Attacks may focus on your ideas, character, competence, family, or physical existence (42) [2]. Seduction arises as constituents for change insist on taking the issue too far and the leader then fails chasing the dream rather than accomplishing real, doable change (45-48).

Fog of War

Emotions rage and helpful information is often absent during periods of change.  In the military, this is called the fog of war.  Heifetz and Linsky accordingly observe the need to maintain the capacity for reflection—to observe more clearly what is really going on (52).  During movies of the 1930s and 1940s, during dance or dinner party scenes characters frequently retreated to a balcony to talk (or have a smoke) where they figured out their strategies. On the balcony, Heifetz and Linsky see 4 useful activities:

  1. Distinguish technical from adaptive changes;
  2. Find out where people are at;
  3. Listen to the song beneath the words (do not accept things at face value); and/or
  4. Read the behavior of authority figures for clues (55).

A Christian might substitute the expression—Sabbath rest—for balcony here as we lead our families through the stresses and struggles of life.


Heifetz and Linsky’s Leadership on the Line is written in 11 chapters divided into 3 parts:  The Challenge, the Response, and Body and Soul.  The chapters are:

  1. The Heart of Danger;
  2. The Faces of Danger;
  3. Get on the Balcony;
  4. Think Politically;
  5. Orchestrate the Conflict;
  6. Give the Work Back;
  7. Hold Steady;
  8. Manage Your Hungers;
  9. Anchor Yourself;
  10. What’s On the Line? And
  11. Sacred Heart (vii).

These chapters include an introduction and notes, an index, and write-up about the authors in the pages that follow.

Example of Adaptive Change Challenge

Heifetz and Linsky’s distinction between technical and adaptive changes is most useful.  I cannot tell you how many meetings that I attended in the government where a focus on “low hanging fruit”—technical changes which really did not address the issue but gave managers an opportunity to pretend to do something—pushed aside attempts at adaptive change.

Conversion as Adaptive Change

Conversion to Christ is an adaptive change; it is not the low hanging fruit that people want to grab which leaves them feeling “in control” of their lives. Christians become leaders the moment they respond to God’s call on their lives because they reject technical change for the transformational change which Christ offers. The Apostle Paul writes:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2 ESV)

Gun Violence Prevention

So what does this imply about the effort to reduce gun violence?

The distinction between technical and adaptive chance is critical to solving the problem of gun violence. A technical solution, like banning all assault weapons, may feel like progress is being made, but it neglects the underlying causes of the violence. Angry people can articulate their anger with other instruments.

The adaptive solution to gun violence focuses on the anger, not the instruments. Possible solutions might include things like reducing violence in video games, banning media attention for murderers, and programs that target hopeless young men and offer them hope for a better life. Coming to the realization that the problem goes beyond the guns is a first step in any adaptive solution. The fact that this problem has built up over years of inattention to underlying social problems suggests that years of effort will be required in any real solution.


Heifetz and Linsky offer a style of leadership which is an allegory for the Christian life [3].  Christianity is a holistic approach to life—all of life’s challenges and adventures are taken into account, from birth to death. Leadership on the Line highlights the adaptive changes that are required to live life to its fullest, as God intended.


[1] My paraphrase of Heifetz and Linsky’s challenges of leadership on pages 1-5.

[2] In the recent Veteran’s Administration scandal, for example, no one questioned the administrator’s competence, but media attention forced him to resign. In effect, the appetite to solving the problem remains weak—it was easier to personalize the problem and make it go away by assigning blame—a villain story.

[3] www.youtube.com/user/FaithandLeadership.

Heifetz and Linsky Lead from Technical to Adaptive Change

Also see:

Plueddemann Demystified Leadership Across Culture 

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1 Corinthians 12: Spiritual Gifts Point to the Holy Spirit

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone (vv 4-6).

Are your talents a gift?

The Apostle Paul is not shy about discussing the role of the Holy Spirit.  In 1 Corinthians 12 he begins a 3-chapter discussion of spiritual gifts.  Hays (207)[1] sees this chapter divided into 4 parts:

  1. Introduction (vv 1-3);
  2. Manifestations of the Spirit (vv 4-11);
  3. Body analogy (vv 12-26); and
  4. Application to gifts and offices of the in the church (vv 27-31).

In his introduction, Paul grabs the bull by the horns and says:  Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed (v 1).  This direct approach is most interesting—these days we often read of churches torn up by controversies—often outright sin—that were allowed to grow in the shadows.  Paul does not let mold grow in the shade; he confronts controversy head on.  And he claims all things for Christ—no one can say Jesus is Lord, except through the Holy Spirit (v 3).

In discussing manifestation of the Spirit, Paul sees a Trinitarian (Spirit, Lord, and God) variety of gifts, services, and activities (vv 4-6).  In claiming all gifts, services, and activities for God, none is excluded and none is more important than the other.  Theologians get excited about Paul’s Trinitarian statement because it seems off the cuff rather than the focus of his comments.  In other words, Paul experiences God in three persons even though his does not articulate a formal theology of the Trinity (Hays 210).

Paul use of the body as an analogy for the church is interesting, in part, because he reframes the analogy from his peers.  Ancient authors often used the same analogy to argue for hierarchy in the social order; Paul uses it to illustrate diversity and interdependence (Hays 213).  In undertaking his discussion, he tailors his comments to the particular needs of the Corinthian church which becomes obvious in comparing the list of spiritual gifts with other lists that he provides, for example, in Ephesians 4:11-13 and Romans 12:6-8.  Neither alternative list, for example, cites speaking in tongues (v 10).  Clearly, Paul’s emphasis in listing gifts is not on the list, but on the legitimacy and use of each gift to build up the body of the church.

In wrapping up his comments, he exhorts the Corinthians to strive to work in building up the church and in attaining the “higher gifts” (vv 27 and 31).  One suspects in reading this section that Paul prioritizes spiritual gifts, in part, because Corinthian priorities were different.

One clue to this deficiency is Paul’s switch in words used in the Greek for gifts.  In verse one, a gift is πνευματικός, (BDAG 5999; mostly in the sense pertaining to wind or breath) already in verse 4 Paul switches to χάρισμα (BDAG 7896; that which is freely and graciously given, favor bestowed, gift).  In switching from an emphasis on the receiver of the gift to an emphasis on the giver, Paul highlights the role of the Holy Spirit.  A spiritual gift is a talent used to build up the body of Christ.

Are you musical?  Do you work well with kids?  How might your gift be used to build up the church?


[1] Richard B. Hays.  2011. Interpretations:  First Corinthians.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press.


  1. How was your week? Did something in particular?
  2. What questions or thoughts do you have about 1 Corinthians 11?
  3. What is your definition of a spiritual gift? (v 1) What is Paul’s? (vv 7-11)
  4. Why does Paul ask the Corinthians about spiritual gifts? (vv 1-2)
  5. How does one speak in the spirit? (v 3)
  6. Read verses 4-6.What stands out?  Where do gifts, service, and activities arise?
  7. What spiritual gifts does Paul list? (vv 7-11) Why?
  8. Who gets what gift? (v 11)
  9. How does Paul’s example of the body relate to his discussion of spiritual gifts? (vv 11-27)
  10. What does Paul say about divisions in the body? (vv 24-26)
  11. What does Paul say about suffering? (v 26)
  12. What are the higher gifts? (vv 28-31)
  13. What is the higher way that Paul describes? (v 31)

1 Corinthians 12: Spiritual Gifts Point to the Holy Spirit

First Corinthians 13

First Corinthians 11

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Ebenezers, Benchmarks, and Transitions in 2013

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Art by Sharron Beg
Art by Sharron Beg

How will you remember 2013?

Did you watch the corn grow in 2013 or did God break into your life in ways that will change you forever? The Greeks had two words for time which capture this distinction: chronos time and kairos time.

Chronos time is clock time. It is often associated with the Goya painting of Saturn eating his son—a grotesque reminder that each minute on the watch can only be enjoyed during the minute and then it is gone. In chronos time, the corn grows and we watch.

By contrast, kairos time is decision time. When God steps into our lives from outside of time, we experience His presence as crisis. We are changed forever. We are forced to answer the question—who are you, really? This is the experience of God that we read about in Paul when he says: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2 ESV). In kairos time, we grow and God becomes real.

I will always remember 2013 as the year that I graduated from seminary. For 5 years, I worked towards the goal of graduating seminary before my 60th birthday. I passed that benchmark this month. My diploma now hangs on the wall in my office—a kind of metaphorical Ebenezer (a pile of stones erected to God)[1].

School is a transition with a beginning (how you got admitted), a middle (all the classes, experiences, and uncertainties), and an ending (graduation). Looking back, I am not sure which stage in the transition was most stressful!

Other transitions that I will remember include—seeing family members grow, witnessing my first death, preaching my first emotional sermon (http://bit.ly/1eQEqbn), writing my first book (http://bit.ly/1fVF6c9), developing the social side of social media (e.g. http://bit.ly/19ROE26), and first appreciation Christmas. Of these, appreciation Christmas was probably the most meaningful.

At the Hiemstra Christmas party this year, we got everyone in a room together and shared. The usual fare was been to share things like—what are you most thankful for? Or, what was your most memorable Christmas memory? However, this year I proposed that we go around the room and take turns being appreciated. When it is your turn, everyone else in the room takes a turn telling you why they appreciate you. People really got into this—we spent about two hours appreciating one another. This exercise only works for groups that really know one another, but for these groups it can be a really healing experience [2]. I will never forget.

Return tomorrow to view my Top 10 Postings in 2013.

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Happy New Year!

1/ Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, Till now the LORD has helped us (1Samuel 7:12 ESV).

2/ I owe this idea to my Clinical Pastoral Education instructor, Jan Humphreys (http://bit.ly/19zhgPb).

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