Why can’t leaders change?

In my last article, I gave a general overview of the second chapter of the series, “What is the mechanism of consciousness change for leaders to expand the capacity of themselves and their organizations? as the overall theme of Chapter 2. From here on, I will discuss the details of Chapter 2 on the theme of “transformation of leaders and organizations”. If you haven’t read the previous article, please read that first to get the whole picture.

At Alue, we provide training to people at various levels of the company, from newcomers to managers, but the higher up in the organization, the more challenging the training and development process becomes.

▼People who were very successful as players don’t do well when they become managers.
▼When the company was founded, things were going well, but as the number of people in the company increased, the president’s management began to fail.
▼ A person who was capable as both a player and a manager will at some point stop growing at all.

These events occur in many companies. Each one is different, and the structure and context of the problem differs from company to company. As I’ve faced human resource development and organizational development issues in various companies, and as I’ve faced organizational issues in my own company, I’ve realized that there is something fundamental that is common to all of these issues.

Why do so many people run into these barriers? I would like to write about the fundamental reasons for this.

Technical and Adaptive Challenges

In conclusion, this is because the nature of the challenges for growth changes as you move up in the organization. This can be organized by the key words: technical challenges and adaptive challenges.

Technical challenges: challenges that cannot be solved with the technology and knowledge currently possessed, but the technology and knowledge needed to solve them exists and can be solved by using them.

Adaptive challenges: challenges that are difficult to solve with existing models of thinking and require changing or letting go of some of the traditional values and beliefs.

In other words, technical challenges can be solved by acquiring skills and knowledge, while adaptive challenges require a process of deconstruction and reconstruction of values and beliefs.

When you are young, you can grow by building skills and completing technical challenges. If you work in sales, you can achieve certain results by starting with basic business etiquette and honing your ability to listen to your customers’ needs and make suggestions and proposals accordingly. Also, qualifications and skills such as programming and language skills will allow you to increase your work scope.

In contrast, the closer you get to managing an organization, the closer your growth challenges become to adaptive challenges.

For example, let’s say you have a leader who is having trouble training his or her subordinates. In this case, if the technical issue is a hurdle, it may be solved by teaching that leader the skills of listening to his or her subordinates.

However, if the adaptive issue is a hurdle, then no matter what skills are developed, the problem will not be solved unless the mental model with regard to what a subordinate is, is changed.

If the mental model is that subordinates are “tools” for their own work, then no matter what the leader teaches, his or her subordinates will not be able to work autonomously. Before that, they may not even be able to build a relationship of trust that allows them to accept the leader’s guidance with an open mind.

In this case, the leader needs to reframe his or her view of the subordinate as a human being being to be respected. If the leader is able to reconsider his or her view, the problem may be solved at once. This is the deconstruction and reconstruction of the values and beliefs required to solve the adaptive challenge.

The closer you get to a leader, the more skills alone won’t solve the problem

It is a common pattern that the closer we get to a leader, the more adaptive challenges we have to complete, yet we see them as technical challenges as an extension of our previous experience. This misunderstanding of the challenge is the first factor that makes it difficult for leaders to grow.

In the previous example of developing subordinates, it is useless to study any development skills unless that leader changes his or her mental model that subordinates are “tools” for his or her job. Executives and managers who study management theory but always encounter the same pattern of problems and struggle with their business failing to perform well are likely to be tripped up by the same adaptive challenges.

This pattern of mistaking adaptive challenges for technical challenges, i.e., trying to solve a problem that cannot be solved with skills and failing to solve it with skills, exists in reality in many cases. In fact, the book from which the term “technical and adaptive challenges” is derived says the following.

“Indeed, the single most common source of leadership failure we’ve been able to identify — in politics, community life, business, or the nonprofit sector — is that people, especially those in positions of authority, treat adaptive challenges like technical problems.”
- Leadership on the Line, With a New Preface: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Change” (Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky) -

Dealing with adaptive challenges involves mental maturity

Another factor that makes it difficult for leaders to grow is that solving adaptive challenges requires mental (inner) maturity.

Again, technical challenges can be solved with skills, whereas adaptive challenges can only be solved by changing your values and beliefs. The only way to change your values and beliefs is through a steady process of experimentation and validation, challenge and reflection, while dealing with emotional anxiety and conflict. Even if we can recognize that we are facing an adaptive challenge rather than a technical challenge, whether we can actually overcome it is a completely different story.

This steady process leads to mental maturity, which results in the reconstruction of the mental model and the resolution of the adaptive issues.

In this article, I would like to limit myself to telling you about the difficulty of this process, and I would like to tell you more about mental maturity in a future article.

Here are the quests of the day. (If you’d like, please share your thoughts in the comments.)

・When you look back on your growth to date, what are the things that can be seen as technical challenges?

・Likewise, what are the things that can be seen as adaptive challenges?

Bunshiro Ochiai

Founder and CEO of a training company, Alue | MS in Particle Physics. | BCG | Questing “What is the paradigm for integrating contradictions in management?”