The three-headed hydra of apathy, envy and fear believes that change can mean loss of power.

What’s the difference between a technical challenge and an adaptive challenge? (Hint: The adaptive challenge has three heads)


This twenty-part series introduces you to twenty key terms used in a local mobilizing process that you and your community will require to survive and thrive during colliding crises. The articles will reference the three-headed hydras of apathy, envy and fear, those people in positions of power who are fighting to keep a broken status quo.

Concept 10: adaptive leadership

Person A: “Tell me more.” Person B: “That’s crazy talk.”

Defining adaptive leadership

Loss vs Change

Meet Dennis: Change Agent

See Dennis in trouble

See Dennis confuse a technical challenge with an adaptive one

One book: changing your views on change

Trust me, you’ll really want to know this stuff

You may be thinking, “Who wouldn’t love our vision and plans?” or “Who doesn’t want to support surviving and thriving services?” but, unless we explain why we’re doing what we’re doing, lots of people won’t feel the love.

Instead, they’ll ask:

“Who’s paying for this?”

“Do all residents really deserve services?”

“Don’t you know we’re already doing all this?”

“Why spend time, energy and money on this when most folks are OK?”

“Why revitalize our downtown when people probably won’t visit anyway?”

“Who’s gonna make money off any of this?”

“If this project gets funding, then won’t that mean less funding for my agency?”

Lastly, “I just don’t understand how this is even possible?”

People are ruled by fear.

The field of study that focuses on change, called Adaptive Leadership, is one we all would benefit greatly from, even if we just had a basic understanding of the difference between a technical challenge and an adaptive one. Confusing the two can set projects back — sometimes indefinitely.

It’s adaptive challenges that cause leadership and followers to retreat from (and at times actively fight against) change, unless there is a process to help them see the benefits. If you only read two books this year, might I humbly suggest Adaptive Leadership (and that 100% Community book I heard about).

The benefits of Adaptive Leadership

  • Understanding the root causes of the challenge you seek to solve.
  • Reflecting on why your agency or community hasn’t been able to move the needle on the challenge for decades or forever.
  • Identifying those in power on the city council, county commission, school board or chamber of commerce who could be allies, as well as who may initially attempt to block your progress.
  • Assessing your own personal, professional and political power, and how you might leverage it.
  • Designing what we call a change initiative, innovation or experiment to test out a new protocol, program or policy to improve the quality of a service or expand services.
  • Adapt to changing political, cultural and commercial landscapes and focus on building trusting relationships.
  • Using push-back and resistance as teachable moments, moving forward with compassion and understanding.

The “balcony”

Qualities to aspire to

Before you stand in front of your colleagues at work, leaders at city hall or delegates at the United Nations asking for support, do yourself a huge favor. Immerse yourself in the process of Adaptive Leadership and then go change (and save) the world.

The future is what we make it. Join the evolution.

A NY Times bestselling author, social justice activist, Oprah guest, co-author of Attack of the Three-Headed Hydras, 100% Community and Anna, Age Eight.

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