Discipling and Adaptive Leadership

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

Worship planning discipling adaptive leadership
Ronald Heifetz leading a seminar in Greece, 2010.
Photo by ΠΑΣΟΚ. Used by permission. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Get used to the picture of the man to the right. This is Ronald Heifetz, creator and chief promulgator of the "adaptive leadership" model that is entering our collective United Methodist vocabulary quickly and at an increasing pace.

One of the key questions Heifetz's model raises is whether a challenge any given organization is facing is "adaptive" or "technical." Technical challenges are problems an organization knows how to address given its current resources and practices. Adaptive challenges are those an organization may not yet have, or at least may not have discovered, the resources or even the approaches to address.

Perhaps Heifetz's core insight is that if an organization needs to make substantial changes in order to be viable or effective, its leadership must focus on identifying and moving toward addressing its adaptive challenges. Just doing more of the same, or "operating out of organizational equilibrium," is very unlikely to help the organization take the steps it must take in a changed and ever-changing environment.

This means a key role of the effective adaptive leader is to move and then keep the organization in a state of "productive disequilibrium," which is to say, just enough off its usual ways of doing things that it begins to be able to hear, see, and imagine accomplishing the core values of the organization but in very different ways.

And that, often, means listening to "people with the problem" and then looking to them to end up helping provide first the clues to what the bigger adaptive challenges may be. Such challenges identified, the adaptive leader makes sure its "the people with the problem" who remain actively involved in innovating ways to address it. Sometimes the innovations will fail. Those failures can be contributors both to "productive disequilibrium" and to the learning needed to move, over a longer period of time, toward new behaviors and new approaches that may better fit the challenges at hand.

There's a lot more to it than this brief outline. But perhaps this is enough to start talking about the implications of this for the stated mission of The United Methodist Church: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Everything Jesus said and did in his public ministry is summarized by these two sentences recorded in Mark 1:15: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent, and believe in [this] good news."

The drawing near of the kingdom of God was and remains a terribly dis-equilibrilizing reality for the ways this world knows how to function. What Jesus taught his disciples and anyone who would listen, by word and deed, was what life under the new conditions of God's reign would look like and how it would work. And he also taught them, by his own example, to keep proclaiming the already-and-still-on-the-way kingdom wherever they went.

Part of this teaching, by word, deed and example, was to make it clear both how poorly equipped people were for what was coming, but at the same time how abundantly resourced they could be if they were attentive to where God was lavishing the richest resourcing. The poor were abundantly blessed, Jesus said. So were people who were in mourning. So were people clamoring for justice. So were the meek. So were those who sought to transform conflicts for the good of all rather than promote them for the good of a few. And so were those who were getting clobbered by the powers most threatened by God's kingdom precisely because they dared to believe in the kingdom and speak and live accordingly.

So, was Jesus an adaptive leader? And were his disciples being schooled in the principles of adaptive leadership?

If an adaptive leader is one who gets it that the way things work now is unsustainable, and the techniques we use to manage our lives now won't do us much good in light of new realities, then, yes, of course.

But with one key difference.

And it's a big one.


If I'm reading and understanding it correctly (and maybe I'm not!), in Heifetz's model, when you start to depend on authority of others, you're more likely in a stage of being on the way to the crisis that precipitates or reveals adaptive challenges than you are toward learning and developing the heart, vision and resources needed to address these challenges.

And in Heifetz's model, the success (and so the effective authority) of the adaptive leader is found in the leader's capacity to keep the organization in that tense/balanced/"détented" zone of productive disequilibrium rather than letting it revert into its former, unsustainable equilibria or allowing it to "blow up" because the high degree of disequilibrium generates too much pressure in the overall system for it to continue to function well at all.

I think all of this is really wise advice for organizations of all sorts.I'm less than convinced it fits the nature of discipling.

With Jesus, his disciples, and the process of discipling itself, however, it's a very different ballgame. Jesus did not come to try to lead or organize the whole world to become effective at living into the new reality of God's kingdom in his lifetime. Instead, prophet-like, he came preaching that the new world had drawn near and so there were vastly new values and new rules to play by now-- that is, unless you wanted to find yourself crushed or obliterated by the new world rather than delivered by its very different kind of power.

While the adaptive leader continues to "earn stripes" by showing how well she or he can keep the organization in the "productive disequilibrium" zone, Jesus seemed constantly to push his disciples to deal with the new realities they were encountering each day, day after day. We never see him backing off or trying to "control the temperature." He was intent on teaching his disciples what it takes to live in this kingdom whether they liked it, complained about it, totally missed the point, or what. And despite their many failures at it, he kept on driving them, kept on trusting them, kept on teaching them. (One hopes a good adaptive leader would do that, too). And, likewise, they continued to be his disciples, even, we can see, when most of them had fled after his arrest and certainly by the time of his execution.

Jesus didn't treat his disciples this way because he was trying to be an adaptive leader. He treated them this way, which is to say he loved them to the end, because he was completely committed to making sure they learned how to live in God's kingdom deep down in their bones not only for their own sake, but well enough that they could preach, teach and disciple others to do the same.

And his disciples didn't treat Jesus as they did-- continuing to stay with him despite truly ridiculous and dangerous circumstances of all sorts, far beyond any reasonable definition of zone of productive equilibrium-- because they judged him to be an effective adaptive leader. They stuck with him and generally stuck by him (with only one notable exception) because he called them to be his disciples, and they had said, "Yes."

Disciples submit to be mastered by their master until they become masters of the teaching and way of their master. The goal of the master with disciples is not to "lord it over" the disciples, but to love them well enough to show them truth as the master has come to understand, proclaim and embody it. The master's goal is so to invest his or her life in disciples so each of them knows, deep down, how and what it means for them, individually and collectively, to live in light of truth. Jesus said himself, there is no greater love than this.

Discipling others in the way of Jesus well enough that they can actively participate in his transformation of the world and be delivered rather than entirely crushed in the process-- this, it seems to me, may be the adaptive challenge most directly connected to fulfilling our stated mission statement.

Helping people recognize signs of the kingdom of God as they are happening and to learn how to trust the Spirit and each other in the body of Christ well enough to respond and engage with the ongoing work of the kingdom faithfully where they are, these, it seems to me, remain the core tasks at the heart of discipling, then and now. Part of what this discipling to Jesus entails involves getting unshackled from sinful patterns that betray the kingdom's work and way. Some ties have to be let go. Some habits need to get unlearned. And others have to be learned and practiced until they become as natural as breathing.

While for organizations it may be essential to stay in the zone of productive disequilibrium, which means it may take a much longer time frame for some transformations to occur, in discipling, this may be often be a luxury that cannot be afforded. If the model of discipling we see in Jesus in the gospels, in early Christianity's catechumenate, and in the bands, class meetings and letters of the Wesleys in early Methodism are our guides for what discipling looks like, we will have to admit that some things in us may have to break, and others explode. We not only can't be apprehensive about that. We may have to expect that. It seems to come with the territory.

Whether we are being discipled or discipling others in the way of Jesus (and often, of course, the two processes may be happening simultaneously!), it's Jesus himself we're learning to follow, the Spirit's promptings and power we're learning to rely on, and the Father's saving love that keeps wrestling us toward mercy.

And its with one another we do this.

Some of the vocabulary of Heifetz may help United Methodist related organizations become more effective at some of what they do in support of our primary mission. I'm pretty confident it will help us defang some conflicts and prevent others that keep us from being as effective as we can in changing environments. And it may also encourage us to hear more diverse voices and so discern better patterns of doing things than our organizations have known before, or at least in more recent times.

But the primary mission remains discipling itself, does it not?

And that we do, if we do it at all, not because we are seeking to become lauded as effective adaptive leaders of organizations.

We disciple and are discipled in the way of Jesus because we've said Yes to the One who calls us by name and says, "Follow me."