Surfing the Edge of Chaos:  The Laws of Nature and the New Laws of Business  

by Richard T. Pascale, Mark Millemann, and Linda Gioja

This is a book about how large, complex organizations (anyone thinking "school district"?) can face "adaptive" challenges, i.e., challenges requiring the organization to change in ways that will allow it to do what it has never done before and threats to the organization's existence-- and the kind of leadership required.

The authors distinguish between "operational" and "adaptive" leadership.  "Operational" leadership is sufficient for simply performing efficiently in a stable environment when the premises of "social engineering" hold:

  1. Leaders as Head, Organization as Body -- (only intelligence allowed within system is that emanating from the close and closed circle of upper leadership)
  2. The Premise of Predictable Change (assumption of linear system, i.e. that the effects of change programs can be predicted and controlled)
  3. An Assumption of Cascading Intention (programs are defined at the top, then communicated and rolled out with the assumption that the intention of the program will be understood and owned by the ranks and the program implemented in accordance with that intention.

How many times has the top hierarchy of a schools system "figured out" what needed to be done, assumed they could design a "program" that would achieve the desired results, and the focused on "communicating" the program in a "roll out"?

In contrast, when faced with an adaptive challenges (e.g., create a school system that "hooks" almost all students into sufficient levels of work to learn to a level previously thought possible for only a few), adaptive leadership is required.  Here are my notes on adaptive leadership:

p. 40 "If adaptive intention is required, the social system must be disturbed in a profound and prolonged fashion.  Magnifying a threat or utilizing organizational devices to propagate "genetic diversity" then becomes important.  Adaptive leaders don't move too quickly or reach for a quick fix.  Rather (taking actions quite the opposite of social engineering), they emphasize mobilizing followers deep within the ranks to help find the way forward.  This is achieved, as Heifetz describes it, by (1) communicating the urgency of the adaptive challenge (i.e., the threat of death), (2) establishing a broad understanding of the circumstance creating the problem, to clarify why traditional solutions won't work (i.e., sustaining disequilibrium), and (3)  holding the stress in play until guerrilla leaders come forward with solutions (i.e., making room for genetic diversity).  This sequence generates anxiety and tension."

 p. 48  Adaptive leaders can be frozen out when followers don't want to face the bad news (e.g., Churchill's warnings to the British Public about Hitler prior to World War II).

 "Followers often turn to authority as a bulwark against the associated uncertainty and risk.  'The essential work of adaptive leadership is to resist these appeals,' state Ronald Heifetz.  'Instead, they must

(1)   hold the collective feet to the fire

(2)   regulate distress such that the system is drawn out of its comfort zone (yet contain stress so it does not become dysfunctional) and

(3)  manage avoidance mechanisms that inevitably surface (such as scapegoating, looking to authority for the answer, and so forth.'

The authors then go on to give examples such as Monsanto, Sears, the US Army, and BP Explorations of how leaders have helped organizations make adaptive changes, and of some of the approaches that have worked.  For those that believe school systems must change and change fairly radically to achieve the goals our political leaders are setting, this is a thought-provoking book.  

Here's a web site for the book:


Copyright 1998, 199, 2000, 2001  by David N. Shearon