Determining the Nature of the Leadership Challenge

… a core concept in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109

WilliamsBookConcept description

This concept addresses the need to determine which of Dean William’s six domains best characterizes the leadership challenge at hand.

In his book, Real Leadership – Helping People and Organizations Face Their Toughest Challenges, Dean Williams acknowledges that each leadership challenge is unique in some way, but argues that there six basic types of terrain, or domains, that recur with such frequency that they constitute identifiable categories. He says:

“Each one of them poses a distinct set of problems for the leader and the group. Each requires a different and distinct approach to leadership. To achieve progress, a useful diagnostic framework must help the leader determine which of these basic domains is the one ill which she or he must operate-and what type of leadership will offer the best chance for advancement.” (Williams, Chapter 2)

Summary of the six domains

(direct quotes from Williams, Chapter 2, Diagnostic Work)

  1. In the activist challenge, the group or a faction of the group refuses to face some element of reality that actually might improve the people’s quality of life or institutional performance. To meet the activist challenge, the leadership work includes provoking the group or key decision makers to reconsider and modify their assumptions, values, and priorities so that new realities and new ideas can be embraced, or at least entertained. This is often dangerous work.
  2. In the development challenge, the group can make significant improvements to its quality of life or organizational performance if latent abilities become effective. Therefore, to meet the development challenge, the leader must generate a process that brings the group’s latent abilities to full fruition.
  3. In the transition challenge, there is the possibility of great gains if the group can transition its current value set to a new value set. Therefore, to meet the transition challenge the leader must orchestrate a culture change process that includes refashioning the loyalties, mind-sets, and priorities of the people, to the extent necessary, to cope with a new reality.
  4. In the maintenance challenge, the terrain is such that the group cannot improve its lot even if it develops the full extent of its latent abilities. Various hindrances to improvement may be lack of investment capital, enslavement to a foreign power; or a severe downturn in business. During times of peril, the leadership work is to get the people to protect what value they have amassed and ensure that the essential resources are preserved until the threat passes. The people need to be strategically defensive and incredibly determined if they are to weather the storm. An orderly withdrawal may give up ground gained in battle, but it may save the army to fight another day.
  5. In the creative challenge, a combination of events presents an unusual opportunity that, if the group can break from routine activity long enough to exploit it, might lead to a major and permanent new benefit. The task is to do something that has never been done before. For example, a great breakthrough is feasible if enough people can muster the time and resources to think beyond their prevailing beliefs and shared assumptions. The task might be to create a new business – as with an entrepreneur – or bring into existence a new solution, an innovative product, or a novel strategy that might benefit the organization or community. A special kind of leadership is needed to ignite the imagination of people and instill the energy, attentiveness, and curiosity to create what needs to be created so that the gronp can transcend their prevailing paradigm and make a useful discovery.
  6.  In the crisis challenge, the group faces a potentially explosive situation that could threaten the life of the group or some aspect of the prevailing order. The predicament is extremely serious, potentially dangerous, and time-critical. Given that something unexpected and potentially destructive has happened, the people are anxious, bewildered, and in a highly vulnerable state. To meet the crisis challenge, the leadership task is to a generate a process that first dissipates the explosiveness in the situation and then gets the group to work on any underlying unresolved challenges that may contribute to a reappearance of the crisis in the future.

Source: Chapter 2 in Williams, Dean, Real Leadership – Helping People and Organizations Face Their Toughest Challenges, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2005.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 6 March 2016.

Image: Williams book, at, accessed 7 January 2016.