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What is adaptive leadership?

In conventional leadership models, one or a few people are in charge. They might consult with others to make decisions, but ultimately the approach is built on authority and hierarchy.

Adaptive leaders, though, tap into everyone’s beliefs and ideas – not just the leaders at an organization. The approach also helps people evolve those beliefs in the face of each new challenge and opportunity.

Adaptive leadership was pioneered in the 1990s and early 2000s. Authors Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linksy, and Alexander Grashow established its core principles in books like Leadership Without Easy Answers and Leadership on the Line. But because our working lives are getting more complex, adaptive leadership feels more relevant than ever. In fact, scholars like Nick Obolensky have argued that it’s the only way to keep up in today’s rapidly changing and often-chaotic business world.

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4 principles of adaptive leadership

The adaptive leadership framework dictates we need to adapt to grow, both as individuals and as organizations; the adaptive leader’s role is to facilitate that collective process, not make authoritative decisions on how it should play out.

By definition, adaptive leadership is cooperative – it’s not something a leader can impose on their organization. To make it work, you’ll need a strong foundation of trust, communication, and workplace relationships, stemming from the following principles:

  • Emotional intelligence: Adaptive leaders deal in individuals’ beliefs, values, talents, hopes and dreams. These are human, amorphous things that can’t be understood with logic alone, so adaptive leaders need a keen sense of emotional intelligence to succeed.
  • Organizational justice: When organizations face unfamiliar challenges, everyone’s voice has a place in the conversation. Thus, an adaptive leader must make sure everyone feels heard, and take responsibility for both the positive and negative impacts of the changes they lead.
  • Development: Adaptive leadership involves experimenting, trying new things, and venturing outside your expertise. Adaptive leaders must be committed to growing and developing their own leadership skills and admit when they’re wrong and what they don’t know. And those values extend to the entire organization – fostering an adaptive culture means embracing learning and development in every department and at every level of seniority.
  • Character: To make it through challenging times, people must have complete trust in their leader’s intentions. Through their choices and behavior, adaptive leaders need to show integrity, live by their values, and act on the best interests of their colleagues, before and after they’re entrusted with a leadership role.

Adaptive leaders shine in the face of complex challenges

Tapping into a diversity of ideas allows adaptive organizations to tackle complex problems.

Of course, challenges at work are nothing new – most of us solve tricky problems every day! But typically, we know what kind of challenges to expect, and our professional experience has prepared us to deal with them.

Technical challenges

Technical challenges aren’t always a walk in the park, but they’re within the range of what you might expect when you walk into work each morning.

  • Can be solved by one person or team
  • Are usually an expected part of operations
  • Are clear and understandable, even if they aren’t easy to solve
  • Are fixable with the resources you already have

Examples: In a hospital setting, a patient requires multiple high-risk surgeries. On a design team, a client who wants a vibrant, colorful website that still feels mature.  

Adaptive challenges

Adaptive challenges are unexpected, more complex and multifaceted, with impacts reaching across an organization. They don’t have an obvious solution, and they often live outside the scope of what a single leader could realistically solve.

  • Can be difficult to identify and understand
  • Aren’t solvable with existing knowledge and resources
  • Require collaboration from everyone facing the challenge
  • Indicate solutions involving changing beliefs, values, and approaches
  • Might require radical change within the organization

Examples: After major industry disruption, a core product becomes obsolete. After your company is acquired by a competitor, 20% of staff are laid off and you must salvage culture and morale. 

In a world that’s more complex than ever, adaptive challenges aren’t going away. The more interconnected and technologically advanced the world grows, the more adaptive challenges we’ll have to deal with.

The inherent “dangers” of adaptive leadership

As they approach adaptive challenges, teams need to be ready to experiment often, fail fast, and deal with contant change. That kind of process is never comfortable, and that’s why adaptive leadership can be quite risky, in a sense. Unless you’re Marie Antoinette, your leadership style won’t put you in physical danger – but it can be an emotionally fraught, highly sensitive process.

Confronting adaptive challenges sometimes means changing deeply held beliefs, habits, and behaviors – and leaders are inevitably the face of the resulting discomfort. Falling back on those adaptive leadership principles – emotional intelligence, organizational justice, development, and character – will help you navigate those treacherous waters.

Leading without authority

Adaptive leadership represents a fundamental paradigm shift from leadership as an individual responsibility to a social, collective process. It’s an ethos that Heifetz, Linsky, and others have described as “leading without authority.

It might sound counterintuitive, but in this model, leadership isn’t about exercising power over others. Rather, it’s a responsibility bestowed upon a leader, so they can help the team overcome nuanced challenges while keeping everyone’s best interests at heart.

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