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Adaptive Leadership – Explained by a CEO

I have seen some clever adaptive leadership during my leadership career. Sadly, and perhaps more frequently, I have seen poor adaptive leadership as well. In the fast-changing world we act in as business leaders, adaptive leadership is getting more important. Being able to adapt to changing circumstances is important for any leader, and knowing about the Adaptive leadership framework will surely benefit you personally and professionally. This article explains adaptive leadership, its elements, pros, cons, and how to use it in practice. Let us start with a short introductory explanation.

What is Adaptive Leadership?

Adaptive leadership is a practical approach and leadership framework for addressing organizational challenges and implementing the solutions that allow employees to thrive and adapt effectively to any upcoming change.

If you prefer learning through video, feel free to watch our explainer video on Adaptive Leadership below, otherwise, keep scrolling to continue reading.

What is Adaptive Leadership?

Adaptive leadership is the brainchild of Harvard Kennedy School lecturers Dr. Ron Heifetz and Martin Linsky. The word “adaptive” may trick you into thinking that adaptive leadership is similar to the Situational Leadership model. There are some similarities but there are also stark differences.

Change is a natural part of organizational growth. However, it is often difficult for employees to adapt to major changes because they are comfortable with established norms.

Adaptive leaders separate problems into two categories: technical and adaptive. Technical problems can be solved by experts in the field because an answer already exists. On the other hand, adaptive problems have no existing solutions and require an adaptive leader who helps define the problem and then mobilizes a team to come up with possible solutions.

Dr. Heifetz and Martin Linsky’s work on adaptive leadership has been used by both public and private sector organizations globally. In fact, Dr. Heifetz founded the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School in 2000[i]. He and his team teach students the fundamentals of adaptive leadership and how to use it in a world with continuously changing economic, political and social challenges.

Adaptive Leadership is much more of a framework rather than a leadership style. The framework can be used as a method of handling change and adapting to changing circumstances or environments. To deploy and implement the adaptive leadership framework well, you would need to use several different leadership styles in the process. (Visit our leadership styles portal with articles on more than 25 different approaches to leadership.)

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What Are the Elements of Adaptive Leadership?

Adaptive leadership involves several steps to handle change.

The three steps of Adaptive Leadership are:

Step One: Identify core practices that are necessary to keep, as well as those that are obstacles within the organization and need to be discarded.

Step Two: Develop and test possible solutions.

Step Three: Integrate the solution that works best.

What are the Pros and Cons of Adaptive Leadership?

As with most approaches to leadership, there are advantages and disadvantages with Adaptive Leadership as well.

Advantages of Adaptive Leadership

These are the advantages of Adaptive Leadership.

Change is expected

Change doesn’t take an adaptive leader by surprise. Instead, this leader has established systems and strategies to quickly respond to challenges as they arise. There is always at least one backup plan readily available when an adaptive leader is around.

For instance, no one anticipated COVID-19. It’s, therefore, not surprising that approximately 100,000[ii] small businesses in the United States have permanently closed.  Results vary across the world but there are some businesses globally that have adapted quickly and are, therefore, able to survive.

One such business is ChargedUp[iii], a company that provides easy-to-assemble phone charging stations for venues. People are rarely going out and events have been canceled. ChargedUp had to adapt or risk its entire business model collapsing.

So, they created CleanedUp. This subsidiary provides hand sanitizer dispensers for use in offices, transportation centers, and shops. They have already manufactured 3,000 hand sanitizing stations and installed 1,800 stations in London’s Underground Stations.

Chances are that more of their hand sanitizing stations will be purchased as the world reopens. ChargedUp’s story demonstrates adaptive leadership at its best. The team saw that things would not be the same and adapted quickly to the new environment.

Sometimes the organizational culture needs changing, so it’s good for you to know how leaders can influence organizational culture.

Adaptive leaders embrace multiple opinions

Adaptive leadership thrives on being able to bring a diverse group of people together to brainstorm ideas and come up with feasible solutions. More ideas lead to better long-term results. Team members are also able to learn from each other and experience some personal and professional development. In this way, adaptive leaders don’t emphasize hierarchy but rather use a democratic leadership style. (Read more in our leadership styles portal.)

There isn’t a heavy emphasis on rules

Rules act as a guideline, rather than a strict way of doing things, for the adaptive leader.  This leader focuses on achieving the best possible result in the best possible way. It may even become apparent that the existing rules just really weren’t working for the organization and need to be discarded.

There is a deep understanding of the team’s emotional needs

Adaptive leaders tend to have high emotional intelligence. Therefore, they can quickly identify how an employee may feel about a particular situation. Refer to the Affiliative leadership style which can be useful in this aspect of the adaptive leadership framework. Once understanding the emotions involved, the leader can then provide the assistance necessary so that this employee can keep functioning optimally. This of course requires quite a lot of empathy on the leader’s part. (Learn about affiliative leadership in our leadership styles portal, and get your free copy of our E-book “7 Tips on How to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence” here: Emotional Intelligence E-book.)

The team’s strengths are effectively utilized

Each team member plays a significant role in the change process. A strong adaptive leader understands this fact and puts team members in positions where their strengths can shine. They also provide resources so that these strengths can be developed and contribute to the team member’s professional development. This could for instance mean creating leadership development plans for the team members.

Accomplishment is rewarded with autonomy

An adaptive leader doesn’t reward a team member because of their amicable professional relationship. Instead, this leader rewards based on results. It’s not about tracking hours or tasks completed in a day; it’s about whether this team member is able to deliver the required results within the deadline. This gives some pacesetting streaks to adaptive leadership. (Refer to our article on pacesetting leadership available in our leadership styles section if you want more information.)

Additionally, the rewards issued aren’t always financial. They range from giving employees time off to year-long fellowships that contribute to professional growth. Rewards are also dealt with in an adaptive way basically.

Disadvantages of Adaptive Leadership

The advantages above look nice, but they come with some disadvantages of course. These are the disadvantages of Adaptive Leadership.

There is no emphasis on structure

One of the strengths of adaptive leadership is also one of its weaknesses. An adaptive leader has to put a lower priority on structure for the most part so that the change process can be effectively implemented. However, some employees work better in structured environments and adaptive leadership wouldn’t be a good fit for them. (Perhaps Bureaucratic leadership with it’s complete focus on structure and rules would be better for them. Find more info here: leadership styles.)

An adaptive leader will try to add some level of structure for those employees who need it. Nevertheless, there are still opportunities for employees to be less productive in this unstructured work environment.

Rules are meant to be broken

An ethical leader may cringe after observing how an adaptive leader works. Ethical leaders support the rules of an organization because those rules align with their personal values. However, an adaptive leader may bend (or even break) the rules within the confinements of the law so that the organization can implement the best possible change strategy. Not necessarily always doing the right thing if you ask someone with a heart for ethical leadership.

Changes can be made too quickly

An adaptive leader may end a project that is failing before it is given a chance to succeed. This may not sit well with some members of the team and result in a rift between members of the organization. Discord works against effective change.

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How Can You Be an Effective Adaptive Leader?

There are four qualities that you should learn, use and demonstrate if you want to be an adaptive leader: character, organizational justice, development, and emotional intelligence.

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Although an adaptive leader isn’t afraid to break the rules, he or she still has a strong character. This leader takes great pride in being transparent, honest, and creative. Respect is earned from the team through the leader owning up to the mistakes made and making the right decisions to correct these mistakes. An adaptive leader doesn’t have the time to play the blame game.

Organizational Justice

Value and respect are important to an adaptive leader. Each team member’s opinions are valid and welcomed. Additionally, adaptive leaders take the time to think about the best way to introduce change to the team rather than imposing it on them suddenly. Some similarities to the Affiliative leadership style one might say. (Read more in our leadership styles portal.)


Adaptive leaders always keep up with the latest trends so that they have an array of strategies they can pull from their arsenal when change is needed. All strategies won’t work the way the leader intended. However, the leader can still quickly adapt and find a strategy that’s the right fit.

Emotional Intelligence (EI)

Strong Emotional Intelligence means that you have a good understanding of your feelings and the feelings of those around you.  Well-developed emotional intelligence helps you to respond to your team in a fair, calm, and empathetic manner. There are many facets of emotional intelligence of course and being empathetic, looking for emotional reactions, and respecting people’s feelings as well as adapting your actions to them will get you far in this area.  Get a free copy of our E-book “7 Tips on How to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence”: Emotional Intelligence E-book.)

The Six Guiding Principles of Adaptive Leadership

Ronald A Heifetz and Donald L Laurie mention a total of six guiding principles in a 1998 article in Harvard Business Review[iv]. These principles are meant to be used when leading adaptive work, essentially performing profound change management.

The six principles of Adaptive Leadership are:

  1. Get on the balcony
  2. Identify the adaptive challenge
  3. Regulate distress
  4. Maintain disciplined attention
  5. Give work back to the people
  6. Protect voices of leadership

Let’s go through them all in a bit more detail.

Get on the balcony

A leader needs to obtain a higher vantage point, i.e. a balcony, where he or she can get an overview of the ongoing change and any potential patterns and problems. Getting too involved means you might not see the forest for the trees basically. If you are involved in activities and actions you might get consumed and not see overarching patterns such as power struggles, change resistance, avoidance, and other problems that can be part of the change.

Identify the adaptive challenge

If you cannot adapt to change, you will not survive for long. As change takes place faster and faster, this is coming ever more important. A leader needs to understand not only the people around them but also themselves to enable faster and better adaptation to change. So, what is the adaptive challenge? What prevents adaptation? How can fast adaptation be enabled? Seek inspiration from Visionary and Transformational leadership when it comes to this. (Info available in our leadership styles repository.)

Regulate distress

Changing and adapting is difficult, and it causes distress and other negative feelings. A leader needs to pace the change, so people aren’t overwhelmed while retaining motivation and productivity at the same time. The leader needs to be a rock – being a steady force in times of change and turmoil for others to follow.

Maintain disciplined attention

Retain the focus on the change and the challenge ahead. Avoid distractions despite sideshows, conflicts, resistance to change, etc. The leader needs to allow different opinions and initiatives without getting sidetracked and losing focus on the adaptive work.

Give work back to the people

Gather information and perspectives from as many as possible. People in different places of an organization will see changes in the environment and business circumstances at different times and in different ways. The leader needs to avoid an ivory tower and ensure an influx of information from different channels. Furthermore, the people need to be involved in change and be empowered as well as share responsibility. Only then will they participate fully and become more willing to adapt to change requirements. You can achieve this by adopting a democratic leadership style to some extent.

Protect voices of leadership

Make sure people aren’t punished for airing their opinions, even if those opinions are bad or even treacherous. Punishing people for daring to speak their minds will reduce creativity and innovation since people will stop sharing their ideas and opinions due to fear of repercussions. (Check out our article on why leaders should speak last.)

Adaptive Leadership, practical examples from my experience

I have obviously seen many changes take place during my fifteen years in leadership positions in business. Some changes were handled better, and some were handled worse of course.

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A good example of adaptive leadership

These are more difficult to recall than the poor ones I’m afraid. I guess the good ones went so smooth that they were less noticeable than the bad ones – which stand out like sore thumbs of course.

I once worked with a leader that was sensitive to change resistance. He was capable of relatively quickly understanding when the people involved were starting to lose faith or interest in what was being done and countered that with renewed communication efforts and pulling people back into attention mode. (Tip: 17 tips on improving communication.) He was also quick to identify and address roadblocks as well as to question things every now and then. Just because a change seemed necessary 6 months ago and a solution was being implemented doesn’t mean it shouldn’t get challenged later. He reassessed the change program repeatedly when some of the prerequisites for the change were altered. This doesn’t mean he always stopped the change, but at least the parameters of the decision were revisited and a decision to move forward anyway or a decision to stop or modify the approach was taken. There was little to no prestige involved in this process and I think that was key. Not feeling like changing would be surrender or defeat, or proof of incompetency for that matter, this leader was willing to change his own decisions if need be.

A poor example of adaptive leadership

I have worked with plenty of leaders who are unwilling to second guess their own decisions. You must reconsider things after a while since circumstances and the basis of the decision can change over time. Just because you said no to using a different product last year doesn’t mean you should do it this year. Dogmatism and prestige are often in the way for leaders, that’s my experience. You just make sure you don’t fall into the same trap yourself.

Who Are Examples of Adaptive Leaders?

Abraham Lincoln – 16th President of the United States – (Born 1809 – Died 1865)

Adaptive leadership wasn’t a well-known concept in Abraham Lincoln’s era if a concept at all. Nevertheless, Lincoln displayed some characteristics of adaptive leadership worth mentioning. One of these characteristics was his willingness to accept diversity.

It is said that Lincoln deliberately appointed his rivals as cabinet members. He wanted to engage their difference in opinion so that he could lead the country towards the best solutions. As a leader, he was always open to criticism and debate.

Additionally, Lincoln was also empathetic and quick to establish bonds with those he led. He essentially had an open-door policy where citizens could visit him to discuss their challenges. That listening ear and empathetic stance helped him earn the respect of those around him.

General George Patton – Former US Army General – (Born 1885 – Died 1945)

General Patton had a people-first approach to leadership. He knew how to inspire people to move together towards a common vision, a trait often associated with visionary leadership.

However, his leadership style went beyond visionary and embraced most of the principles of adaptive leadership. He believed in having alternative plans, getting the input of his team, and always anticipated trouble.

Further Reading

All adaptive leaders should learn how to use different leadership styles as part of an adaptive process. You can read about transformational leadership, charismatic leadership, visionary leadership, and the situational leadership model, plus twenty other styles in our leadership styles portal.