Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive leadership is happening all around us, even if we don’t recognize it. During the peak of COVID-19, for example, we witnessed adaptive leadership frameworks being put into practice as organizations and individuals relied on them to turn the situation around. Now, with newer challenges in the economy and the workforce, we’re about to see more adaptive leaders and companies being put to the test. 

What Is Adaptive Leadership?

The principles of adaptive leadership were first defined by Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz, who describe them as enabling a leader to “mobilize a group of individuals to handle tough challenges and emerge triumphant in the end.”

The practice of adaptive leadership is most valuable during times of rapid change, when the ability to adjust becomes essential, and risk-taking is preferable to the potential of total failure. Handling change should indeed be part of any set of leadership skills. However, during stressful periods, the particular qualities of an adaptive leader and their style can save the day. 

When Is an Adaptive Approach Required?

Most of the cases where a quick response outweighs caution occur when:

  • Circumstances are dynamic
  • There is a lack of information
  • The outcome of a decision is unknown
  • There are many factors involved, including economic, political, cultural, and social

A good way to contrast adaptive leadership examples from run-of-the-mill management is by comparing them to technical leadership problems. 

Let’s say that your IT system is hacked in the middle of the night. Sure, that’s a crisis, and it requires a fast response. A good leader will have a protocol in place to shut out the hacker, assess the damage, repair the security flaw that allowed the hacker to enter, and so on. In other words, a technical leadership problem has a threat that is relatively easy to identify and solutions that aren’t a risk to implement; it’s up to a good leader to figure out which fix is best to apply. 

Adaptive challenges are very different. They are characterized by time pressure, so there isn’t much opportunity to analyze them completely. Such problems are also new, meaning that experts, procedures, and tools have not yet been developed as solutions.

How Leaders Deal with Adaptive Situations

The process of managing an organizational threat can be described as a “two plus one” approach. Two steps happen at the same time, and once the challenge has been dealt with, a third phase occurs:

  1. Problem definition and solution. Identifying the problem and coming up with potential solutions relies on leveraging different points of view and taking risks. An adaptive leader will pick the top people in the organization to contribute, and give them the freedom to create, but still maintain control. This is accomplished by asking the right questions to get an idea of cost, timeline, and chance of success. The axiom “perfect is the enemy of the good” comes into play here. Mistakes will be made, but hitting 75% of your targets before a deadline is better than getting 100% of them once they are no longer relevant.
  2. Rationalization. It is a given that the changes required by the team’s solution will rule out continuing other operations. This might be a painful process, especially if these operations have a long history, lots of employees, and general pre-crisis support within the organization.
  3. Continuation. Has the company used a “band-aid” solution, or is it viable for the long term? That’s the question that an adaptive leader must ask once the most critical issue has been dealt with. At this point, it pays to review goals that were set under pressure and implement a measurement system to assess the long-term value of the change. 

In addition, the company should definitely hold a “lessons learned” session. Even if the solution is declared to not be of strategic importance, it is likely that there will still be some vital discoveries made along the way. One of the common findings in this situation is that the organization has some issues with an effective leadership model, and could use a revised leadership development program

The Traits of an Adaptive Leader

Let’s return to the definition of adaptive leadership to get a hint here, specifically this part: the ability to “mobilize a group of individuals”. An adaptive leader doesn’t solve problems – instead, they are great at creating teams to do so. 

This idea is in contrast to the now-obsolete concept of positional leadership. This approach is based on the idea that leaders are followed because of where they are in the hierarchy, instead of their effectiveness or personality. In the bad ol’ days, the boss would decide what to do, and it was up to everyone else to make it happen.  

Modern organizations see leaders as something different. “Leadership” can be defined as “a person with the ability to motivate, provide advice to, or control others.” A leader pools the resources of a team to provide solutions, and, in the case of adaptive challenges, resolve a crisis. One way of looking at the traits of an adaptive leader is how they handle their staff, and how they conduct themselves:

For their team, the leader:  

  • Creates a situation where the collective genius of the group is maximized
  • Encourages innovation and risk-taking
  • Understands that the adaptations required during a crisis will mean changes that some employees resist, and prepares to deal fairly with their concerns by using emotional intelligence

Meanwhile, for themselves, the adaptive leader:

  • Takes a constructive attitude and is willing to invest in the solutions that the team designs
  • Always works with the priorities of stakeholders in mind
  • Admits mistakes and is prepared to take a different direction if necessary
  • Accepts the pressures that are part of a difficult situation and the changes that will need to happen

The Skills of an Adaptive Leader

At the core of these traits are a set of skills that enable leaders to handle unexpected developments, AKA, adaptive skills. There are actually two distinct types of adaptive skills, reactive and proactive. However, because adaptive challenges are by nature unforeseen, let’s take a look at the reactive side of things. These skills include: 


Most people who have taken courses in problem-solving are familiar with the IDEAL model. The first two steps of the model are:

Identify the problem – When the pressure is on, some people automatically look to defend their reputation, and start blaming others for the situation. It takes a leader to use their communication skills and get past the acrimony to start working together on a solution. 

Describe the outcome – Giving the team a defined goal is vital for focusing their efforts. Goal setting is also one of the most important high-performance management skills. Leaders can use tried and true frameworks such as SMART to set practical goals. 

Creative Thinking

The next step in the IDEAL model is:

Explore solutions – Many hands make for light work, and many minds mean more creativity. Leaders can think up answers to challenges on their own, but relying on the team and its imagination is always more effective. To maximize collaborative creativity, leaders should promote brainstorming and teamwork

Decision Making

Once a list of potential fixes has been created, it’s time to boil them down to the best ones. According to IDEAL, this step is known as “anticipating results”. It can be complicated to examine the resources needed for each solution and their potential for meeting the goals that have been set. Leaders and their teams can use various activities here, including prioritization and critical thinking.  

Change Management

Any major hurdle requires an organization to adapt quickly. But even for gradual moves, change can pose real challenges. An effective adaptive leader should have a strong background in change management to ensure that updates are made rapidly and properly. 

There are three types of changes – developmental (new processes and procedures); transitional (moving from one organizational structure to another, such as becoming a corporation); and transformational (a fundamental shift, such as selling an entirely different product). In the case of an adaptive challenge, even an in-depth transformational change might be needed in record time. 

Stress Management

One of the traits of an adaptive leader is that they “accept the pressures that are part of a difficult situation.” But it’s also important to remember that the stress of an adaptive challenge will probably filter down to many employees. So, a leader needs to care for their own levels of stress and make sure that others are handling it well too. 

An attentive manager will arrange for stress-reduction measures to be available for all employees. Take Google, for example, where there are free yoga classes and massage therapists. But a leader can also see amazing benefits from engaging with employees by: 

  • Showing empathy 
  • Making small talk 
  • Asking for their opinion about the situation and solution
  • Giving them credit for their efforts
  • Explaining the value of the solution for everyone

The Benefits and Risks of Adaptive Leadership

Once a company has endured an adaptive challenge, it will inevitably make changes to the way they work. This situation presents several pros and cons.

On the positive side, it’s always a good idea to be proactive with your strategy. Of course, no organization can afford to make sweeping changes constantly. However, making a plan and implementing gradual transformation might keep a company ahead of trends and more competitive than others who start to change when they are behind the curve. 

Another advantage of going through an adaptive challenge is that it tends to bring people together. After completing an effort that demands “all hands onboard”, it is possible that there is a greater feeling of unity. A leader who personifies the traits of adaptive leadership will also find greater respect and loyalty. 

On the negative side, the fast action required in a crisis can result in unfortunate consequences. Processes and projects in development might be canceled to save money, but had they been given a chance, they might have succeeded. An adaptive situation can also result in layoffs, downsizing, and fewer opportunities for promotion.

Adaptive leaders might need to choose a solution that others are against, resulting in hurt feelings. A similar effect is that workers are often not fully informed of what’s happening, which can cause confusion and uncertainty about their future. 

Build Adaptive Skills with Growthspace

Not every leader is naturally blessed with the traits that allow them to handle tough situations. That’s why there’s Growthspace. The industry-leading precision skill development platform creates tailored L&D programs for employees of all levels, from one-on-one coaching sprints to team-based, continuous learning initiatives. For customized leadership development that enables adaptive skills, Growthspace is the answer. Want your teams to have the abilities they need whenever a challenge comes up? Start developing them today with Growthspace technology.  

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