What Is Adaptive Leadership?

Adaptive leadership is a leadership style where the leader enrolls and engages team members (or others) in finding solutions to challenges, leveraging opportunities, addressing problems, and initiating positive changes that will help the organization adapt and be better positioned for success. An adaptive leader is able to clearly define the problem, opportunity, or need as well as build support for taking action and mobilize the people they lead.

Typically, adaptive leadership is related to issues, problems, opportunities, or changes that require a group of people to come up with the best possible answers or solutions. Adaptive leaders harness the power of diverse people and perspectives. Leaders can find better methods and innovative solutions by enrolling others to address challenges or problems requiring adaptation.

Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky were pioneers in the fundamental concept of adaptive leadership. It has become an important leadership competency for many organizations. While some leaders are better equipped to lead the effort to adapt, change, and be resilient than others, it is a skill and leadership style that can also be learned and developed over time. As leaders orchestrate and drive important change, they are able to help the organization transform and be on the leading edge.

Why Is Adaptive Leadership Important?

Changes in the business landscape and environment are not slowing down. Organizations need to develop a culture with leaders and employees that are responsive, alert, and prepared to respond to challenges, issues, unexpected events, and new opportunities as they surface. Adaptive leadership is important because it accelerates the process of identifying answers to problems or solutions to challenges. It also optimizes talent and distributes responsibility for organizational change, evolution, and transformation.

Adaptive leadership is particularly important when leaders, teams or organizations have problems or challenges where there are no easy solutions or a clear path forward. Organizations that want to be relevant in the future have no choice but to change and evolve.

What Are the Skills and Characteristics of Adaptive Leadership?

Adaptive leaders demonstrate qualities, characteristics, and behaviors that create the conditions for team members to adapt to the dynamic forces working for or against the team or organization.

  • Aware—Adaptive leaders are observant and aware of the things that are occurring in their specific work landscape. They are cognizant of how the world in which they operate is changing and evolving. This awareness enables them to solve problems, anticipate potential issues and emerging needs, as well as maintain an outlook of continuous improvement.
  • Clear—Adaptive leaders clearly define and articulate the problem or challenge to others and get commitment and support for action. An adaptive leader helps people understand what is important and why.
  • Inclusive—Leaders who lead with an adaptive leadership style are not afraid to look at things from a different perspective and more importantly, they encourage, listen to, and are open to the ideas of others. They create an inclusive environment that stimulates fresh ideas about what or how to change, embraces diversity of thought, and leverages collective knowledge. Adaptive leaders help teams manage ambiguity. They empower others and help them take ownership for finding creative solutions and approaches.
  • Emotionally intelligent—Adaptive leaders know how to engage, motivate, and inspire people. They create strong, trusting relationships with others and are aware of their needs. They manage themselves well and are respectful and empathetic of others. These leaders understand that change can be difficult for some people.
  • Supportive—When leaders use an adaptive style, they encourage and support risk taking and experimentation. They inspire people to go beyond traditional ways of thinking and want people to question ideas, accepted practices, and norms. They avoid making quick judgements about new ideas and creative possibilities. Adaptive leaders are willing to help others shift resources, time, and energy towards the challenge or problem to be addressed and give people the space to collect and interpret data, experiment, and evaluate outcomes.
  • Action-oriented—One of the hallmarks of adaptive leaders is their ability to shift the attention of teams and take quick action on new, breakthrough ideas. In addition, when solutions are generated, they are flexible and agile.

What Makes Adaptive Leadership Challenging?

An adaptive style can be challenging and uncomfortable for some leaders. Leaders who have discomfort with change, are not change-drivers, or find it difficult helping others work through the stages of change, may be resistant to using an adaptive leadership style. Some leaders don’t have the natural skills needed to let go of control, listen, and consider other opinions and perspectives. Adaptive leadership requires a collaborative, team-focused approach.

Some leaders avoid a more adaptive approach to leadership because collaborating with and empowering people to overcome challenges, find solutions, and solve problems can take time and effort. It can be difficult for a leader to balance responding to the pressure of finding short-term fixes to problems with the process of developing longer-term, innovative solutions that can take time, resources, and energy.

What Are Some Examples of Adaptive Leadership?

Here are a few examples of adaptive leadership.

  1. A team in a manufacturing facility begins having excessive rejections from Quality Control and Assurance. Team members are unsure why defects are occurring. The team leader team takes an adaptive leadership approach by collaborating with the team to discover the source of the quality issues and identify changes to the manufacturing process to reduce the number of defects and waste.
  2. A team in a production facility has significant downtime because of regular equipment breakdowns. The team leader takes an adaptive leadership approach by empowering the team to identify why the equipment breaks down and come up with a solution for addressing the issue, rather than continually calling on the maintenance department for a short-term fix.
  3. The leader of a healthcare organization notices that there is a significant increase in requests for virtual, telehealth visits. The leader demonstrates adaptive leadership by enrolling a cross-section of the organization’s team members to work together and identify technology solutions and changes that need to be made to processes that will help the organization meet the demand for virtual visits.

Develop a Change-Ready Mindset