Principles and examples of adaptive leadership

June 23, 2022 - 16 min read

image of people working together

Jump to section

What is adaptive leadership?

4 principles of the adaptive leadership model

Qualities of an adaptive leader

Pros and cons of adaptive leadership

Challenges in implementing adaptive leadership

Adaptive vs. technical challenges

Adaptive leadership examples

3 tips to solve problems like an adaptive leader

Trying out adaptive leadership

There are numerous examples of once-successful companies that were unable to maintain their dominance due to their inability to adapt to the changing times. 

For example, consider Kodak. Once in a dominant position due to its photographic films, the company was slow to adapt to digital photography and had to sell many of its patents to emerge from bankruptcy. 

Organizations that want to avoid a similar fate can benefit by applying the framework of adaptive leadership.

According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.

Leon C. Megginson

While the above quote refers to the importance of adaptation for the survival of a species, the ability to adapt to changing environments is crucial for organizations too.

What is adaptive leadership?

Adaptive leadership is a practical leadership framework that can help both individuals and organizations remain agile and resilient in challenging environments. Adaptive work often involves challenging the status quo and making changes that may seem drastic but are necessary. This leadership style calls upon managers to be bold and make calculated but sometimes unexpected decisions. 

These choices are made out of necessity rather than on a whim. They are for the betterment of the organization. And though they may feel rash at times, they must be made to keep up with the changing environment.

subscribe

4 Principles of the adaptive leadership model

Though a lot goes into developing an adaptive leader, there are four basic principles of adaptive leadership:

  1. Organizational justice
  2. Emotional intelligence
  3. Development
  4. Character 

1. Organizational justice 

As noted earlier, adaptive challenges usually don’t have a clear problem and solution. 

Therefore, solving them requires creativity and ingenuity. This makes it really important for an adaptive leader to create an environment and company culture where all voices and perspectives can be heard. 

Not only does this lead to more creative ideas, but being involved in the process of change also makes people feel valued. This leads to greater buy-in which is needed to successfully implement the solution. 

2. Emotional intelligence 

Emotional intelligence involves the ability to recognize and effectively manage one’s own emotions, and being able to do the same for others. Adaptive solutions often require people to let go of familiar ways, learn new things and adapt to a new way of working. 

This can be an uncomfortable process, bringing up challenging emotions and a sense of loss in various stakeholders. 

Adaptive leadership requires the leader to be aware of these complexities and address them in a mature, thoughtful way.

3. Development 

Learning new things — at an organizational as well as individual level — is another important element of adaptive leadership. 

Since adaptive challenges can’t be solved using existing knowledge alone, it is important for those leading the change to be open to experimenting with various approaches, learning from failures, and finding new ways to solve the problem at hand. 

4. Character 

Adaptive leaders display a strong character and stand by a code of ethics and principles. 

Implementing effective solutions to adaptive challenges requires trust, and adaptive leaders are skilled at building it. They measure themselves with the same yardstick that they use for others, thereby creating an atmosphere of transparency and respect.

woman leading a meeting about adaptive leadership

Qualities of an adaptive leader

So far, we’ve looked at what adaptive leadership is, what makes it important, and some of its key principles. 

Now, let’s look at a few leadership skills that are essential for an adaptive framework. 

Adaptive leaders:

  • Take the time to reflect on their failures and successes and do not shy away from admitting and correcting mistakes when they make them.
  • Know that uncertainty is an integral part of the change process and they are comfortable with not having all the answers at all times.
  • Focus on experimentation and learning as a way to get to the best possible solutions to a problem.
  • Are emotionally aware and don’t let their personal feelings get in the way of making the right decisions for the organization.
  • Value relationships and invest time in building trust and listening to multiple perspectives that differ from their own.
  • Know that change takes time and can be painful. They stay patient and persist until they get the desired results.
  • Create a sense of shared purpose and values so that people can make independent, autonomous decisions that align with organizational priorities and strategy.

Pros and cons of adaptive leadership

Like any leadership style, the practice of adaptive leadership isn’t without its benefits and its drawbacks. Here are a few pros and cons to this leadership style:

Pros

Cons

  • Decisions can be overly hasty
  • It can be challenging to prioritize tasks while moving quickly
  • Multiple opinions and ideas can be confusing
  • The lack of structure can make individuals feel uneasy

woman with whiteboard teaching others about adaptive leadership

Challenges in implementing adaptive leadership

Even though adaptive leadership offers a useful framework, it can be challenging to successfully implement it. 

There are two main sets of challenges that face a leader trying to implement this framework:

1. Loyalty to the familiar 

One of the biggest changes facing an adaptive leader is the general human tendency of resisting change. 

As discussed earlier, change often requires various stakeholders to let go of what they hold important or are familiar with. This may include a shift in beliefs, values, behaviors, identities, and ideologies. 

Changing any of these things can be quite challenging. 

2. An unwillingness to defer to the team 

In the pursuit of the best possible solution for the adaptive challenge at hand, adaptive leaders need to put their egos aside and be open to letting go of their own ideas, taking responsibility for their failures, and distributing power and authority

Conquering these internal battles can be a significant challenge for leaders.

Adaptive vs. technical challenges

In their work on adaptive leadership, Heifetz and Linsky make an important distinction between technical and adaptive changes. 

Technical challenges can be complex, but they present a clear problem that can be solved through existing knowledge and the expertise of a few professionals. For example, if your computer isn’t functioning well, you can have an expert from the IT department in your company fix it for you. 

Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, don’t have a clearly defined problem and require solutions that go beyond the organization’s current expertise and know-how. For example, if an organization is facing the same kind of crisis over and over again, it is likely an indicator of an adaptive challenge. 

Applying the principles of adaptive leadership can be helpful in solving adaptive challenges.

Adaptive leadership examples

Let’s look at a couple of examples of challenges organizations face, and ways in which an adaptive leader might approach the problem.

Example 1

A few years ago, I worked in a team led by a well-respected and admired leader. She was competent, ethical, and humble and genuinely believed in taking care of her people. 

Due to certain changes in her circumstances, she decided to leave the company — a decision that saddened almost all of her team members. 

She was being replaced by another business leader who was hired from outside the organization. There was a lot of apprehension about the new leader and how all our lives would change as a result of this transition.

The new leader could have come in and operated from a place of authority. He could have looked at this transition as a technical challenge where all he needed to do was make sure the knowledge transfer was complete and that he was equipped to handle the operations of the business. However, he realized that this approach would likely result in challenges down the line because he needed buy-in from his team to succeed. 

So, he took an adaptive approach, first acknowledging that this change was hard for the team and that he had big shoes to fill. He also openly asked for the team’s help in making sure he was on the right track — by giving him feedback and sharing ideas. 

Within a couple of months, he had demonstrated that he was true to his word — he continued to take feedback and suggestions from the team on an ongoing basis. Slowly but steadily, he gained our trust and successfully led the team through various ups and downs over the course of his tenure.

Example 2

Imagine that you are the HR Leader of a company that is experiencing high turnover. 

Highly trained and competent employees are leaving the organization for competitors and this is adversely impacting the bottom line. How would you approach this challenge?

If you look at this situation as a technical problem, you may be tempted to solve it with technical solutions. Maybe you need a new incentive plan to retain your key players? Maybe they need to be rewarded more frequently? Maybe their managers are not doing a great job of motivating and engaging them and they need to do better? 

You may try these solutions and find that they either don’t work, or don’t work for long. To solve this problem in a sustainable way, an adaptive lens may be more effective.

If you consider this an adaptive challenge, you may first invest time in doing a deeper dive as to what is going on. 

You may involve your HR team or hire an external consultant to do an objective assessment of what is driving your employees away. You may find that it’s not the compensation structure or the reward system that is the problem, but the culture of the organization as a whole. 

There is a general lack of accountability in most teams and people blame each other for not meeting deliverables. Going even deeper, you may realize that the leadership team of the organization — including you — is as much a part of the problem as everyone else. 

As an adaptive leader wanting to solve this problem, you will need to gather input from the whole organization in changing the culture. There will likely be numerous uncomfortable conversations, conflicts, and challenges associated with this process. You will have to deliver difficult feedback to the leadership team and also be open to receiving critical feedback yourself. You may have to deal with your own fears and frustrations. 

The change will take time and will often be met with resistance from various fronts. But it is only by going through this process that you will truly be able to address this challenge.

team meeting about adaptive leadership

3 tips to solve problems like an adaptive leader

When it comes to putting an adaptive leadership approach into practice, it can be challenging to know where to start. Just as a set of values might guide your company’s mission, these three best practices will act as a north star when solving problems as an adaptive leader.

Remain flexible

This might seem like a given, but it’s important to remember to remain agile in times of uncertainty. The instinct is often to bunker down, batten the hatches, and rely on current methods. But, in actuality, there is a benefit to seeking creative solutions in tumultuous environments.

Make data-driven decisions when possible

Collaboration is a cornerstone of adaptive leadership. But it can be overwhelming and time-consuming to hear out everyone’s thoughts and opinions. To streamline the process, try making decisions backed by data, when possible. 

In challenging times, during organizational change, or when the economy is going through large shifts, it can be helpful to look at the data you have in a new way. Or to use it to answer new questions that haven’t been asked before.

Lean into your team and leverage their individual expertise

Chances are that you hired each individual on your team for a specific reason. Part of it is the tactile aspects of their job. Another piece is the way they think and behave. Understanding the unique skillsets of each team member, and drawing on that will help you to get the most out of each employee. Plus, you will keep them engaged in the process.

 

Trying out adaptive leadership

As we have seen, businesses face technical as well as adaptive challenges on an ongoing basis. 

While technical challenges have a clearly defined problem that can be solved by experts, adaptive challenges present a more vague problem to be solved. 

Using the framework of adaptive leadership can be a useful way to approach such problems. Moreover, developing this capacity enables organizations to thrive in the longer term despite the challenges associated with this approach.

New call-to-action

Published June 23, 2022

Yashi Srivastava

BetterUp Coach, MAPP, CPCC

Read Next

Coaching
25 min read | November 2, 2021

What makes a good leader? 18 leadership qualities explained

What leadership qualities make a good leader? Learn about what leadership is, 18 traits of exceptional leaders, and how to be a good leader at work. Read More
Coaching
26 min read | October 26, 2021

Situational leadership: Learn to develop it through examples

Wondering what situational leadership examples look like? Learn all about situational leadership, why it matters, and how you can leverage it. Read More
Leadership & Management
17 min read | November 30, 2021

How to tap into heart and soul to lead with more charisma

The charismatic leadership style can be extremely influential. Learn about what charismatic leadership is and how it’s different from other leadership styles. Read More
Leadership & Management
18 min read | August 6, 2021

The transactional leadership style still has a place

What is a transactional leader? Learn about the transactional leadership style, its pros and cons, and whether or not this style of leadership is for you. Read More
Diversity & Inclusion
12 min read | February 18, 2021

What makes an inclusive leader? These 6 behaviors are a good start

Regardless of industry, practicing inclusive leadership is a must-have for all leaders. Let's take a look at this leadership style and a few key behaviors. Read More
Coaching
19 min read | September 1, 2021

How leadership coaching helps leaders get (and keep) an edge

Are leaders born or made? We think they’re developed. Learn what leadership coaching is, what a program should include, and what leaders might gain from it. Read More

Stay connected with BetterUp

Get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research.