Principles and examples of adaptive leadership

February 12, 2021 - 12 min read

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The principles of adaptive leadership

What makes an adaptive leader?

Challenges in implementing adaptive leadership

Adaptive leadership in action: How do adaptive leaders approach/solve a challenge?


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. 

Adaptive leadership is a practical leadership framework based on the work of researchers, professors, and authors Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky

This is a framework that can help both individuals and organizations adapt and thrive when working in challenging environments. 

Adaptive work often involves questioning the basic assumption on which an organization operates, challenging the status quo, and creating changes that may seem drastic but are necessary.

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.


The principles of adaptive leadership

There are four basic principles of adaptive leadership, which we’ve listed for you below. 

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 where all voices and perspectives can be heard. 

Not only does this lead to more creative ideas, being involved in the process of change 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. 

What makes 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 skills that are essential for an adaptive leader. 

Adaptive leaders:

  • Take the time to reflect on their successes and failures 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.

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. External 

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. Internal 

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 leadership in action: How do adaptive leaders approach/solve a challenge?

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 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.



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.


Published February 12, 2021

Yashi Srivastava

BetterUp Coach, MAPP, CPCC

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