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Adaptive Leadership

What is Adaptive Leadership?

Adaptive leadership is a model introduced by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky. It is defined as the ability to anticipate future needs and articulate those needs in order to build collective support and understanding so that you can adapt your responses to those needs. It is based on continuous learning and the ability to demonstrate your decision-making process, ultimately resulting in accountability through transparency.

Adaptive leadership works in the face of new and increasing expectations or problems. It is particularly useful when existing solutions or methods no longer work, and it helps organisations move beyond their existing way of doing things. It is based upon the idea that leaders must help individuals get to the bottom of the beliefs and assumptions which influence their behaviours. Leaders must reduce the gap between the values individuals hold and the reality they face, whether or not the individuals are aware of these beliefs. Ultimately, this change in values allows individuals to challenge existing methods and search for successful alternatives.

Leaders must delicately establish what views need changing, but this is only possible with an overview of the whole situation from multiple vantage points. Getting individuals to clarify what matters most, in what balance and with what trade-off becomes a central task. Different values shed light on different opportunities and subtleties of a situation. Indeed, the inclusion of competing value perspectives is essential to adaptive success. So, when should adaptive leadership be used?

Technical and Adaptive Challenges

Not all challenges we face will require an adaptive response. A technical challenge is a problem that can be readily defined, and a solution easily identified. An appropriate response to a technical challenge will involve the use of expertise to meet the expectations and remove the burden causing the problem. However, occasionally neither the problem nor the solution can be readily identified. These are adaptive challenges. An appropriate response would to be ask searching questions about what the real problem is in an attempt to understand what values and attitudes need to change in order for the challenge to be seen from a different perspective. Framing the adaptive challenge in this way will help identify the problem and determine solutions. There is a third type of challenge that is a mixture of both technical and adaptive challenges. In these cases, the problem is definable, but no clear solution exists. A combination of technical expertise and reframing of values is required in order to reach a satisfactory outcome.

Type I

Clear Problem Definition

Clear Problem Solution


Type II

Clear Problem Definition

Unclear Problem Solution

Technical and Adaptive

Type III

Unclear Problem Definition

Unclear Problem Solution


Adaptive Failures

Adaptive failures frequently occur for multiple reasons. This includes instances when teams recognise an issue but fail to determine its significance or because they do not have the ability to mount an appropriate adaptation. Other situations include when individuals become defensive and expect a solution from an authority figure. In this instance individuals do not like having their existing approach or assumptions questioned. If a solution is not provided, the problem persists, then the people begin searching for scape goats to blame. In some scenarios the leaders begin to lie in order to distract individuals from the persistent issues. However, if a solution is provided from the leadership, it may not be accepted if it goes against the existing assumptions of the workers. So, what can we do?

Becoming an Adaptive Leader

Unique problems require unique solutions. While we can’t memorise the solution to all problems, we can use a framework to help us find these solutions more easily. The Adaptive Leadership model is just such a framework. It can be defined as an activity with three steps:

  1. Observe the patterns and events around you.
  2. Interpret what you have observed.
  3. Design the intervention.

Your intervention will be based upon what you have seen around you and how you have interpreted it. However, the trick is not to solve the problem or issue yourself. As a leader, you should involve others by provoking debate, encouraging revaluation of assumptions and letting them come up with the new solutions.

This is not a straightforward task and a solution will not occur straight away. In fact, it may take several attempts as you observe and interpret the world around you. Your actions will change as you continue to gain insight and begin to understand what is working well and what could be done differently. Slowly, this allows you to tackle the values and assumptions which are no longer useful and find ways to move beyond the established patterns.

The Four A’s of Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive leadership, as described above, is all about experimenting, discovering new knowledge and making numerous adjustments. It is made of four critical components. They are:


Anticipate likely future needs, trends and options.


Articulate these needs to build collective understanding and support for action.


Adapt so there is continuous learning and the adjustment of responses as necessary.


Accountability through transparency in decision making processes and openness to challenges and feedback.

Guiding Principles of Adaptive Leadership

Below are five principles that you should consider in your role as an adaptive leader.

  1. The learning process must be open and diverse in order to be effective. Ensure your learning and adaptation is based upon evidence.
  2. Stress-test your underlying theories, assumptions and beliefs. Run through simulations of possible different future scenarios.
  3. Streamline deliberative decision making. Be clear on the assumptions and hypotheses you are basing your decisions on. This way, if errors are identified, trust in the process will be maintained.
  4. Strengthen transparency, inclusion and accountability. Examine how decisions are being made using the information available at the time. Recognise mistakes and actively share them as learning opportunities.
  5. Mobilise collective action across different departments and organisations through active collaboration and dialogue with a range of stakeholders.

Challenges to Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive leadership can be employed by anyone, from a position of authority to any individual team member. The difficulties faced will differ depending upon your position.

If you lead from a position of authority, you may encounter difficulties with adaptive leadership. Firstly, you may not recognise the problem as one that requires adaptive leadership. Perhaps you don’t ask the right questions at the right time and consequently you will bear the blame for highlighting a problem. Finally, if you do not manage to change the perspective of people, you become the scape goat other leaders need.

If you lead without a formal position of authority, there are several pitfalls that could befall you. It is possible that you may get set up as the person who will argue with the formal leader. Indeed, your colleagues encourage you to fight with the leader or they may shoot you down. On occasion, you may be driven out with calls of ‘we don’t want this new way of work’ or ‘we don’t want to question our current way of work’.

What can we do to reduce our chance of failure? First, we must understand why some individuals or teams are better at adapting than others. This is known as adaptive capacity.

Adaptive Capacity

Adaptive capacity is “…the resilience of people and the capacity of systems to engage in problem-defining and problem-solving work in the midst of adaptive pressures and the resulting equilibrium…”. Essentially, it describes why some people AND systems are better at adapting than others. They are both ready and have capacity to respond to adaptive challenges. We can break adaptive capacity down into positive and negative factors as follows:

Positive Adaptive Capacity

  • Appropriate diagnosis of adaptive solutions
    • The situation is correctly identified and discussed as adaptive.
  • Leadership with authority in adaptive situations
    • Authority exposes conflict and challenges norms or allows them to be challenged.
    • Authority discloses external threats.
    • Authority identifies adaptive challenges and produces questions about the definition of the problem and solutions.
  • Leadership without authority in adaptive situations
    • Creative deviance, bottom-up challenges to decisions, raising of hard questions.

Negative Adaptive Capacity

  • Work avoidance or avoiding reality
    • This includes blaming authority, denying the problem, avoiding questioning beliefs, values and existing methods. You might embed yourself in the detail of the work, argue about trivial aspects without really understanding what is keeping you locked in your existing pattern of work.
  • Inappropriate reliance on existing authority relations
    • Focus on existing authority figures to deliver solutions.
  • Application of technical solutions to adaptive problems
    • This could be the application of routine practices to adaptive situations.
  • Inability of leadership to listen to other opinions
    • This could be leadership failing to adopt recommendations from workers or failing to recognise their employees’ needs.