The 4 fundamentals of adaptive leadership

adaptive leadership

Now more than ever, companies need to be nimble to survive and thrive in an increasingly unpredictable world.

“We have just shared a global trauma due to the pandemic these past few years,” says Jay Johnson, leadership consultant and CEO of the Michigan-based Coeus Creative Group. “Socially, politically, economically, the change cycle is happening faster now than it has in any time in recent human history.”

Change truly remains the constant today for many organizations. Times of uncertainty call for teams to be both adaptable and flexible. Leaders who can motivate others to embrace change improve their chances of solving difficult problems or better handling the unfamiliar.

Known as adaptive leadership, this mindset focuses on mobilizing people to work together to effectively navigate whatever comes their way, from financial issues to workforce development, according to Johnson.

“Adaptive leadership is not about who holds the biggest titles,” says Johnson, whose firm specializes in providing behavioral science-back marketing and training services. “It’s about energizing, inspiring and empowering people to learn, collaborate, and innovate.”


What is adaptive leadership?

The adaptive leadership framework got its start at Harvard University. The brainchild of business gurus Dr. Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky, this leadership model offered a practical “leading without authority” approach to solving problems and improving decision-making.

The two management scholars focused on helping leaders coach and encourage people at all levels to take on tough challenges or conflicts that can arise in every organization at any time. Empathy, open-mindedness, accountability, flexibility and creativity are just several of the key principles Heifetz and Linsky proposed leaders should practice and promote to ensure their organizations can more quickly respond to changes and uncertainty.

Heifetz’s first book on the subject, Leadership Without Easy Answers (1994) has become a business school classic and is one of the 10 most assigned course books at Harvard and Duke Universities.

“Ron took a fresh look and somewhat novel take on the exercise of leadership and what adaptive leadership could look like in social systems, from communities and business to even families,” says Craig Weber, founder of The Weber Consulting Group and author of “Conversational Capacity.”

Weber expands upon Heifetz’s work and that of other leading minds in the leadership space while advising diverse leaders across some 40 different countries, helping clients develop healthy, engaged and adaptive organizations.

The adaptive leadership model categorizes business challenges into two distinct buckets: routine (or technical) and adaptive, says Weber. “Not all problems are created equal. Routine problems are the ones we know how to solve. When there was a fire in our home, my wife and I knew to immediately get out of the house and call 911. It was an unprecedented and serious problem in our lives, but it was also insanely routine. ”

On the other hand, adaptive challenges often have no obvious solutions or quick fixes. They frequently demand departing from traditional rules and procedures and upending the status quo.

For example, addressing the growing emergence of artificial intelligence like ChatGPT poses a potential adaptive problem that has no set playbook. Managing rapidly advancing technology causes major stress for many organizations that are forced to keep up, says Johnson.

Instead of panicking, the hallmark of adaptive leadership is to take advantage of the opportunity to problem-solve unknowns, says Johnson, who teaches practical applications of adaptive leadership in his course “Contemporary Leadership” at Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan.

“Adopting an adaptive leadership style allows you to energize your team to learn and figure out challenges together.”

Here are four tips executives can use to become more agile leaders:

1. Focus On the Right Problems

Adaptive leadership works best on adaptive challenges — problems that have no easy answers or expert who can ride in and save the day, Weber says. While they can be difficult or expensive, routine problems typically have known solutions or people with the appropriate skills and knowledge to address them.

These types of issues are routine not because they happen regularly but because there is a “routine” for dealing with them, according to Weber. He strongly advises not wasting time and effort using adaptive leadership strategies on the wrong problems and conversely, applying technical fixes to adaptive hurdles.

“If the problem is routine, like a broken computer, you want your people to take action,” says Weber. “If the problem is adaptive, like a corporate culture that is working against your business strategies, you want to get your people learning together to come up with solutions.”

Weber recalls one of his technology clients was growing by leaps and bounds and gearing up for a high-profile IPO. While beloved by employees, its laidback startup culture was stifling its ability to scale up. Impromptu confabs at the rocking climbing wall were no longer going to cut it. More formal meetings began appearing on schedules.

“There was a massive employee rebellion,” says Weber. “Initially company leaders thought they would simply change how they held meetings — a routine problem. But doing so without killing their culture — that became a tough adaptive challenge they faced.”

To tease out adaptive problems from routine, Johnson suggests leaders “get on the balcony to get an aerial view of all the moving parts within their business,” from systems to services and everything in between.

“Take a visionary approach to identify where there might be adaptive challenges impacting your organization,” he says, “and then begin focusing your team’s energies on them.”

2. Honestly, Let’s Talk About It

It is easier to apply a technical fix to a much deeper complex issue, because, well it’s easier. “Because adaptive work forces us to face harsh realities and make difficult changes, we tend to avoid it like the crazy aunt at a family reunion,” according to Weber. But adaptive problems only get worse if they are not addressed, he says.

Heifetz, the father of adaptive leadership, noted that persistent conflict, work avoidance and repeated crises are some diagnostic indicators of adaptive challenges left to fester on their own. “They usually will not evaporate, only deteriorate,” Weber adds.

Adaptive leaders should work to fortify the “conversational capacity” of their teams to better meet challenges head-on and foster organizational learning, Weber advises. “This term describes the ability to have robust learning-focus dialogue to productively discuss adaptive problems,” he explains. “Leaders should aim for engaging people in a sweet spot that combines candor with curiosity.”

3. Encourage All Voices

Many minds on an adaptive problem are better than one, especially if changes will impact everyone in an organization. Promoting an ongoing inclusive environment that respects diverse opinions from the very beginning prepares executives to quickly rally the team to work as one to face changing circumstances.

Adaptive communication goes hand-in-hand with adaptive leadership to optimize team collaboration and contribution, says Vistage speaker Sherrin Ingram, CEO of the International Center for Strategic Planning in Hinsdale, Illinois.

“Effective leaders recognize that different styles of communication exist and tailor their messaging accordingly to their audiences,” Ingram says. “Being observant in this way allows them to introduce new concepts that can be understood and processed by everyone in their own time and way.”

Through adaptive communication training, Ingram helps management teams learn about different communication styles in order to better relay information that will be embraced and acted upon appropriately.

For example, “headlines” often appeal to big-picture people, while analytic types frequently prefer detailed bullet points. Others may appreciate a more heartfelt human approach to fully commit themselves to the work at hand, according to Ingram.

Adaptive communication serves as a key component of the actual practice of adaptive leadership. “We often don’t appreciate the impact of thinking in this manner,” she says. “But giving people the type of information they need to best understand and arrive at the same decisions is part of being an effective adaptive leader.”

4. Say ‘Yes to the Mess’

New adaptive challenges or significant changes require new ways of thinking outside the box. Expect undefined periods of trial and error in pursuit of innovation. The experimentation process, though, can be daunting for teams to attempt, let alone embrace, because unpredictability can be difficult, unsettling and even painful for some.

“Most people do not like uncertainty and in some cases, it can be a silent killer,” says Johnson. “I always joke that when you get an urgent call that you need to come down to the boss’s office, in the history of no one do you think you are getting a raise. More like, am I getting fired? Then you find out the boss is ordering pens and wants to know what color you want. It’s human nature to make up stories to make sense of uncertainty in uncertain times.”

That’s when an adaptive leader needs to jump in to regulate any distress. Their role is to help people confidently navigate unknowns and feel emboldened to bring ideas to the table or tackle adaptive challenges on their own, Johnson says.

“Essentially the adaptive leader gently protects teams to take chances, make mistakes and effectively use what they have learned moving forward.”

Rather than doing everything for everyone else, adaptive leaders give the work back to the people through empowerment, he adds.

Referencing organizational behavior expert Dr. Frank Barrett’s book Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz (2012), Weber likens the process of solving adaptive problems to jazz improvisation. “Unlike classical music, jazz is messy,” he says. “Jazz musicians perform and experiment at the same time, figuring it out as they go. A musician himself, Barrett wrote they have a ‘yes to the mess’ mindset and in an adaptive leadership context that is really important.”

If leadership has done its job and built a supportive environment, teams will be more inclined to innovate and contribute to achieving the organization’s ultimate adaptive goals, Ingram adds. “Ideally you have created a culture where mistakes made from good faith efforts are allowed with the understanding that occasional failures can help you make better decisions in the future.”

The upsides of adopting an adaptive leadership mind are many, chiefly being agile enough to change course in a timely fashion. Yet there are some potential downsides to consider, from making decisions without adequate vetting to breaking what might not have needed to be fixed.

In his experience, Johnson believes that the ability to maintain “stick-to-itiveness” leads to one of the biggest challenges of practicing adaptive leadership.

“For some, adaptive leadership is difficult because there is a lack of defining characteristics of what it is. I might think I am doing it but in reality, I am not,” he says. “Adaptability also can quickly turn into abandonment.” Johnson suggests giving this approach a try for at least six months and not letting other “fires” derail disciplined attention to larger adaptive challenges.

Today, the pros of adaptive leadership outweigh the cons in Weber’s opinion. “The fractures in society at large from economic concerns and climate change to the political landscape have led to adaptive challenges that are bigger than ever in the business world,” he says. “We need more people focused on practicing adaptive leadership in business and the community.”


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About the Author: Vistage Staff

Vistage facilitates confidential peer advisory groups for CEOs and other senior leaders, focusing on solving challenges, accelerating growth and improving business performance. Over 45,000 high-caliber execu

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