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Adaptive Leadership: Navigating Change with Confidence

Learn how you can swiftly manage changes at work with ease by implementing an adaptive leadership style here.

By Brier Cook  •   March 21, 2023  •   7 min read

Change is inevitable, but how you handle change—both good and bad—can make all the difference. 

An individual’s leadership style is how they use their skills to motivate employees and work with others to achieve common goals. While there are several different styles, the adaptive leadership style is gaining popularity among managers and executives who want to approach workplace challenges with an easygoing and resilient mindset. 

Read on if you want to explore the adaptive leadership style, learn about the four key adaptive leadership principles, see the pros and cons of this leadership style, discover how you can become an adaptive leader, and see how this model differs from technical leadership. 

What is adaptive leadership?

When you think of an adaptive person, you likely imagine someone who is flexible, doesn’t lose their cool when plans change quickly, and has a growth mindset.

Adaptive leadership is a business model and practical approach to solving workplace challenges. The model suggests that leaders identify and focus on what business operations are important in a variety of situations and let go of what they can do without. 

The model was developed by Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz: two leading experts on leadership and professors at Harvard University. Their approach helps managers and employees anticipate challenges at work, identify their root causes, and develop a plan of action to tackle issues. 

Adaptive leadership principles 

Four key adaptive leadership principles were developed by Linsky and Heifetz: 

  • Emotional intelligence: The first principle is the capacity to control and express your emotions with good judgment and empathy. Emotionally intelligent individuals can interpret, demonstrate, control, evaluate, and use their emotions to relate to and communicate with others. They also have an awareness of their strengths and limitations and can effectively manage their emotions in difficult situations.
  • Transparency: Transparency in adaptive leadership means that leaders can openly discuss matters pertaining to performance, goals, objectives, and more. Managers can demonstrate transparency at work by updating their team about change and communicating expectations frequently. They are also comfortable involving others in their decision-making from the earliest stages of a company project or initiative.
  • Innovation: Adaptive leaders can combine traditional business thinking with creativity. Being a skilled innovator means continuously embracing new modes of thinking to solve problems and create opportunities for your team. Innovative leaders sense potential where others see challenges. As the saying goes, it’s taking lemons and turning them into lemonade!
  • Open and honest communication: The final principle of adaptive leadership is effective communication. Great adaptive leaders ask employees for regular feedback that shows they value their input. Adaptive leaders want to get to know their colleagues on a personal level, so they aren’t afraid to show their direct reports their flaws. These leaders demonstrate respect for employees by using verbal and non-verbal communication to show that they’re actively listening at all times, too. 

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Pros and cons of adaptive leadership

Pros

  • Creative solutions: Adaptive leaders enable their teammates to develop proactive solutions to tackle everyday challenges. They encourage employees to think outside the box with their approaches, even if it means failing once and a while. These leaders are always willing to listen to fresh perspectives if it means it will get the team one step closer to reaching its goals. 
  • Proactive decision making: Adaptive leaders plan ahead but can also make important decisions fast when needed. These individuals look at big-ticket and low-priority tasks with equal care because they know that what they ignore today could be an emergency tomorrow. 
  • Flexibility: Adaptable leaders can modify their leadership style or approach in response to unpredictable situations. They can also revise their plans to incorporate new solutions as they arise!
  • Collaboration: Those who practice the adaptive leadership style prioritize collaboration with teammates. They understand that multiple heads working together leads to efficient processes, increased success, and improved communication. 

Cons

  • Lack of structure: Unfortunately, unorthodox problem-solving methods can lead to a lack of structure. If teams are used to being regimented, an adaptive leadership style may make tasks unnecessarily challenging and lead to frustrated employees. 
  • Too many ideas: While thinking outside the box is good, too many ideas can slow down processes. For this reason, adaptive leaders must remain organized when there are many involved individuals and moving pieces. 

How to become an adaptive leader

1Challenge the current processes 

Encourage others to think outside the box when the default solution to a challenge is an existing process. While established systems within a company may work sometimes, improving them will only make your team more efficient. For example, if you notice that your bi-weekly team meetings are beginning to feel a bit dull, you can change up the format and introduce asynchronous meetings in Slack once a week instead. 

“Don’t limit your challenges; challenge your limits. Each day we must strive for constant and never-ending improvement.”

Tony Robbins, author and business strategist

2Be flexible in accepting change 

The best leaders are as talented at accepting change as they are at being changemakers. Change is unavoidable in most fields and often entirely out of our control. To be an adaptive leader, you need to be flexible in how you approach, react to, and overcome changes at work. Strive to remain agile in times of uncertainty. Rather than relying on previously used methods, seek new solutions during stressful times. 

“Your success in life isn’t based on your ability to simply change. It is based on your ability to change faster than your competition, customers, and business.”

Mark Sanborn, leadership speaker and author 

3Be proactive 

Adaptive leaders may be calm in the face of change, but that doesn’t mean they love instability. One of the best ways to implement adaptive leadership methodology is by approaching problems proactively so you can maintain a sense of stability at work. Proactive leaders can prepare for any eventuality, making it easier to try new things without fear of failure. 

“Any action is a good action if it’s proactive and there is positive intent behind it.”

– Michael J. Fox

4Be open to experimentation 

As an adaptive leader, you should know that some challenges can’t be solved using existing knowledge alone. Therefore, it’s important to be open to experimenting with new ways to solve problems. For example, work with teammates to list your most common business issues and brainstorm ideas on how to approach them using new tactics. Then, assign individuals to test out these newly developed ideas and have the report back to the team at your next meeting. 

“All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, American author and philosopher

5Commit to continuous learning 

When you stop learning, you stop growing. If you want to be an adaptive leader, you should maintain a growth mindset and believe that all abilities and successes can improve with continued resilience, effort, and learning. Commit to continuous learning by seeking out professional development opportunities to refine your skills and asking for regular feedback from teammates. 

“Commit yourself to lifelong learning. The most valuable asset you’ll ever have is your mind and what you put into it.”

Brian Tracy, Canadian-American motivational speaker

Examples of adaptive leaders 

  • Steve Jobs: The late CEO of Apple had a keen eye for detail and incredible creative awareness that was a driving force for the company’s success. When a new Apple product hit the market, Jobs was famous for encouraging his team to make the next product even better, no matter how meticulous the group had been with the last model. He inspired his team to try new things which led to many great successes!
  • Howard Schultz: The current Interim CEO of Starbucks practices an adaptive leadership style, too. He is known for creating a brand that broke the norms of coffee culture and was able to do so because of his willingness to try new things. In fact, he prioritized rocking the boat in favor of new ideas that challenged the market status quo.
  • Sheryl Sandberg: The author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Wll to Lead and chief operating officer (COO) at Meta uses an adaptive leadership style by celebrating her employees’ successes so they feel inspired to perform at work. She asks that employees use their strengths to push the boundaries of business and continuously improve their skills. 

Adaptive versus technical leadership 

While adaptive leaders rely on their flexibility and resilience during tumultuous times, technical leaders rely on available pre-determined responses to address issues. Technical leaders usually oversee other technical professionals and therefore need to be decisive and possess excellent critical thinking skills. Adaptive leaders thrive in highly creative fields like marketing, whereas technical leaders supervise technical experts and often make decisions for engineering and software development teams. 

Parting advice

Adaptability expands an individual’s ability to handle change, thus allowing them to thrive in any situation. If you notice that your regular leadership style isn’t working or want to try something new, try implementing adaptive leadership methodology into your everyday practices.

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