The Best Kind of Leader for Fast-Paced Work Cultures, According to Harvard

adaptive leader brainstorming with team

Adobe Stock / Mego-studio

Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k

First defined and developed by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky of Harvard University, adaptive leadership is a model that encourages people and organizations to grow, evolve and, of course, adapt in the face of a quickly changing environment and the obstacles it presents. It’s best-suited to times of uncertainty, in which individuals and organizations cannot adhere to the status quo or traditional leadership structures.

Through this model, leaders help their organizations and the people within them adapt to new and different circumstances. It’s a practical framework that offers strategies for achieving success in complex scenarios and difficult challenges. Just what does this leadership style entail, when should it be used and what are the pros and cons of implementing it at your organization? Let’s take a look.

The difference between technical and adaptive problems.

Organizations encounter many different types of issues. In some cases, the solution is relatively straightforward, while in others, a more nuanced response is necessary. 

A technical problem falls into the former category. Usually, there is a structure in place for addressing the problem and finding a solution quickly and easily. Often, there are people designated to handle these problems and established procedures for doing so. 

An adaptive problem, on the other hand, does not have a clear protocol for resolution. Instead, an adaptive leader will take into account the multiple perspectives and opinions of the team in order to find a satisfactory way to approach the situation. There is no clear structure in place for addressing the issue or quick fixes; the entire team must work together to come up with a solution.

What are the principles of adaptive leadership?

There are several key principles (4-6, depending on whom you ask) of adaptive leadership that define its chief characteristics. The wording varies somewhat from source to source, but the general meaning behind the principles is roughly the same. They include:

Strategic thinking.

Also known as “getting on the balcony,” this describes how leaders must be able to view situations objectively and in context, taking into account various factors that influence outcomes, such as team members’ strengths and abilities, tools available, various parties’ expectations and so on.

Emotional intelligence.

An adaptive leader must have high emotional intelligence, which includes plenty of self-awareness and the ability to truly understand where others are coming from, in order to use this style effectively. Emotional intelligence also allows leaders to control their emotions to an extent, enabling them to deliver reasoned, rational responses, even in the face of challenges. 

Honesty and reliability.

A leader must have strong character, handling setbacks with grace and owning up to mistakes and missteps when they occur (which they will). This allows her to earn the trust of her team, clients and others. 


This involves acknowledging a changing landscape and focusing on how to persist through the challenges it presents. It’s easy to become sidetracked, and many people might want to shy away from difficult new realities. An adaptive leader will instill a sense of discipline in her team in order to allow them to power through and develop solutions to a changing landscape.

Listening to different viewpoints.

A key aspect of adaptive leadership is recognizing multiple perspectives and taking them all into account when looking for a solution to problems. Through this principle, the leader listens to all the voices of their team members, who work together to develop solutions, and everyone feels like their concerns and thoughts are being addressed. 

Traits of an adaptive leader.

In order to succeed, an adaptive leader needs to have certain traits. These are important for mobilizing teams and their efforts. Important traits are:

  • The ability to encourage diversity in terms of backgrounds, beliefs and ideas
  • Patience
  • Empathy
  • Perseverance
  • Resourcefulness
  • A willingness to think in terms of the bigger picture
  • The ability to mobilize teams
  • High emotional quotient/emotional intelligence (see above)
  • Accountability and willingness to admit to mistakes
  • Creativity and curiosity
  • A willingness to consider the perspectives of the team
  • Flexibility
  • The ability to plan ahead and organize
  • Inquisitiveness

Advantages and disadvantages of implementing adaptive leadership.

Should you implement adaptive leadership at your organization? Consider the advantages and disadvantages of doing so.


  • It accounts for the inevitability of obstacles and changes.
  • No industry, organization and even individual never experiences change. It happens whether you like it or not, and adaptive leadership helps people have a methodology for approaching different scenarios when the unexpected happens. The ability to adapt at a moment’s notice is the only way to progress. It’s a proactive rather than reactive response.
  • It encourages teamwork.
  • Adaptive leadership takes the perspectives and opinions of the entire team into account. Individuals work together to come up with solutions and new approaches to problems. Not only does this foster collaboration, but it also allows employees to feel like their ideas are being respected and heard.
  • It plays to people’s strengths.
  • This model sets people up for success. Depending on the situation, the leader will turn to the employees best equipped to develop an appropriate response. Employees are able to utilize their strengths in a productive way, contributing to the success of the entire organization.
  • It encourages creativity and innovation.

The model is all about new ideas and ways of doing things. It eschews prescribed formulas and instead challenges people to flex their creative muscles. 


  • Timing can be tricky.
  • Implementing real change is generally a slow process. When problems that require urgent action arise, leaders can be hasty and act too quickly. On the flip side, a resolution may take too long to develop in cases where a decision needs to be made immediately. It can be a difficult balance to achieve.
  • There’s little structure.
  • Traditional leadership models generally have a prescribed rulebook to follow. This is not the case with adaptive leadership. Some people need structure to do their work well and may be ill-suited to this form of leadership, which has no clear direction or framework.
  • It requires the individuals involved to put aside personal interests and beliefs.
  • The focus is on the team effort rather than individual beliefs. In some cases, employees may disagree with a decision the leader makes but must put aside their opinions anyway.
  • It doesn’t acknowledge that some rules are there for a reason.

Adaptive leaders don’t adhere to the status quo, but sometimes the status quo is the best way of doing things. Moreover, the leader is sometimes required to break rules that are in place for a good reason, which may not go over well or sit well with everyone involved. That’s why it’s necessary to think strategically and only apply this model in a disciplined manner.

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