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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
In order to succeed, an adaptive leader needs to have certain traits. These are important for mobilizing teams and their efforts. Important traits are:
Should you implement adaptive leadership at your organization? Consider the advantages and disadvantages of doing so.
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.
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.