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January 15, 2021


What is adaptive leadership?

Leaders shaking hands

Adaptive leadership is a practical approach to solving business issues, guiding leaders in identifying and focusing on the important aspects of a business operation and discarding what it can do without. Adaptive leadership theory was introduced by leadership experts, Harvard professors, and authors Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz. Marty Linsky and Heifetz's extensive research concluded that businesses are constantly changing or developing and must be navigated accordingly. Leaders who apply adaptive leadership theory go beyond simply addressing challenges and finding ways to solve them. They also anticipate challenges and are able to identify their root causes. Furthermore, they are skilled at recognizing what risks are worth taking and what to avoid wasting the organization’s time on. This allows them to have the skills they need to adapt to ensure their organization has the best leadership possible. The adaptive leadership framework is built off of what Linksy and Heifetz created.

Typical of all leaders, adaptive leadership focuses on making major decisions. But what distinguishes their leadership style is that they are open to feedback, ready for inevitable change, skilled with adaptive challenges, and nimble enough to shift direction when the time comes. Adaptive leadership can also be distinguished in terms of challenge. A technical challenge is addressed with a one-time solution whereas an adaptive challenge takes time and may require cultural shifts in organizations. The latter typically occurs when a company is in transition (good or bad, such as expansion or downsizing) and having to change its business strategies long term. Leadership that focuses on being ready and willing to work on changes often finds great success.

The adaptive leadership model.

Adaptive leadership helps individuals and organizations adapt and thrive in the face of challenge and prepare them to take on the process of change. This leadership approach involves diagnosing, interrupting, and innovating as a means of creating capabilities that align with the aspirations of an organization. It is defined by a framework of three key determinants:

  • Precious vs. expendable. When a business is in transition, the fundamental question arises: What’s worth keeping and what isn’t? In order to move forward, an adaptive leader knows it’s necessary to let go of elements that once seemed precious, especially if they no longer serve the organization. For example, bidding farewell to a vendor relationship the company has had for decades or nixing a process that used to boost efficiency but now hinders it. In short, for an organization to grow, this parting with the past has to happen because letting go has the power to prompt new economic opportunities, thoughts, and value systems. 

  • Experimentation and smart risks. Here’s where an adaptive leader directs and encourages creativity and innovation that aligns with the organization’s goals and objectives. This is about developing and testing the next steps forward but also about learning from mistakes and rolling with the punches. A few (or many) blips in the process aren’t only bound to happen, they must  happen in order for an organization to grow. Adaptive leaders understand this and are prepared for these challenges because they know that within these challenges lies the potential to propel the company to new heights. 

  • Disciplined assessment. The trial phase for developing new approaches to operating the organization is over. Now it’s time to integrate these “next” practices and smart risks into the organization. At this stage, adaptive leaders carefully monitor the impact of new systems and processes, report their findings, and work with teams to make any necessary adjustments for improvement. 

The practice of adaptive leadership.

Adaptive leadership can have an enormous impact on an organization because this leadership model places such a strong emphasis on overcoming challenges in order to achieve success. An example of this problem-solution duality is an aspiring business leader who is faced with the challenge of setting ambitious goals and being able to rally team members to accomplish them. An adaptive leader would be motivated by this challenge because of the potential for immense rewards for both the organization and its members. Even if there are setbacks along the way, the leader is undeterred in galvanizing the company toward its goal. 

Adaptive leadership can be applied to a wide variety of careers, including healthcare management. In fact, a master’s degree in this field is an opportunity to apply the adaptive approach because the program is designed to help you become a leader, influencing decisions and impacting outcomes for patients. Another path is an online degree in business management, which can provide an opportunity to learn about both traditional and experimental areas in business leadership. 

A businesswoman works over some business documents with a group of her colleagues.

What are the principles of adaptive leadership?

Like every style of leadership, the adaptive approach has its unique set of principles, each important in regards to employing adaptive leadership effectively. They include: 

  • Emotional intelligence. Adaptive leaders are sensitive to the feelings of others. They know that change isn’t easy. Their empathy has the added bonus of boosting morale throughout the organization because it builds trust. A workforce that feels heard and supported is much more likely to put in the hard work it takes to help achieve company goals. 

  • Organizational justice. Let’s call this one fairness. Adaptive leaders must be open and honest, even if the truth is hard to hear. They need to give employees and stakeholders the facts. Their honesty will ensure that changes are accepted and understood. 

  • Development. Adaptive leaders love trying new things (strategies, processes, etc.), especially if it helps the organization succeed and be better prepared for change. They also have the propensity to innovate and experiment, and are not afraid to fail in the process. Perhaps most importantly, they encourage and empower employees to reach their full potential. 

  • Character. This principle points to earning respect from those you lead. Again, transparency is key. The leader needs to be completely open and comfortable with admitting mistakes and saying stop when something isn’t working. As much as they welcome change, an adaptive leader also embraces diversity and finds a way for it to benefit the entire company. 

What are the pros and cons of adaptive leadership?

This style of leadership has its advantages and disadvantages. Interestingly enough, an adaptive leader would look at the list of cons below and see them as pros! 


  • Change is anticipated and seen as a good thing. 

  • Great level of inclusivity—multiple opinions are embraced.

  • There’s no heavy emphasis on rules.

  • Teams’ strengths are effectively applied. 


  • There’s no emphasis on structure. 

  • Rules are meant to be broken.

  • Decisions can be made too quickly. 

What does it take to become an adaptive leader?

Successful adaptive leaders possess the following traits

  • Think outside the box and challenge the way things have always been done.

  • Are flexible and accept change as part of the organization’s evolution.

  • Embrace rather than fear uncertainty, learn from it, and use it to find better solutions. 

  • Are proactive instead of reactive. 

  • Are open to experimentation. 

  • Welcome a diversity of viewpoints. 

To further illustrate what it takes to become an adaptive leader, let’s look at a couple of real-life examples who put the concept into practice successfully without even knowing it had a name.  

Abraham Lincoln. Honest Abe accepted diversity, appointed rivals for his cabinet, and was always open to debate and criticism. He also had an open-door policy, inviting citizens to discuss their challenges with him. His attentive ear and natural empathy helped him earn respect. 

General George Patton. The adaptive style worked well for Patton. He gained respect as a military leader in large part by soliciting input from his team. And always one to anticipate trouble, he believed in having a backup plan in case a situation went south. 

Of course, you don’t have to be a president or a general to practice adaptive leadership. But it does help to have a degree, preferably in business. Online programs in this field and more are available to help you sharpen your leadership skills. You’ll learn how to recognize a team’s diversity in skill, thought, and perspective and how to harness it all to mobilize and motivate the team—and organization you are leading—forward. 

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