What Is Adaptive Leadership?

When you consider the qualities needed to lead an organization, especially in times of change or when faced with uncertainty about the business’s future, the ability to adapt their skills seems like one of the most important qualities a leader can possess. But simply being able to “adapt” or showing “adaptive work” is not enough: organizations wishing to employ an adaptive leadership model must adhere to a set of specific characteristics to ensure the desired outcome is met. Leadership skills are of individuals with behaviors that are able to move with changing environments, those able to meet any technical advancements by thinking differently, and challenge strategies to reach new goals by learning. Above all, one has to exercise leadership and management over each team member with solutions that work in any situation.

Adaptive leadership has been gaining in popularity since the 2009 book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World (Ronald A. Heifetz, Marty Linsky, and Alexander Grashow), published by Harvard Business Review. Building on principles explored in the previous books Leadership Without Easy Answers (Heifetz) and Leadership on the Line (Heifetz and Linsky), the 2009 title created a framework for organizations large and small to apply, especially in times of turbulence and change.

All of these books are worth reading (and re-reading) for anyone in a position of leadership, and adaptive leadership is almost a necessity for everyone in today’s complex and ever-changing business world. No industry is immune to the change that comes with rapid-fire technological advances.These principles can be put to work if you own a small chain of ice cream stores in the Midwest or if you lead a massive national corporation.

Definition of Adaptive Leadership

Cambridge Leadership Associates, which grew out of the work of Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, defines adaptive leadership as: “A practical leadership framework that helps individuals and organizations adapt and thrive in challenging environments.”

Based on that definition, you may be asking yourself how does this differ from any other leadership method, which might accurately be defined as “a practical leadership framework,” too?

Adaptive leadership is based on a specific set of four characteristics seen as necessary for leaders facing adaptive problems. These problems differ significantly from the technical problems an organization may face: technical problems often have a clear solution when the appropriate expertise is applied to the particular problem. If your ice cream store chain is failing because the ice cream is melting, a new freezer is required. Problem solved. Adaptive problems, on the other hand, have no clear, one-size-fits-all solution. Adaptive problems are all about the unknown, and adaptive leadership is about facing uncertainty with the right skill set. The ice cream CEO might consider the rise of paleo, keto, and other low-carb or carb-free diets an “adaptive problem.” No one person can determine whether the stores will survive these dietary trends, or what should be done to mitigate the effects of a potentially shrinking customer base. This is where adaptive leadership is required, to ensure a business not only survives tough and uncertain times but even thrives in them.


Characteristics and Principles of Adaptive Leadership

A handy acronym that can be used to remember the four characteristics of adaptive leadership is CODE:

  • Character
  • Organizational Justice
  • Development
  • Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence

Starting from the bottom, Emotional Intelligence is perhaps the most important characteristic an adaptive leader must possess. Sometimes referred to as Emotional Quotient (“EQ,” for example, as a counterpart to one’s “IQ”) Emotional Intelligence is basically a combination of being both highly self-aware and aware of others. It is the ability to regulate one’s own emotions and also regulate the way one reacts to others’ emotions. Leaders with strong Emotional Intelligence are empathetic, calm, fair, and true team players.


Development as a characteristic of adaptive leadership occurs when a leader is willing to continually explore new methods to achieve the desired result. Rather than continually failing with an outdated practice, the adaptive leader seeks innovation and development to move a business forward.

Organizational Justice

Organizational Justice in adaptive leadership could be described as an open-door policy. It is about keeping open and honest lines of communication with all employees and taking a genuine interest in their questions, concerns, and even criticisms.


Finally, Character is a key component in adaptive leadership because, without it, leaders are doomed to fail. Employees in any industry are quick to sniff out dishonest leaders. Strong character does not rule out the possibility of mistakes; however, how a leader handles mistakes can win the trust and respect of their employees. Leaders with strong character who own up to missteps can right the ship’s course; those who grandstand or play the blame game will sink the ship straight to the ocean floor.

The Pros And Cons Of Adaptive Leadership

Pros of Adaptive Leadership

Change is Inevitable. No organization is immune to change, and adaptive leadership is about being ready for change at all times.

Rules are Made to Be Broken. Because change is the only constant for many businesses, this means the rules have to be rewritten often. A business clinging to its procedures just for the sake of it, even once they become outdated, will typically fail. Adaptive leaders are prepared to rewrite the rule books when it means moving the company in the right direction.

A Personal Approach That Fosters Loyalty. Adaptive leaders understand their employees aren’t made from a cookie cutter and that what motivates one may not work for another. They understand how to approach employees with empathy and understanding, which, in turn, creates a positive workplace where employees are more likely to stay.

Cons of Adaptive Leadership

A tricky balance between decision making that is both swift and mindful. When constantly adapting to change, a leader can start to change course too quickly in some scenarios, pulling the plug on a project that is perceived to be “failing” before it is given the appropriate amount of time to succeed. This can create resentment among the employees who poured their energy into a particular project. Such projects need to have clear timelines associated and, in keeping with the theme of Organizational Justice, these timelines should be transparent to everyone involved.

Knowing just how much to share. Organizational Justice is indeed an incredibly important component for any business, but there are times where a leader needs to withhold some information for a variety of reasons. Leaders must be prepared to communicate effectively when the time comes, such as after a layoff or other jarring news to the business.

Lack of Evidence? Some critics point out that Adaptive Leadership hasn’t been around long enough to truly understand its effectiveness.

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