Adaptive Leadership: Definition, Principles & Examples

Adaptive leadership provides principles leaders can use to guide their organisations and employees through challenging times. What is it? What are the fundamental principles behind it? And why should leaders use adaptive leadership? Read on to find out…

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What Is Adaptive Leadership?

Adaptive leadership is an approach to addressing complex business issues created by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky of Harvard University. Designed to help companies stay resilient in challenging times, the adaptive leadership framework includes a set of skills and tools to help leaders focus on the real, critical drivers behind change. 

Adaptive leadership is based on four key elements: 

  • Emotional intelligence

  • Organisational justice

  • Development

  • Character 

Once these are understood, leaders can use them to resolve underlying issues and help businesses and people succeed.

The Four Main Principles of Adaptive Leadership

Heifetz proposed several adaptive leadership principles. They are: emotional intelligence, organisational justice, development, and character and are explained below.

1. Emotional Intelligence

How well do you understand your emotions and those of people around you? If you do it well, you probably have a high level of emotional intelligence. That’s a great adaptive leadership trait because it means you’ll be able to build relationships based on trust more easily. 

When teams trust you, you can help them cope with new ways of working, learn new things, be more agile and change more easily: all necessary skills for adaptation.

2. Organisational Justice

In times of change, can your company culture support your team’s changing needs? Employers with positive corporate culture, that honours their psychological contracts and gives employees a sense of safety possess something called organisational justice. 

Safety and justice help employees come up with creative solutions to problems, which are necessary to deal with adaptive challenges. By using an adaptive leadership style, leaders can engage people in the process and help them feel like a valued part of that change. This, in turn, helps them adapt and even champion the change.

3. Development

How open is your organisation to development? If you provide career progression frameworks, an employee training program, personal development plans and other tools to help employees do more, be more and become fuller human beings, then you probably have a positive development culture. 

That’s really important if you want to embrace adaptive leadership because a positive attitude to learning and growth is critical to business adaptation. Employees who embrace knowledge are more likely to embrace change, too. They will also be more open to learning from failure, experimenting and solving problems in innovative ways.

4. Character

Do you have an organisational code of ethics or a culture code? At Personio we do. It’s part of our corporate culture and it’s how we choose the right people to join our team. Their character matches our culture.

Leaders with strong ethics and good character thrive in a positive corporate culture and so do their employees. Having the character to make mistakes is an important part of adaptive leadership because leaders don’t always get things right – but if their team trusts them, and vice-versa, failure isn’t the end. It can actually be the beginning of new discoveries. 

When leaders create and foster a culture of trust, respect, openness, authenticity and non-judgement, employees are far more likely to be innovative, creative and – yes – adaptive! 

What’s the Difference Between Technical and Adaptive Challenges?

Consider a challenge facing your company… If it’s a fairly standard, known, technical challenge, the chances are that you’ll be able to define it clearly, have a clear solution to it, and there’s a known authority who can solve the issue. But, these days, most challenges are far from easy to resolve. 

The father of the adaptive leadership framework, Ron Heifetz, says it’s important to differentiate between the parts of a complex challenge that: 

  • Are known and easy to fix (technical challenges), and 

  • Require adaptation (adaptive challenges).

Why Is It Important To Know the Difference?

Knowing the difference between technical and adaptive challenges is the starting point for resolving fundamental underlying issues. Heifetz explains, “The most common failure that I’ve seen in leadership over many years is this diagnostic failure of people in high positions of authority who have failed to lead because they’ve ended up treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical. They throw technical fixes at the problem. The problem persists and then, over time, people get disappointed that you haven’t really solved the problem.”

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What’s an Example of Adaptive Leadership?

Imagine that one of your teams simply isn’t performing well. Perhaps your product marketing team used to meet, and even exceed, their targets. Now their work is lacklustre and boring. They’re only doing half the webinars they used to do. They’re not sending out product-related emails. And they haven’t put out a new brochure for five months.

They know what to do, so there aren’t any technical challenges preventing them from doing their work to the best of their ability. This means the challenge must be an adaptive one…

How do you help them?

If you’re a fan of adaptive leadership, you might expect your managers to be bold and challenge the status quo to solve the underlying issues. They might make changes that seem to be drastic but are actually necessary. And the decisions might seem surprising or unexpected. Now we’ll explain how your managers might do this…

How Do You Solve Adaptive Challenges?

Solving adaptive challenges is a key part of adaptive leadership. But before you can solve them, you need to discover which part of the challenge is technical, and which is adaptive. Heifetz says using diagnostic indicators helps us see what underpins the challenge. The technical challenges can be addressed in known ways – but the adaptive challenges “require a different mode of operating than simply authoritative command”. They need leaders to adapt.

Let’s go back to our product marketing team example, to explain.

The CMO, Jay, noticed that the team wasn’t performing well. She looked at the numbers, the resources, the budgets. Nothing had changed. But something had changed in the team’s attitude.

To find out what was really wrong, she looked deeper – to discover the adaptive challenges – by applying these four principles of the adaptive leadership model…

The Challenges of Implementing Adaptive Leadership

Like any leadership model or theory, however, adaptive leadership has its challenges. It’s not always easy to persuade leaders who are used to behaving in a certain way that changing their attitudes and behaviour will result in positive organisational changes.

Frequently Asked Questions About Adaptive Leadership

What Is Meant by Adaptive Leadership?

Designed to help companies stay resilient in challenging times, the adaptive leadership framework includes a set of skills and tools to help leaders focus on the real, critical drivers behind change. 

What Is an Example of Adaptive Leadership?

Turning around a low-performance team is one example of adaptive leadership. If you read through this blog post you’ll see the example of a marketing team who used adaptive leadership principles to accomplish change.

What Are the Characteristics of Adaptive Leadership?

The four characteristics of adaptive leadership are emotional intelligence, organisational justice, development and character. 

What Is the Objective of Adaptive Leadership?

Adaptive leadership is a set of principles and tools to help leaders guide their organisations and employees through challenging times.

Start Enabling Adaptive Leadership Today

If you’re the kind of HR leader who believes in making positive change happen and who thinks it’s more important to deal with strategic issues than paperwork or routine tasks, then it might be time to check out Personio.

Personio is the modern all-in-one HR software made for small and medium-sized enterprises. If you want to find out how we help companies spend less time on processes and more time on people, book a demo today.

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