Between technological advancement, societal change and industry transformation, only one constant remains in today’s business climate: change. For today’s leaders, the challenges of an ever-changing environment require adaptive leadership.
More than a leadership style, adaptive leadership offers a model to equip both individuals and their organizations to adapt successfully in challenging environments. Eschewing a top-down plan, adaptive leadership takes a solution-centered approach that calls for understanding, empathy, reflection and collaboration with employees and customers to create a new kind of leadership framework focused on reaching creative solutions that are a “win-win” for the entire organization.
What are the Principles of Adaptive Leadership?
Pioneered by Ronald Heifetz of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, this model helps to define the difference between technical and adaptive challenges and how to dynamically approach these challenges through adaptive leadership that is collaborative and response driven.
Adaptive leadership is anchored by four principles, or practices, for approaching the challenges of volatile business environments:
Encouraging Creative Solutions
Instead of being bound by established rules and procedures, adaptive leaders strive to understand the best solution – even if that means discarding the current one, or part of it. To truly understand the issue or challenge at hand, leaders need to develop multiple perspectives, gained by collaborating with employees and expecting them to present creative solutions and options instead of waiting for the answers to be delivered.
Leading with Empathy
Empathetic leaders can better understand challenges and inspire groups to collaborate. This also requires leaders to partner with independent employees and recognize these colleagues’ contributions, instead of incentivizing based on tasks alone.
Learning Through Self-Correction and Reflection
Often, creative solutions require some trial and error, and it’s through this experimental process of failing that leaders can reflect on what went well (and what didn’t) and make adjustments until the approach is successful. The onus isn’t only the leader to self-correct and reflect, but also to draw out the same introspection and adjustment from employees who are close to the action and may have different insight at lower levels of the organization.
Developing Win-Win Solutions
Collaboration is a key facet of adaptive leadership, particularly as it provides the building blocks for developing solutions that can make all stakeholders happy (and usually, there are many of them). By incorporating feedback, ideas and needs of all stakeholders, adaptive leaders are more likely to develop approaches that not only solve the immediate problem, but also position the organization better toward its goals.
How Does Adaptive Leadership Work?
Given its emphasis on dynamic change, adaptive leadership is best suited for businesses in unpredictable environments or industries facing disruption, examples of adaptive challenges. A very stable, predictable business may fare better with a more analytical approach to leadership and technical approach to challenges that are focused on streamlining efficiency.
That means you need to define the type of challenge your team or organization is facing. Not all challenges and changes are adaptive; some changes are simply technical, managed with existing structures and established problem-solving methodologies.
A technical problem has a clear definition, solution and a single authority approach to adjust the work. For example, an organization may notice that sales for an old, established product have plummeted and, to address the issue, they can launch a new marketing campaign to remind customers about the product.
An adaptive challenge – and an adaptive change – requires a complete overhaul of perspective, approach and solution, and quite often, that solution will not be immediately obvious. For example, the coronavirus emergency has necessitated that organizations adapt to a new normal of how they conduct business, considering their employee and customer safety, customer needs and priorities and contending with government health regulations on how and when their business can function. This will call for partnerships from many stakeholders and departments, listening to employee needs and concerns and likely require entirely new mindsets for the organization going forward.
At times, the challenges and needed changes are a combination of the two, where some learning may be required. In the earlier technical example, perhaps the organization really needs to better understand the drop in sales before launching the marketing campaign. Has the marketplace changed, requiring the organization adapt their positioning?
How Do You Become an Adaptive Leader?
Adaptive leaders are often deep in the action, working with stakeholders and trying to develop the solutions. But sometimes, leaders need to “get on the balcony” for a more strategic view, the American Management Association advises. From the balcony view, leaders can see beyond the details of the action into the bigger picture: the way the action influences the strategy and the bigger context for all the input received while pursuing a solution.
This isn’t always as easy as it sounds, as gripping all the details tightly can be tempting for leaders, particularly those in the midst of transformative change. However, this balcony view is essential because it forces others to do the work they should be doing and allows the leader to see how all the moving pieces work together. Often, this can provide the necessary insight to help harness the change that most needs to be implemented.
To gain the principles and methodologies of applying adaptive leadership within your organization, continuing your professional education in a program that “aims to develop ‘adaptive, agile leaders’” could be your next step.
Learn more about the qualities of an adaptive leader in Florida Tech’s online MA in Organizational Leadership program.