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What is Adaptive Leadership?

Between technological advancement, societal change and industry transformation, only one constant remains in today’s workforce: change. For today’s leaders, this dynamic environment requires adaptive leadership.

What is Adaptive Leadership?

Adaptive leadership offers a model to equip both individuals and their organizations to adapt successfully in challenging environments. The objective of the leadership framework is to challenge processes or policies that have “always been this way” by determining what is critical versus what is disposable. Instead of dictating a top-down plan, leaders applying the adaptive leadership model strive to approach change with creativity, collaboration with employees and customers, and a solution-oriented approach.

Pioneered by Ronald Heifetz at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, this model tasks everyone with being a leader, dynamically approaching change instead of looking to the upper level of leadership to dictate the path forward.

The Four Dimensions of Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive leadership is anchored in four dimensions for approaching volatile business environments:

  1. Navigating business environments. 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.
  2. Leading with empathy. Empathetic leaders can better understand challenges and inspire groups to collaborate together. This also requires leaders to partner with independent employees and recognize these colleagues, instead of incentivizing based on tasks alone.
  3. 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.
  4. Develop 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.

When to Use Adaptive Leadership

Not all challenges and changes are adaptive; some changes are simply technical, managed with existing structures and established problem-solving methodologies. An adaptive challenge – and an adaptive change – requires a complete overhaul of perspective, approach and solution. A technical problem has a clear definition, solution and a single authority to 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 change, on the other hand, needs to be examined first, and a solution will not be immediately obvious. For example, an organization may be facing a massive talent shortage as Baby Boomers age out. To effectively recruit, train and retain a new generation, the business may have to rethink everything from its marketing approach to its benefits package and training programs. This will require partnership from many stakeholders and departments, and likely require entirely new mindsets.

Other changes are a combination of the two, where some learning may be required. In the earlier example, perhaps the organization really needs to better understand the drop in sales before launching the marketing campaign, or the customer service force needs retraining. 

Adaptive leadership may not be the right fit for every organization and every stage in its existence. Given its emphasis on dynamic change, this model is best suited for businesses in unpredictable environments or industries facing disruption. A very stable, predictable business may fare better with a more analytical approach to leadership focused on streamlining efficiency. 

“Get On the Balcony”

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.

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