We have all heard someone praise another as a ‘great leader’ or an ‘inspirational leader’, and we may even strive to be such ourselves, but what exactly is leadership in its many forms and what does it mean to be a leader? More importantly, what does effective, relevant and contemporary leadership look like in this day and age? The answer — adaptive leadership. Anybody can display leadership, but adaptive leadership is the ability to lead in different situations, using alternative strategies, amongst an ever-changing environment. Not easy to do of course.
This type of leadership is about being able to adapt to the variable nature of the workplace, industry or those positioned within it, in order to increase the capacity for success and align the organisation with its core values and purposes. Often termed ‘real leadership’, adaptive leadership disregards ‘old’ ways of thinking (eg., hierarchical authority and command) and implements new approaches by altering people’s beliefs, attitudes, habits and perceptions about an idea or problem where it’s important to be less rigid and more open to change. This is often undertaken by confronting the unknown, unfamiliar or uncomfortable and accepting the due consequences, while simultaneously working as a team with colleagues towards a common goal or mission.
At an individual level, adaptive leadership may condition resilience within team members, while at a group level, versatile teams and organisations often stem from a culture of adaptive leadership. Adaptive leadership allows both the leader and their subordinates to understand and appreciate the actual circumstances of their reality. Further, it allows such organisations to perform better than their competitors in the marketplace, and thrive during times of difficulty. This kind of leadership also holds the purpose of ‘breeding’ more economically successful companies.
So, at this point, it is clear that adaptive leadership is an important part of any organisation aspiring not only for success, but for relevance, purpose and applicability in the 21stcentury especially in a the world which is now considered to be VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous).
Additionally, adaptive leadership can be observed in fields other than the corporate world – for example, the military and defence industry who are constantly required to demonstrate fluidity towards an unpredictable type of enemy, as well as leaders of the religious world who need to compete with modernity in order to maintain a purpose. Ultimately, individuals themselves are able to display adaptive leadership by refining their skills to meet current demand, working outside of their comfort zone to face problems that others haven’t even considered, and further, by making themselves available and open to the mindset and thought processes of those around them.
The key components of an adaptive leader are many, although equally important. Adaptive leaders typically portray a high level of initiative, develop meaningful relationships with their team while showing empathy, and are also emotionally intelligent. They generally have a good sense of adjustment and preparedness which further contributes to their character, and they frequently embrace individuality and encourage new ideas, by employing diverse and fluid teams. In saying this, adaptive leaders accept that mistakes and failure are a natural feature of this process. Despite their status, adaptive leaders have the ability to delegate responsibility, even encouraging independence and involvement at all levels of the organisation (ie., the leadership is distributed).
Adaptive leaders have a tendency to take risks and engage in difficult conversations with their colleagues in order to face up to the unfamiliar or uncomfortable circumstances, and not shy away from them. Hence, leaders of the adaptive type are able to anticipate environmental changes and therefore make suitable decisions in conjunction with strategic planning and often experimentation in order to ‘create the future’ and fulfil their mission or purpose.
Although adaptive leadership might be considered to be the new ‘trend’ of this decade, with many organisations and individual leaders adopting this model in order to better themselves as well as those around them, it is not a model that is going away. For those that have not yet taken up this concept, and remain in the traditional methods of leadership, they would do well to consider a change in direction, as adaptive leadership provides an effective tool for dealing with the ambiguous problems of modern times and builds teams which are capable of dealing with unforeseen circumstances.
 Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., Linsky, M. (2010). The theory behind the practice: a brief introduction to the adaptive leadership framework. In The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing your Organization and the World. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Press.
Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., Linsky, M. (2010). The theory behind the practice: a brief introduction to the adaptive leadership framework. In The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing your Organization and the World. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Press.