Adaptive Leadership – Principles and Challenges

What is Adaptive Leadership?

Adaptive leadership is the process of shaping a team to accomplish the goals through learning, trial and error, and working together for the greater good. Adaptive leaders develop their followers into catalysts for change who act in the best interest of their team and organizational goals. Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky introduced the notion of Adaptive Leadership in a book published in 2002. The idea came from their study of successful leaders in volatile circumstances.

Adaptative leadership is an upbeat work style in which employees are encouraged to learn and feel empowered continuously. It stops employees from thinking that they are limited in their ability to accomplish tasks. Leaders are free to create their learning and make decisions based on new information and new data.

It’s a type of leadership that is innovative, flexible, and adaptive to social, political, economic, and environmental change. Leaders and management teams with effective Adaptive Leadership are the ones that create innovative products, services, projects, and organizations. In addition, the traits of effective adaptive leadership can help leaders deal with change and respond quickly to future challenges.

Technical vs. Adaptive Problems

There are two kinds of problems that Adaptive Leadership acknowledges:

Technical problems are well understood, and solutions are available. A team’s solution to a technical problem is always better than their solution without technical knowledge, but a lack of technical skills does not excuse poor adaptive leadership. Technical issues can be solved by using existing tools. Still, adaptation suggests that organizations change how they use their tools to solve problems at an organizational level instead of just upgrading technology in general.

Adaptive problems are about what’s different about people—their skills, values, and relationships.  Adaptive problems need to be solved by thinking. Such an individual first helps to define the problem; then mobilizes his co-workers to develop possible solutions. By being aware of both kinds of problems, an effective leader allows his peers to persevere when faced with adversity and allows them to keep their minds fresh during periods of sustained difficulty.

4 Main Principles of Adaptive Leadership

1. Emotional Intelligence

The ability to control one’s emotions and the emotions of others is the foundation of Adaptive Leadership. Adaptive leadership is a skill that involves being aware of one’s emotions, how they influence others, and abilities to adjust behavior when emotions are high or low.

2. Organizational justice

Adaptive leadership is a term used in organizational leadership theory. It typically describes how leaders influence their team members to achieve collective goal success by adjusting their behaviors to achieve those goals efficiently.

This includes facilitating internal change within an organization (by encouraging team members to work more productively) and external change within an organization (such as encouraging outside vendors to provide more value).

3. Development

Adaptive leadership encourages employees to face change—and negative results—by seeking opportunities. It emphasizes examining one’s beliefs, actions, and attitudes, changes in attitude, and new or ignored information.

If one approach does not work, an effective leader will seek other possibilities for improved performance through new ideas, approaches, and techniques.

4. Character

Adaptive Leaders are transparent and creative. It’s about listening, thinking deeply, having empathy and compassion for others and themselves, being humble, openly accepting criticism, sharing resources judiciously, and taking the initiative to solve problems instead of waiting for orders.

Traits of Adaptive Leaders

Every adaptive leader needs to have the following traits:

  • Adaptive leaders are those who can connect organizational change with the primary abilities and dreams of stakeholders.
  • Create an environment where there’s room for people with diverse ideas and backgrounds.
  • The adaptive leader understands that people don’t always like change. Therefore, they can use tactics to help the team accept and even embrace change.
  • It’s important to realize that large-scale change takes time and requires patience and a willingness to endure the necessary pressure.
  • The best leaders are proactive in that they find opportunities for their team to develop and become stronger. This requires investing in the necessary resources, such as training and tools.
  • To be a truly adaptive leader, you have to admit when you make mistakes and change your course.
  • Experimenting and taking risks is key to successful leadership because they help you adapt to the changing world.
  • A good leader encourages innovation in their employees.

Challenges in Implementing Adaptive Leadership

The biggest challenge of adaptive leadership is that you must experiment, find new knowledge, and adjust your policies throughout the organization. You can’t just change your attitude and then stay on the same path.

However, creating change within an organization is a difficult task. It requires a cognitive restructuring of the way staff members perceive their work. For instance, if you want to change the marketing strategy, you need to start believing that your previous one doesn’t work.

Adaptive leadership presents a major challenge in the workplace that occurs when people are resistant to change. Employees can use different methods to divert or impede the implementation of a new policy.

One of the biggest challenges that come with adaptive leadership is the unwillingness of leaders to listen to other people’s opinions. In theory, adaptive leadership promotes teamwork – not one opinion. It is about collecting data, analyzing it, and using what works best for a specific organization.

However, in the real world of leadership, listening to other viewpoints is often a challenge. Skeptical leaders who disagree with others do not necessarily need to change their goals but could be better informed about their staff needs. This improves their ability to manage at work and achieve business objectives.

What are the pros and cons of adaptive leadership?


  • The pros of adaptive leadership are that it’s good to be prepared for change.
  • With adaptive leadership, multiple opinions are embraced, and everyone is heard.
  • Adaptive leadership is not rigid.
  • Adaptive leadership makes effective use of their strengths.


  • This type of leadership doesn’t emphasize structure.
  • Adaptive leadership is all about breaking the rules in a way that transforms your company.
  • Decisions are often made prematurely.

What does it take to become an adaptive leader?

  • If you want to develop as a leader, you should consider challenging how things have always been done.
  • Leaders must be flexible and must quickly adapt to the changing needs of their organizations.
  • Must be able to deal with uncertainty and risk within any organization.
  • Adaptive leaders must be proactive 
  • They must not fear trying out new things.
  • Respect and welcome the viewpoints of other members of the team.

Key takeaways

  • Adaptative leadership is an upbeat work style in which employees are encouraged to learn and feel empowered continuously.
  • It’s a type of leadership that is innovative, flexible, and adaptive to social, political, economic, and environmental change.
  • Emotional Intelligence, Organizational Justice, Development, and character are the four principles of Adaptive leadership.