Adaptive Leadership: How To Leverage It in the Workplace

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Bailey Maybray
Bailey Maybray


Moving revenue targets. Navigating new regulations. Facing fierce competition. In today’s rapidly evolving business environment, how can entrepreneurs tackle these challenges head-on?

Adaptive leadership: a man looks into a telescope.

Adaptive leadership, a style of flexible leadership, offers a dynamic and effective way to overcome these hurdles. It also increases job satisfaction, worker engagement, business resilience, and more.

Table of contents:

What Is Adaptive Leadership Theory?

What is adaptive leadership theory? Adaptive leadership theory is a model that recognizes the need for leaders to stay flexible and resilient to complex and fast-paced environments.

Adaptive leadership theory is a model that recognizes the need for leaders to stay flexible and resilient to complex and fast-paced environments. Coined by Harvard professors Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz, adaptive leadership takes a nontraditional approach to management, shirking stability in favor of flexibility.

Adaptive leaders:

  • Embrace uncertainty
  • Learn from their mistakes
  • Update their strategies
  • Respond to new challenges with an open mind

Adaptive Leadership Framework

Adaptive Leadership Framework: The four A's: Anticipation, Articulation, Adaptation, and Accountability.

The four A’s, developed by the Harvard Business Review, comprise a useful framework for better understanding adaptive leadership. They include:

  • Anticipation: How can we prepare for future challenges, trends, and needs?
  • Articulation: How can we explain and ensure understanding of these issues?
  • Adaptation: How can we continuously learn and adapt to changes?
  • Accountability: How can we ensure transparency in decision making and leadership?

Consider the following hypothetical software company’s process as it goes through the four A’s.

The company anticipated a competitor taking its customers because of their lower-priced offering. The company leaders articulated the potential impact of this on their business, including potential revenue and market share loss.

Then, they adapted by offering a lower-priced package with fewer bells and whistles for more price-conscious customers. To maintain accountability, they communicated with customers about the change, why they made it, and their goals to better support them.

Principles of Adaptive Leadership

Principles of adaptive leadership: Emotional intelligence, organizational justice, character, and development.

Linsky and Heifetz established four primary principles of adaptive leadership: emotional intelligence, organizational justice, character, and development.

1. Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, manage, and analyze your emotions. It means having a sense of awareness, of both your feelings and others’. Emotional intelligence revolves around five key characteristics:

  • Self-awareness: to recognize your emotions and how others feel
  • Self-regulation: to manage your emotions against impulsive decision making
  • Motivation: to self-motivate to reach goals and hit milestones
  • Empathy: to understand the feelings, motivations, and perspectives of others
  • Social skills: to listen effectively and respond appropriately

Emotional intelligence enables you to build stronger relationships with others, a necessary aspect of adaptive leadership.

2. Organizational justice

Organizational justice is a way to evaluate the positivity and fairness of an organization’s culture. A company with strong organizational justice, for example, treats workers fairly, creates a positive work environment, and ensures equitable outcomes for employees. In the workplace, this looks like:

  • Promoting employees based on performance (instead of favoritism)
  • Creating a safe environment to provide feedback to leadership
  • Maintaining workplace policies to protect employees from discrimination

Adaptive leadership means weathering storms and acclimating to change. Organizational justice helps foster this type of leadership by empowering employees to present their ideas, tackle problems, and take calculated risks.

3. Character

Adaptive leaders need good character traits, such as integrity and honesty. When you lead with strong ethics, others follow, ensuring ethical leadership practices throughout the organization.

In the workplace, maintaining good character can look like the following:

  • Acknowledging mistakes and accepting responsibility for them
  • Communicating transparently about problems or issues
  • Trusting others to do their work

4. Development

Adaptive leadership encourages constant learning. As such, organizations should invest in the development of their employees. This could look like:

  • Providing free learning resources, such as guides and videos
  • Hosting workshops facilitated by employees
  • Offering educational credits for employees to take classes

What Are the Benefits of Adaptive Leadership?


Greater resilience to change

Over 50% of businesses don’t have a continuity plan, leaving them at the mercy of unexpected change. Adaptive leadership fosters culture and processes that value careful planning, making your organization more resilient against these changes.

Increased engagement

Research shows 52% of workers lack autonomy in their roles, despite the fact that it increases engagement, satisfaction, adaptability, and social safety. Adaptive leaders value their employees’ ideas and opinions, affording them greater autonomy in their roles.

More positive work culture

Forty-six percent of job seekers rank culture as a top deciding factor when applying to roles. Adaptive leadership helps build a positive work culture by promoting inclusivity. Adaptive leaders value the insights and ideas of everyone in the organization, making employees feel more included.

Adaptive Leadership in the Workplace

In the workplace, adaptive leadership involves preparing for challenges in advance, communicating clearly, integrating change, and prioritizing transparency. Consider the following examples of adaptive leadership in the workplace:

A team’s longtime manager moves into a new role, so the company brings on an outsider to fill their job. From the moment they join the team, this new leader acknowledges the hard work of their predecessor, the big shoes they’ll have to fill, and their plans for the future. They invite their direct reports to provide feedback as they settle in to the role.

This manager took an adaptive leadership approach to their new role, communicating clearly about challenges they might face while asking for feedback from their co-workers.

Consider a business owner navigating the beginning of the pandemic: Working with their team, they anticipate and note potential challenges (e.g., ensuring staff remain healthy). The leader also regularly checks public health updates to adjust their planning, and informs their workers of their ideas for ensuring the business stays resilient through the pandemic.

Many business owners mirrored adaptive leadership during the pandemic, a time of major uncertainty and change. The leader in this hypothetical scenario anticipated challenges related to the pandemic and stayed up to date on relevant information.

How To Become an Adaptive Leader

How to become an adaptive leader: 1. Make learning part of your schedule. 2. Create opportunities for brainstorming. 3. Build psychological safety. 4. Develop interpersonal relationships. 5. Ask for feedback.

1. Make learning part of your schedule

Adaptive leaders make learning a priority, whether by upskilling or staying on top of industry trends. If you currently make little time for learning, consider altering your schedule to accommodate it. This might include:

2. Create opportunities for brainstorming

Adaptive leaders do not view themselves as the sole decision maker. Instead, they invite others to offer ideas and thoughts. So, if you want to become an adaptive leader, you need to create space for brainstorming and collaboration. This might mean hosting regular meetings for employees to share their ideas for the business, or creating a form they can fill out.

3. Build psychological safety

Psychological safety means workers feel comfortable and safe sharing their ideas, learning from mistakes, and asking questions. Adaptive leadership necessitates having all of these aspects. You can build psychological safety and, in turn, adaptive leadership by:

  • Empowering teams to speak up
  • Hosting team-building activities
  • Recognizing employees for their work

4. Develop interpersonal relationships

Since adaptive leadership values emotional intelligence, you should work to develop interpersonal relationships with co-workers. Consider trying the following tips to build these meaningful relationships:

  • Practice active listening
  • Host social events
  • Learn a new skill with a group or another co-worker
  • Ask employees about their interests outside of work

5. Ask for feedback

One of the four A’s of adaptive leadership — accountability — requires feedback from other employees. As you develop your leadership skills, ask co-workers for feedback. They can provide this either personally to you or via an anonymous form. Anonymity may offer more honest feedback, while speaking with them personally may provide more context.

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