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Adaptive leadership

  • For proponents of adaptive leadership, leadership is a practice, not a position.
  • Adaptive leadership focuses on leadership as a practice to be used in situations without known solutions.

Ronald Heifetz and his colleagues argue that adaptive leadership is a practice not a theory, defining it as the ‘practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive’ (Heifetz, et al., 2009, p. 14). It is a ‘distributed leadership’ model, which means leadership can be displayed by people across an organisation, not only by those in senior positions or management roles.

Heifetz et al view leadership and management as distinct but important behaviours that complement each other as part of a broader system of action. Management (authority) is best used for technical challenges, problems – routine and complex – where the solution can be found provided you have access to people with the appropriate expertise. Management is about coping with complexity, while leadership is about coping with adaptive challenges that require adaptive change.

Adaptive challenges are those where there is ‘a gap between aspirations and operational capacity that cannot be closed by the expertise and procedures currently in place’ (Creelman, 2009, p. 1), they are systemic and have no ready answers. Adaptive change is uncomfortable; it challenges our most deeply held beliefs and suggests that deeply held values are losing relevance, bringing to the surface legitimate but competing perspectives or commitments. This means that adaptive challenges require a different form of leadership behaviour: adaptive leaders do not provide the answers (and do not equate leadership with expertise) and accept that a degree of disequilibrium is needed to sustain adaptive change (rather than minimising conflict and discomfort).

Core to adaptive work are three activities:

  1. Observing events and patterns, taking in this information as data without forming judgements or making assumptions about the data's meaning;
  2. Tentatively interpreting observations by developing multiple hypotheses about what is really going on, and at the same time, recognising that hypotheses are simply that - hypotheses; and
  3. Designing interventions based on your observations and interpretations in the service of making progress on the adaptive challenge. (Heifetz, et al., 2009)

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World (Heifetz, et al., 2009) was published as a ‘field guide’ for learning and developing adaptive leadership skills. The authors suggest that ‘practicing adaptive leadership is difficult on the one hand and profoundly meaningful on the other’, while warning that ‘it is not something you should enter into casually’ (Heifetz, et al., 2009, p. 41). “Leadership, when seen in this light, requires a learning strategy … The adaptive demands of our time require leaders who take responsibility without waiting for revelation or request. One can lead with no more than a question in hand.” (Heifetz & Laurie, 2011, p. 78).

Criticisms and challenges

Adaptive leadership has been criticised for failing to conform to traditional views of ‘the leader’, with suggestions that it would be better described as facilitation or catalysing rather than ‘leading’ (McCrimmon, n.d.). McCrimmon (n.d.) also argues that not all leadership occurs in the context of a problem; that leadership can occur without leaders and followers necessarily working together to solve a problem (i.e. action taken by one person can influence others); and that change can sometimes be easily made without confronting an adaptive challenge.

The disconnect between what has come to be expected of a leadership theory versus the principles adaptive leadership promotes appears to arise from a failure to appreciate that Heifetz is not advocating the use of adaptive leadership at all times and is instead offering a set of tools and principles that can be applied to work through specific challenges and periods of change.

Further reading

Ronald Heifetz (1994). Leadership without Easy Answers.

Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow & Marty Linsky, (2009). The Practice of Adaptive Leadership; Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World.

Ronald Heifetz & Donald Laurie (2011). The Work of Leadership. In HBR's 10 Must Reads: On Leadership, (pp57-78).