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Adaptive Leadership

“The practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.”
- Heifetz, Glasgow & Linsky, 2009 


Adaptive leadership is a practical leadership framework developed by Harvard professor Ron Heifetz, Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership, along with his colleague Marty Linsky, professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, that has been growing in popularity in recent years during our increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) times, but it isn't yet another "trendy buzzword" leadership style that's easy to turn into a commodity – nor is it a quick fix. They laid out their concepts in their first book Leadership on the Line, and refined how adaptive leadership is actualized along with organizational change expert Alexander Grashow it in their book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership.


Adaptive leadership empowers individuals and organizations to adapt to changing environments and effectively respond to complex problems. But simply being able to “adapt” isn't enough: organizations wishing to employ an adaptive leadership model must adhere to a set of specific characteristics to facilitate a desired outcome.


Learning & Growth Mindset 

“Leadership would be a safe undertaking if your organizations and communities only faced problems for which they already knew the solutions. Every day, people have problems for which they do, in fact, have the necessary know-how and procedures. We call these technical problems. But there is a whole host of problems that are not amenable to authoritative expertise or standard operating procedures. They cannot be solved by someone who provides answers from on high. We call these adaptive challenges because they require experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places in the organization or community.Without learning new ways - changing attitudes, values, and behaviors - people cannot make the adaptive leap necessary to thrive in the new environment. The sustainability of change depends on having the people with the problem internalize the change itself.”

Source: “The Heart of Danger Why Leading Change is Fraught with Risk”

Excerpted from Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading - Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky

Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2006

Most of today’s challenges are a combination of technical and adaptive challenges. Merely taking a technical approach to a problem won’t always solve your problems. As experience may have already taught you, 
the same feedback and issues will just continue to return if you don’t also engage an adaptive approach.

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“The most important factor in survival is neither intelligence nor strength but adaptability.”

- Charles Darwin


Learning & Growth Mindset 

“Indeed, the single most common source of leadership failure we’ve been able to identify - in politics, community life, business, or the nonprofit sector - is that people, especially those in positions of authority, treat adaptive challenges like technical problems. In times of distress, when everyone looks to authorities to provide direction, protection, and order, this is an easy diagnostic mistake to make. In the face of adaptive pressures, people don’t want questions; they want answers. They don’t want to be told that they will have to sustain losses; rather, they want to know how you’re going to protect them from the pains of change. And of course you want to fulfill their needs and expectations, not bear the brunt of their frustration and anger at the bad news you’re giving.”

Source: “The Heart of Danger Why Leading Change is Fraught with Risk”

Excerpted from Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading - Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky

Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2006



Get on the balcony

Leaders need to have some distance to see the “Big Picture”

Identify the adaptive challenge

Leaders need the ability to identify adaptive challenges when it's called for 

Must address it in order to turn it around

Regulate distress

Do not overwhelm but provide enough tension to maintain urgency.

Challenge unproductive norms. Acknowledge loss.
Ask questions rather than give answers.

Maintain disciplined attention

Must be able to identify distractions and refocus the work.

Attention on tough issues
People tend to slide back into old behaviors unless focus is maintained

Reframing issues get at the heart


Give work back to the people

Getting others to take ownership assume responsibility.
Instill confidence in others through encouragement and support.

Be part of the change process.


Protect voices of leadership from below

Protect rather than push down those who risk speaking up.

There is an need to include all voices including dissenters.

Read More About Adaptive Leadership

The Theory Behind the Practice

A Brief Introduction to the Adaptive Leadership Framework

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership

Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and Your World

Featured Resource:

Applying the Tools

Free HarvardEDX Basic Introduction to Adaptive Leadership on-demand class
taught by Ronald Heifetz, 
Founder, Center for Public Leadership; King Hussein Bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public LeadershipHarvard Kennedy School, and co-author of Leadership on the Line and The Practice of Adaptive Leadership 


image courtesy of HarvardEdX

Summary from the course page:

In this short introductory course, you will discover a diagnostic-and-action process for exercising leadership that explores the following foundational principles and strategies:

  • How to identify and unbundle complex challenges

  • How to understand the role of formal and informal authority

  • How to identify the key perspectives of stakeholders

  • How to build and renew trust relationships

  • How to approach conflict

  • How to implement personal strategies for surviving and thriving amidst change

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