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Everything You Need to Know About Adaptive Leadership

5 min read
Lynsey May Sutherland
Lynsey Sutherland

Business leaders often understand the importance of being flexible and responsive in problem solving, but do you know about adaptive leadership? This practical technique is very useful in the ever-evolving world of business. Its guiding principles help leaders home in on the most important issues.

As markets evolve, technologies advance, and customer expectations shift, leaders must be able to adapt and navigate through uncertainty. Adaptive challenges require adaptive approaches. By understanding and implementing adaptive leadership principles, you can enhance your ability to lead effectively and drive your organisation towards success.

Ready to give it a try? Here’s everything you need to know. 

What is adaptive leadership?

Adaptive leadership is a method developed by Harvard professors and authors Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz. These experts researched and found that leaders should adapt to the ever-changing business world by constantly evolving themselves. 

They developed an adaptive leadership theory, focused on helping leaders understand what’s really crucial for their business. Adaptive leaders can:

  • Identify the real issues businesses face
  • Anticipate future needs for the business
  • Know how to communicate those needs 
  • Adapt responses based on continuous learning
  • Demonstrate accountability 

Why is adaptive leadership important? 

The great thing about adaptive leadership is the way that it can help leaders create the most robust and resilient businesses. It is especially useful in times of economic uncertainty and it helps to develop widely applicable skills. 

According to Gallup, good leaders can result in 48% higher profitability and 17% higher employee engagement. It makes sense then to improve your adaptive leadership skills wherever possible.

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The key principles of adaptive leadership

There are several key principles to follow if you’d like to develop a more adaptive leadership style. These include: 

Predicting future needs and challenges 

The ability to look ahead and recognise potential issues is at the heart of adaptive leadership. While nobody can predict the future, look at previous challenges and how they’ve been handled to be better prepared. It’s also wise to keep a close eye on the issues your peers are facing.  

Leading through uncertainty 

Also essential is the ability to stay strong and offer clear guidance through times of uncertainty. This can be one of the most challenging aspects of leadership and requires a great deal of confidence and lateral thinking.

Empowering teams to take calculated risks

The best leaders know the value of their teams. Empowering your team to take calculated risks and innovate enables you to tap into their true worth. Not only can this lead to new avenues for your company, but it can help build employee motivation too. 

Being an emotionally intelligent and empathetic leader

To help guide your company through change, you need to be able to connect with your employees. One of the most effective ways to do this is to work on your own emotional intelligence to lead empathetically

Embracing flexibility and openness to change

Truly adaptive leaders are ones who are able to not only deal with change, but to embrace it. Flexibility is a key skill of the best leaders. Challenging the status quo and being open and curious about potential problems and new solutions will help you along the way. 

Fostering a culture of continuous learning and innovation

It’s important to create a culture where learning is respected and innovation is celebrated. This approach will help the organisation when tackling any unexpected twists and turns. 

Strategies for developing adaptive leadership skills

Are you worried that you don’t have what it takes to be an adaptive leader? Implementing adaptive leadership requires certain skills, but doesn’t need to be daunting. Simply follow some smart strategies to help you improve your game. 

Adaptive leaders

Seek diverse perspectives and encourage creativity 

It’s impossible for any one person to be able to fully perceive and understand every situation. What you can do is surround yourself with a diverse range of perspectives and create an environment with different opinions. This can give you insight into a whole host of situations and challenges, better equipping you to deal with them. 

Along the same lines, encouraging creativity in your team can present you with solutions you never would’ve dreamed of on your own. 

Adapt your leadership style to the situation

We all have our own natural leadership style, but with practice, we can adapt this to suit various challenges. 

This means pausing before making any big decisions and assessing what is needed in any given situation. Whether that’s firm guidance or a light touch, a clear game plan or space for autonomy – the key is in learning from experience, and embracing a human-centric approach to leading.  

Building strong relationships and trust within the team

To be a successful adaptive leader, you need to have a strong connection with your team. And your team must have strong bonds within it. Building trust is the first place to start. This comes from transparency and following through on promises. 

You also want to encourage communication and collaboration wherever possible. Offer easy ways to foster conversation and consider encouraging peer to peer recognition as great ways to strengthen those connections. 

Managing emotions in challenging situations 

Having a clear mind when facing difficult situations helps you handle problems, but it’s not always simple. Theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow wrote a book called Emotional, which lays out some simple methods for moderating emotions in challenging situations. 

He suggests working through a process of acceptance, reappraisal and expression as a means of reframing an experience, Forbes reports. Once you’re able to manage your own emotions, it’s much easier to see the potential in even difficult circumstances. 

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