How to Use the Principles of Adaptive Leadership in the Workplace

Pursue the Four Dimensions of Adaptive Leadership to Ensure Success

Business management team discussing adaptive leadership
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In a traditional business structure, actions and direction come from the top down. The CEO makes decisions, tells her direct reports, and the decision is filtered down to the people who do the work. This chain of command style of leading works just fine in an unchanging world or with an all-knowing CEO.

That’s not the world you live in, so you'll want to look for a different style of leadership. What about adaptive leadership? Dr. Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky at Harvard University developed adaptive leadership as a way to work within the fast-changing landscape of today’s business world.

What Is Adaptive Leadership?

There are four dimensions of adaptive leadership, and they create a leadership framework for you to pursue:

  • Navigating business environments
  • Leading with empathy
  • Learning through self-correction and reflection
  • Creating win-win solutions

Using these principles, leaders can find methods to respond to their environments in a way that promotes creativity and solutions. No one person can come up with the solution to every problem, and that’s one of the big failures of top-down leadership. Adaptive leadership utilizes all employees and customers to find solutions that work.

Here’s how.

Navigating Business Environments

When you do the same thing over and over, you can expect the same result. When events are not going well, you need to change what you're doing to make the situation better. But how do you do that?

You need to become flexible and embrace change. You need to think about approaches other than the way it’s always been done. It is more difficult than it seems. You can find situations where people resist change at all costs—we did it this way in 1992, and by golly, it worked then, so why change?

One of the great failures, when a company failed to navigate the business environment correctly, is Kodak. You may remember the film that you put in a camera. It was a large, profitable business. When digital technology came on the scene, Kodak felt secure that digital would never become better than film. They were wrong.

When was the last time you bought a film for a camera? Kodak didn’t adapt to the rapidly changing business environment.

Leading With Empathy

If you can’t understand where your employees and customers are coming from, you will have a difficult time meeting their needs. If you can’t meet the needs of your customers and employees, they will leave you and go elsewhere. You need to treat employees with empathy and compassion to ensure they stay and help you foster business success.

Employees today aren’t happy just coming to work and doing repetitive tasks and collecting a paycheck. Customers want products and services that are new and helpful. Behold the rise of the Instapot. It is an electric version of the pressure cooker your grandmother once used. But, the creators understood that the modern kitchen was looking for a modern solution to getting a healthy meal on the table.

An employee could have said, “Heh, pressure cookers already exist. We don’t need this Instapot.” The employee would be right, but it was what people wanted and what made people feel better about making dinner. Empathy led to huge success.

Learning Through Self-Correction and Reflection

No one gets it right every time. All leaders make mistakes. An adaptive leader realizes this and is willing to make corrections to the course. It also means that in adaptive leadership, you accept failure as part of the process.

You can say, “we know this works, so we will keep doing this,” but the business world changes rapidly, so what worked yesterday may not work today. And even if it does work today, it may no longer be the best solution. You have to try new things.

It means accepting feedback, as well. What are your employees saying? What are your customers saying? Do surveys and look at the data. You can’t just ask and ignore it. You need to reflect on what works and what does not and take the risk to change it.

Creating Win-Win Solutions

What’s good for you is good enough, right? Well, if you want to stay in business for a very short time, this works. When you can come together with solutions that work for multiple organizations, you’ll find a lot more success.

This dimension of adaptive leadership can feel strange if you’re used to operating strictly as a competitor, but what if you and your competitors could help each other out?

If you want an example of this, download a few independent podcasts. You’ll find that people who are technically competitors are promoting and praising each other. What happens when they do this? It turns out that people who enjoy hearing one true-crime podcast also enjoy hearing others.

Instead of cutthroat competition, this group is creating win-win scenarios for each. Josh Hallmark created Two Pods a Day to create win-win scenarios for podcasters. You can do the same for your business. Look for win-wins instead of divide and conquer situations.

If you want to become a great leader, try adopting these four principles of adaptive leadership and witness the new life, your new behavior can breathe into your organization.

Characteristics of a Successful Leadership Style

Much is written about what makes successful leaders. This series will focus on the characteristics, traits, and actions that many leaders believe are key.

  • Choose to lead and practice adaptive leadership.
  • Be the person others choose to follow.
  • Provide a vision for the future.
  • Provide inspiration.
  • Make other people feel important and appreciated.
  • Live your values. Behave ethically.
  • Leaders set the pace by their expectations and example.
  • Establish an environment of continuous improvement.
  • Provide opportunities for people to grow, both personally and professionally.
  • Care and act with compassion and communicate positive mental health.


Suzanne Lucas is a freelance writer who spent ten years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers.