adaptive leadership

Why You Should Care About Adaptive Leadership

Table of Contents

Adapt or die: Businesses that thrive in uncertain times understand this principle. And leaders who embrace adaptive leadership know how to turn this principle into action with their teams. 

What is adaptive leadership? 

“Adaptive leadership is an emerging practical leadership framework enabling individuals, teams and organizations to remain resilient and respond with agility in the face of complex challenges. The model embraces change, experimentation and innovation in challenging environments,” says executive coach, personal empowerment life coach, writer and TEDx speaker Smita Das Jain

According to Harvard Business Review, adaptive leadership involves four pillars:  

  • Anticipation of future needs 
  • Articulation of those needs to build collective understanding and drive action 
  • Adaptation so that there is continuous learning and the team can adjust its responses as necessary 
  • Accountability, which includes transparency around decision-making and openness to being challenged and receiving feedback

“Adaptive leadership is about taking more accountability, working together with your team, and reflecting on your mistakes to rectify them ASAP in a fast-paced working environment,” says Simon Brisk, a business coach for start-ups and the founder of the digital marketing agency Click Intelligence

Why adaptive leadership is more important than ever 

“Leaders of today, in business or politics or any front, are expected to be more mindful of their actions and the impact. In a fast-moving world, there’s no time to stick to poor decisions because of a lack of self-correction. Such actions harm institutions,” adds Brisk. Das Jain agrees: “Companies with adaptive leaders are better prepared to pivot constantly, fail fast and move on,” she says. 

According to her, leaders who don’t embrace adaptive leadership miss out on the opportunity to build a diverse workforce. That’s because adaptive leaders welcome disagreement and divergence of opinion – and they weigh different perspectives to make decisions. “It is acknowledged that the knowledge of the whole is more powerful than the knowledge of the leader,” writes change management expert Karen Ferris in an article on adaptive leadership published in The Digital Transformation People. “Adaptive leaders are often well respected and their ability to readjust to new scenarios keeps their team’s motivations high,” according to Brisk. 

Not only does this type of work environment make team members feel valued and respected, which is key for performance and retention, but it also encourages diversity, equity and inclusion in hiring. Not to mention the fact that it breeds creativity and outside-the-box thinking – a must in a business landscape where innovation is expected on a daily basis. 

What adaptive leadership looks like in practice 

Wondering what adaptive leadership looks like in practice? “It’s basically about having transparency, the guts to admit your mistakes, address your fallbacks, but also get back stronger with the backing of your team,” says Brisk. 

According to Das Jain, adaptive teams challenge the way things have always been done. “An adaptive leader cares less about procedures and more about the best way forward for all members of the organization,” she says. Adaptive leaders also lead with empathy. “A good adaptive leader understands differing perspectives and encourages opinions and voices from everyone to foster an organizational culture of trust, autonomy and recognition,” she adds. Finally, you can often recognize adaptive leadership in cultures where there is permission to fail. You’ll hear leaders reflect on both their failures and successes, and you’ll notice that the team has room to take chances and experiment. 

How to embrace adaptive leadership 

If you’re interested in embracing adaptive leadership, there are a few habits you can adopt, starting with admitting your mistakes. “Practice humility, learn to face hard facts, and talk about your failures with your team,” says Brisk. 

Emotional intelligence is also key. “Leaders should demonstrate an understanding of personal feelings and empathy towards others. This builds trust and quality relationships in an organization,” says Das Jain. But that doesn’t mean sugar-coating things. Adaptive leaders offer the honesty and openness required to keep communication lines open and continuously evolve. “It is important for leaders to not skirt around the truth or give people only the good news instead of all the facts. Honesty can ensure that changes are embraced and understood by employees and stakeholders,” adds Das Jain. 

Finally, she recommends prioritizing innovation over results: “Adaptive leaders try new strategies so that companies can become better through change. They empower those around them to innovate and experiment, even if it results in occasional failures.” 

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