Evan Goodman

Adaptive Leadership Is What We Need Right Now

The uncertain times brought on by the ongoing COVID-19 poses unique and new leadership challenges to public health specialists and business leaders. Clearly, the right kind of leadership determines the success of nations and humanity in times of multi-dimensional and complex crises. Leaders are expected to provide exceptional leadership even as socio-economic foundations are being shaken. Leaders have to make bold and swift decisions in the face of evolving economic uncertainty, incomplete scientific advice, and inadequate evidence.

These are the times that call for transformative and adaptive leadership.

What is adaptive leadership?

The practical leadership framework – as described in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership by  Linsky and Heifetz – is designed for individuals and companies to adapt to tough and changing situations and challenges. These changes however, need to be well considered so that the challenges and responses are responsive to change.

The principal of ‘thriving’ in times of crisis is drawn from evolutionary biology where the following three characteristics form the basis for successful adaptation:

  • Preservation of essential DNA required for continued survival
  • Removal of DNA that no longer serves the current needs of the species
  • Creation of new DNA arrangements that enable species to flourish in challenging environments

Adaptive leadership, therefore, is the transformative approach to diagnose, innovate, and interrupt to create new capabilities that let your company achieve its outcomes when current approaches no longer suffice. For instance, the pandemic has necessitated the shift to remote working, which has rendered ‘on-site’ supervision redundant and calls for new leadership approaches to manage teams’ performance.

Characteristics of adaptive leadership

Balcony perspective: One of the key elements of adaptive leadership is the ‘balcony perspective.’ Leaders need to look from ‘the balcony’ at the big picture to get a new perspective of situations and problems. Rather than getting swept up by immediate operational exigencies, taking a balcony look enables leaders to gain better insights and facilitate the move towards finding a solution. This also helps leaders peer into the past, look forward, and to introspect by looking inward.

However, the balcony perspective can be extremely tough to practice, particularly when the leader is fiercely engaged at the ‘floor’ being pulled and pushed by people and events around them while indulging in some pushing and pulling themselves.

Secondly, even when a leader is able to get away from the ‘dance floor,’ it can be difficult to accurately interpret the situation from the ‘balcony.’ It is a natural instinct to get defensive about actions or ways of thinking.

To ensure you get a realistic perspective from the balcony, you need to develop an awareness of these hidden agendas, while seeking inputs from multiple sources. Observe your actions and objectively evaluate yourself while you take the balcony view. It is possible to be a participant and an observer simultaneously. Practice observing what is happening at meetings while you are a participant.

Observe the relationships and varying attention of people towards each other that can range from listening, supporting to thwarting. Pay close attention to body language and avoid the instinct of getting defensive. A simple technique, such as pushing your chair back or leaning back after you make a point, can provide metaphorical as well as the physical distance required to become an observer.

Productive zone: Crises such as COVID-19 throw up a host of problems that cannot be addressed with standard operating procedures or authoritative expertise.  These ‘adaptive challenges’ require new experiments, discoveries, and adjustments across the organization. Without changing deep-rooted behaviours, values, and attitudes, people cannot adapt successfully to the new environment.

Adaptive leaders need to discourage complacency among teams and motivate them to look for new solutions by staying in the “productive zone.”  Adaptive leadership mobilizes people to handle the toughest problems while carrying out the adaptive work required to achieve progress in tough times.

Let people take initiatives: Adaptive leadership is all about acquiring multifaceted skills and an experimental mindset. Major change necessitates that people across the organization learn to adapt. This also means that as an adaptive leader, you need to suppress the reflex reaction of giving all the answers and instead let people take initiatives towards defining problems and solving them. Getting teams to assume greater responsibility while offering support ensures sustainable change. Empowering people, while delegating responsibilities, build mutual trust.

To quote the example of evolutionary biology, nature boosts the survival chances of some species with a diversification of gene pools. In an organization, it is crucial for adaptive leaders to cultivate a culture where diverse views and collective intelligence are valued rather than relying on the genius of a handful of top leaders.

Anchor yourself: To navigate change initiative through the turbulent times, leaders have to find new ways to stabilize and steady themselves. Adaptive leaders set up a safe harbor where they can think back on the previous day’s journey each day and repair any incurred psychological damage. The reflection also enables you to renew the stock of emotional resources while recalibrating the moral compass. This retreat can be a physical place such as a friend’s house or kitchen table or a comfortable routine such as a walk in the park or neighbourhood. Regardless of the sanctuary, it is important to protect and use it. Despite the fact that such a respite often becomes the first casualty of stressful times and is perceived as a luxury, it is important to retreat to reflect.

To emerge as a successful adaptive leader, you also need someone you trust who you can talk to without the fear of being betrayed or judged. Honest input from such a confidant or business coach can help pull you up when you feel low and pull you down to earth as necessary.

Manage conflict: One of the most complex challenges that are faced by a company’s change leaders is related to managing conflict. The conflict can be related to resistance to change or have to do with clashing viewpoints regarding the implementation of change initiatives. Such conflict may be latent instead of being overt. While many organizations primarily view the conflict of any kind as a threat or danger – and rightly so- conflict is an integral part of every change process. When handled properly, conflict becomes an engine of progress.

In conclusion

The ongoing pandemic situation will give rise to new challenges in the days and months to come with both the virus as well as human reactions remaining highly unpredictable. COVID-19, apart from being a health crisis, has had immense consequences on political, economic, social, and business contexts. New approaches in leadership are the need of the hour to navigate these turbulent times.

Just as evolutionary biology, adaptation requires time and perseverance in companies, it takes time for a new set of processes and norms to emerge from these adaptations. Significant and sustainable change is the result of incremental experiments conducted over a period of time. Leaders need to be persistent and stay in the game despite the numerous challenges that come along the way.  While mobilizing people and anchoring themselves helps leaders meet immediate adaptive challenges, in the long term, companies’ adaptive capacity is built by incremental culture-shaping efforts and new norms.


Heifetz, Ronald A., Marty Linsky, and Alexander Grashow. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. Harvard Business Press, 2009.