Adaptive leadership principles, examples, and practical application

Marlo Oster

Change is hard, messy, and it’s not always a choice. It’s also a fact of life. Knowing this, how does a leader guide their team through unforeseen circumstances and complex problems? Without a playbook or game plan, how does a team succeed in the face of radical change? The answer is through adaptive leadership.

Adaptive leadership is more important today than ever before. Workplaces are faced with unprecedented changes that have completely upended the traditional office setting. How does a leader lead when they don’t know what to expect from one day to the next? How do employers oversee important work while locked inside their own homes? How do managers keep their team connected when each member is forced to work apart, sometimes separated by time zones or oceans?

In this post, we’ll discuss the principles of adaptive leadership, including real-world examples and practical applications.

What is adaptive leadership?

Adaptive leadership is a framework designed to help teams and organizations make lasting change. It prioritizes creativity, innovation, collaboration, and mutual respect. It also rejects the antiquated, top-down hierarchical form of transactional leadership that views employees as little more than lemmings subject to the will of one leader. “Show up; do as I say; get paid,” is a thing of the past.

Adaptive leaders work with their employees; everyone has a seat at the table. And what’s more, under an adaptive leader, people want a seat at the table. Through empathy, emotional intelligence, and integrity, an adaptive leader is able to bring employees and stakeholders alike inside the decision-making process, making each person feel valued.

An adaptive leader knows that it’s not all about them. They’re able to articulate the root of complex problems and inspire their team to find the solutions.

Adaptive leadership principles and practices

Adaptive leadership is vital when there’s no technical fix or established procedure for handling a problem. When the issue is complex, and there’s no clear way forward, adaptive leaders shine. They’re able to make the right connections and find the critical areas of focus inside the chaos.

Traits of adaptive leaders:

  • Ability to embrace change
  • Open-minded
  • Innovative
  • Inclusive
  • Not afraid to fail
  • Honest
  • Transparent
  • Life learner
  • Lives with integrity
  • Strong sense of character
  • Authentic

It’s not some kind of superpower. It’s a willingness to embrace new ideas, iterate, fail, and learn along the way. As a manager or leader, how can you work on developing these skills for yourself?

Signs you’re not an adaptive leader:

  • You see the employer-employee relationship as transactional in nature.
  • You reprimand or punish employees who make a mistake.
  • You like to keep the same habits.
  • You like everything to stay the same.
  • You’re afraid of change or don’t do well in the face of change.
  • You don’t provide your team with constructive feedback on a regular basis.
  • You have trouble accepting feedback from others.
  • You aren’t honest and transparent with your team.
  • You rarely consider another person’s perspective or point of view.
  • You’re hesitant to adopt new technology or new ways of doing things.
  • You don’t like when team members share wild or ‘out there’ ideas.
  • You haven’t thought about what the future might look like.

Adaptive leaders aren’t born; they’re made. As a leader, you must learn to continually adapt and always seek improvement. It’s essential that you accept feedback and implement the feedback you receive. Actively ask for feedback and seek out the opinions of others. Create a culture of continuous feedback, so you and your team know that no matter how successful you are, there’s always room for improvement.

As a human being, you’re fallible. While you don’t always have the answer, you should consistently commit to solving problems with your team. Adaptive leaders have faith in their employees and listen to the opinions of their team members, which lets the team know that they’re valued. In turn, this inspires the team to have that same faith and respect in their leader.

Adaptive leadership examples

We don’t have to look far to see how vital adaptive leadership is to success. Consider the COVID-19 pandemic. Practically overnight, businesses across the world had to figure out a new way of working just to survive. And beyond survival, how does an office maintain employee wellness and productivity with the entire world engulfed in misinformation, uncertainty, and fear?

The radical change brought on by the unconventional circumstances of 2020 and beyond shows how important it is for offices to make adaptability one of their core values. If adapting is a key part of your company culture, teams can better roll with the punches and evolve in the face of change. You can’t predict the future, but you can be more adaptable.

With the shift to remote and distributed teams, leaders had to embrace a new way of working. In the face of such a monumental change, leaders had to quickly decide if they were going to adapt or fail. It meant learning and implementing new forms of technology and finding new ways to keep their team connected. Adaptive leaders were better equipped to problem-solve when facing the dumpster fire that was 2020. They also shared a strong mutual trust with their team, which went a long way toward maintaining workplace relationships and wellbeing.

For a real-world example of an adaptive leader, look no further than American politician and entrepreneur Stacey Abrams. In 2018, she lost Georgia’s gubernatorial race to Brian Kemp, Georgia’s Secretary of State at the time, due to widespread voter suppression on Kemp’s part. It was the state’s closest election since 1966.

Rather than accept defeat, Abrams embraced change and used the loss to spark a movement dedicated to getting as many people registered to vote as possible—no matter their skin color or economic status. In her own words, “The most important leaders… create pathways for more people to be a part of the power structure and the power dynamic.

She adapted. And two years later, Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia in 28 years. It’s a win that many credit to Abrams’ tireless work, innovation, and adaptability.

How to apply adaptive leadership theory

Applying adaptive leadership takes consistency and patience. Don’t expect complete trust from your team and wondrous results right away. You need to stick with it and give your team time to accept you as an adaptive leader.

Although it may be difficult to maintain the level of openness and integrity expected from an adaptive leader, the results are well worth it. By prioritizing your team’s wellbeing and your reaction to and acceptance of change, you create a work culture that’s ready to take on whatever the future has in store.

Follow our adaptive leadership strategies to hone your skills as a leader, manager, or business owner.

✅  Cultivate a culture of continuous improvement with two-way constructive feedback.

✅  Establish transparency and accountability in the workplace.

✅  Question your assumptions and consider all possible angles.

✅  Foster a work environment that takes risks and sees failure as a learning opportunity.

✅  Embrace innovation and diversity of views.

✅  Build your team’s Adaptability Quotient with ongoing adaptability training.

✅ Make hiring choices based on adaptability.

✅ Accept that change is constant and help your team work through change constructively.

Become an adaptive leader with Charma

Beloved by managers, HR, executives, and ICs alike, Charma is the best practice toolkit for managers to organize, motivate, and engage their teams. Find tools and AI that will help manage agendas for one-on-one meetings and team meetings, action items, team collaboration, 360 reviews, continuous feedback & recognition, and goals — all in one place.

Check out our resources for articles, guides, and success stories dedicated to workplace productivity, collaboration, and wellbeing. If you have any questions about anything you read or how to utilize Charma, reach out to our team at any time.

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