10 Keys to Understanding Adaptive Leadership

Ron McIntyre
4 min readNov 8, 2023

Adaptive leadership was a practical framework that Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky developed at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. It was designed to help leaders and organizations face complex, systemic challenges without simple, ready-made solutions. While their process is more formulaic, I consider it a toolbox for leaders.

I recommend this strategy for any leader because no leadership style is a one-size-fits-all nor one that will fit every situation they encounter within their daily work schedule. Quite simply, when dealing with any workforce, a plethora of influences are out of the direct control of any leader. Therefore, the leader must be able to adapt their styles to fit the situation or external stimuli affecting the workers.

Here are ten keys I recommend to understanding My View of Adaptive Leadership:

1. Distinguish Between Technical and Adaptive Challenges:

· Technical challenges can be addressed with existing knowledge and are often solved by an authority figure or expert. If a leader does not have internal expertise, they can hire consultants to complete a project. This may require a different interaction style but can be done quickly.

· On the other hand, adaptive challenges often cannot be resolved with current know-how, technology, or tool set. They require learning, innovation, and stakeholder involvement or deep collaboration.

2. Live and Communicate a Big Picture View and the Frontline Reality:

· Leaders must be able to take a big-picture view tied in with the vision and purpose of the company. This allows for practical strategic thinking.

· At the same time, leaders must engage on the front line, involved in the day-to-day operations, to understand the nuances of the situation. Often, their reality is much different than that leadership understands due to a lack of experience or ignoring what occurs at that level.

3. Manage Stakeholder Distress:

· Adaptive work can cause discomfort because it often involves changing the status quo. Leaders must maintain a level of productive tension without overwhelming stakeholders.

· Stakeholders must have some level of buy-in so they have a vested interest in the success of the change.

4. Maintain a Focus on Benefits:

It’s easy to have one’s attention diverted when trying to change to any culture or environment due to its challenging nature. Leaders must keep themselves and their teams focused on addressing challenges and the benefits because they will change.

5. Protect Grassroot Voices:

Those at the grassroots level often have insights essential for adaptive solutions. Leaders should ensure that hierarchical structures do not silence these voices. This is critical because no leader can have all the answers, but ultimately, they are responsible for meeting the company’s needs.

6. Empower Stakeholders:

Rather than providing canned solutions, adaptive leaders should empower others to take responsibility. This helps in building capacities and ensures more sustainable solutions. Everyone will have a voice when you want a solution to benefit all within the company. Still, the key is respecting the voice but respectfully sorting out the thoughts and ideas irrelevant to the current situation.

7. Manage Conflict:

Conflict is a natural part of addressing adaptive change. Instead of suppressing it, leaders should manage it constructively to stimulate creativity and innovation. Without the commitment of leaders to arbitrate where necessary, they risk developing silos and walled departments that will become battlegrounds instead of collaborators.

8. Build a Culture of Experimentation:

Since many adaptive challenges don’t have ready-made solutions, it’s essential to encourage a culture where experimentation, learning from failures, and iterative processes are valued. If leaders don’t allow people to try things without being criticized or humiliated, there will never be any growth because people will stop offering ideas. They will tell leaders what they want to hear instead of factual, manageable data to build solutions.

9. Preserve The Core Values:

While adaptive leadership often involves change, it’s crucial to identify and preserve an organization’s core values and assets. Not everything needs to change. However, it will be a rocky road to completion if the values are poorly defined or ignored. Start with cementing these before you begin attempting an adaptive solution.

10. Develop Leadership Across Levels:

A single leader can’t generate the necessary momentum to meet eco-system adaptive challenges. To navigate these challenges effectively, foster leadership in solid, workable, empowered roles across all levels. Ensure they can communicate situations, data, and issues honestly and straightforwardly. Please don’t force them to lie, hide, or modify data to fit the situation.

In essence, adaptive leadership is about investing in and navigating the complexity of today’s ever-changing world. It emphasizes learning, resilience, and collaborative problem-solving, ensuring organizations remain relevant and practical despite unprecedented challenges.

If the leaders are unwilling to be open and transparent with all stakeholders, they cannot be adaptive. They will wind up forcing or dictating the change, which will fail.



Ron McIntyre

Ron McIntyre is a Leadership Anthropologist, Author, and Consultant, who, in semi-retirement, is looking to help people who really want to make a difference.