Adaptive Leadership: 5 Principles

In today’s world, adaptive leadership is an essential skill for anyone interested in pursuing a career in management consulting. Originally developed by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky of Harvard Business Review, adaptive leadership principles are quickly replacing the more traditional top-down leadership structure of days gone by. In today’s fast-paced business environment, the old approach of direction being handed down from the CEO simply won’t work.

As a management consultant, you will frequently be called into solve problems and situations that are complex in nature and highly charged. In addition, you will have to collaborate with individuals in the client organization (many of whom see you as a threat) to gather the necessary data and iterate to solve the problem. Leaving the top-down, “my way or the highway” behind will help you get the data and contextual information you need to best solve the problem.

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What Is Adaptive Leadership?

Since the skill of adaptive leadership is essential for a management consultant, the question becomes, “What is adaptive leadership?Cambridge Leadership Associates, highly influenced by Heifetz and Linsky, have created the following adaptive leadership definition:

“A practical leadership framework that helps individuals and organizations adapt and thrive in challenging environments.”

That definition may cause you to wonder what makes adaptive leadership different than more traditional leadership methods. The difference lies in the types of problems adaptive leadership addresses. To further clarify, let’s discuss the two types of challenges leaders face:

  • Technical Challenges

These challenges are clearly defined, and solutions present themselves more easily because the problem is fully seen and understood. For example, mass production companies that have issues with a production line can easily assess and address the mechanical issues they face. Technical challenges can be solved by a top-down approach because they are clearly understood and there are a limited number of solutions.

  • Adaptive Challenges

Adaptive challenges are more complex and require more contextual understanding to define. Once well-defined, they also require more learning to identify the best solution for the organization. Adaptive challenges should be navigated and addressed by those most engaged in the issue at hand.

While technical challenges continue to exist in our technology-driven world, these challenges are not the ones that consultants are typically brought into fix. However, adaptive challenges abound, and often require a strategy reset. Adaptive leadership principles enable you to take the energy and resources (human and otherwise) of an organization and lead them through the process of change. It is fruitful for approaching uncertainty with the right skill set.

“Adaptive leaders create the conditions that enable dynamic networks of actors to achieve common goals in an environment of un- certainty.” -Boston Consulting Group

5 Adaptive Leadership Principles

The principles that guide adaptive leadership theory can be distinguished from more traditional methods using the list below. BCG clearly lines these principles out in its article, Adaptive Leadership. We’ve taken their list and added one of our own that is necessary to apply adaptive leadership principles successfully within any organization:

  1. Navigate

Adaptive leaders embrace uncertainty and look for new approaches to challenges. They must be able to let go of rigid rules used to control the change process. In a rapidly changing environment, rules hinder creativity and are counterproductive. One of the benefits of adaptive leadership is giving room for a wealth of different perspectives and options. As they navigate their world, adaptive leaders allow other leaders to arise from those best positioned to influence the issue at hand. Another aspect of navigating is constantly questioning preconceived notions and the environment, using intuition to sense changes before they arrive.

  1. Empathize

Adaptive leadership focuses on creating a group mentality as opposed to a highly competitive atmosphere. Furthermore, adaptive leaders understand and influence those they lead with the truth that the group can accomplish what no one person can. Adaptive leaders can empathize with those they lead, which naturally increases their influence with employees, owners and stakeholders. Instead of tracking their employees, they give them autonomy because they understand personal accomplishment is what creates a sense of commitment to the team.

  1. Self-Correct

One of the most utilized tactics of the adaptive leader is experimentation. They understand it’s an essential component of finding truly innovative solutions. Experimentation inevitably will result in some failure. Adaptive leadership theory embraces failure as a part of learning and allows everyone on the team to “learn the hard way.” Leaders develop rewards that enable failure as part of the process. They allow decisions and strategy to be made at all levels of the organization in order to decrease response time and allow agility.

  1. Win-Win

Adaptive leadership also focuses on identifying and enabling win-win solutions that are beneficial for both the organization and external stakeholders. Adaptive leaders also possess the skill of being able to look at social and ecological factors to develop a solution that will stand the test of time, and not simply provide short-term benefit.

  1. Character

We’ve listed character as the 5th principle, although it is essentially the most important. Without strong character, leaders eventually lose credibility. For those looking to enter the management consulting field, this is especially important because you will be entering any situation – either external or internal – as an unknown quantity. Character in this context refers to being open to feedback, owning your mistakes, and ensuring you deliver your assets (analysis, slides, etc.) on time.

Adaptive Leadership Examples

Keeping these 5 principles in mind, let’s look at some real-life adaptive leadership examples to give a frame of reference for how this approach can work for you.

  • One Horn Transportation Example

Cheryl Biron, CEO of One Horn Transportation, talks about her use of adaptive leadership in Inc. A simple example centers around the preferences of different employees. She noted that some like to share about themselves and are looking for a more relational connection. Others simply want to get down to business and check that to-do list. As an adaptive leader, she led each employee with the style that best suited them – instead of forcing them to fit her style or mold.

  • Healthcare Industry Example

Adaptive leadership can also be seen in the healthcare industry as doctors approach both technical and adaptive problems. Take, for instance, a patient who checks in experiencing cardiac arrest. Of course, the first priority will be to handle the technical problem that is putting the patient at risk, but once they are stable the adaptive work begins. Doctors have to work on the patient’s understanding of their own body and lifestyle for the patient to experience the long-term change needed for a healthier life. This example may seem out of reach for the management consultant, but it reinforces an important factor of adaptive leadership – staying focused on the long-term situation and not just immediate gain.

  • Production Environment Example

In a production environment, an adaptive challenge example can look something like the following. A machine continually breaks down every couple of weeks. The technical challenge can be solved by calling a mechanic, but the adaptive challenge is discovering why the machine breaks down repeatedly and solving the larger issue. The adaptive leader will find ways to identify the underlying issue and address it. This can be done by analyzing factors around the machine’s problems. Does it always stop working during a certain shift or day? Are there other commonalities between instances of failure we can find to identify the root cause. The adaptive leader doesn’t have to be an expert on all things. They simply need to know how to find the information that will inform a more permanent solution.


These examples show how adaptive leadership can be applied in a wide variety of environments and circumstances. Adaptive leadership is the ultimate transferable skill – valid in any environment and function. To the adaptive leader, there simply isn’t a problem without a solution, because the burden of solving a problem doesn’t rest solely on them.

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Filed Under: Consulting skills, Leadership