What Is Adaptive Leadership? (Definition and Principles)

By Indeed Editorial Team

July 6, 2021

Businesses benefit from many different styles of effective leadership, which can vary depending on the industry, goals and size of the organization. Adaptive leadership is a leadership style statistically proven to be effective in many industries and companies. In this article, we discuss what adaptive leadership is, along with the characteristics, principles and potential challenges of adaptive leadership.

Related: Your Ultimate Guide To the Top Leadership Traits

What is adaptive leadership?

Adaptive leadership is a style of leadership designed to address complex, long-term problems or challenges. Adaptive leadership seeks to resolve recurring organizational problems through a systematic change, and is based on the idea that difficult problems are best solved with input from the whole organization.

Unlike traditional leadership that relies on problem-solving from a few top-level managers, adaptive leadership enlists the creativity of an entire organization to address challenges. It can be used in many different industries and within organizations of all sizes.

Technical leadership vs. adaptive leadership

Adaptive leadership recognizes that there are two categories of problems—technical problems and adaptive problems. Technical problems often have a clear solution and can be solved by a few professionals. Adaptive problems are usually vague and complex. These problems require input from a variety of people within the organization and often take longer to solve.

Related: 10 Common Leadership Styles

Adaptive leadership principles

The creators of the adaptive leadership method, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, defined four foundational principles of effective adaptive leadership, which are:

  1. Organizational justice

  2. Emotional intelligence

  3. Development

  4. Character

1. Organizational justice

Adaptive leaders create an environment in which every member of the organization has the opportunity to be heard. Organizational input is integral to adaptive leadership. This culture of equality and justice is key to implementing adaptive change.

2. Emotional intelligence

Adaptive leadership values relationships. Thus, adaptive leaders take the time to make sure members of the organization feel heard and supported during the process of problem-solving. This requires a high degree of emotional intelligence, which is the ability to handle relationships with empathy and awareness.

Additionally, adaptive leaders check in with stakeholders to make sure they are aware of the proposed changes and have the opportunity to provide feedback if they would like to. Positive relationships and high organizational morale are necessary for adaptive leadership.

Read more: The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace

3. Development

The adaptive leadership model recognizes that organizations must adjust and adapt to stay relevant in a complex and ever-changing marketplace. Additionally, adaptive leaders recognize that developing individuals within the organization is just as important as organization-wide change. Adaptive leaders empower their colleagues and employees to learn and grow through the process of organizational change.

Related: 11 Ways To Improve Employee Development

4. Character

Adaptive leaders demonstrate ethical responsibility and morality. They are transparent in their communication style and hold themselves to the same standards to which they hold their team.

Read more: Complete Guide To Ethical Leadership (With Examples)

Adaptive leadership traits

Adaptive leaders consistently demonstrate a set of traits. In an adaptive leadership model, any member of the organization can be a leader, and these characteristics can be developed over time. A successful adaptive leader should display the following character traits:

  • Goal-oriented: Adaptive leaders link systematic change to long-term organizational goals. Action is taken with a specific result in mind.

  • Open-minded: Adaptive leaders create an open-minded and progressive environment in which to work. Mistakes are accepted as part of the process.

  • Appreciative of challenges: Adaptive leaders understand and appreciate challenges. They prepare their team members for problem-solving. Adaptive leaders understand that reaching a long-term solution may take several attempts.

  • Committed: Adaptive leaders know that change takes time, and they are ready to commit necessary time to create a better organization.

  • Proactive: Adaptive leaders take a proactive approach. They identify challenges and invest whatever resources are needed ahead of time to solve them.

  • Embrace the unknown: Adaptive leaders embrace uncertainty. They know that not having an immediate answer to a problem is part of the process of positive change.

  • Experimental: Adaptive leaders love experiments and troubleshooting. They are prepared to reflect on their work and redirect as needed. They understand that tackling vague, complex issues requires trial and error.

  • Emotionally aware: Adaptive leaders are as concerned with relationships as they are of profits. That understanding helps them ensure that organizational members and other stakeholders are supportive of any long-term changes.

Related: How To Develop Leadership Skills and Become a Great Manager

Challenges of adaptive leadership

Adaptive leadership can provide organizations with creative and impactful solutions to complex problems while maintaining an environment of positivity. However, adaptive leadership can have potential challenges, including:


Adaptive leadership involves buy-in from all members of the organization. This means adaptive leaders must encourage all individuals involved to shift their mindset and demonstrate the characteristics of an adaptive leader. This can be a challenge for employees who like the status quo and have no interest in changing the organization.

Read more: Positive Thinking in the Workplace: Benefits and Tips


The proactive nature of adaptive leadership means adaptive leaders must recognize that some of the organization's ongoing business practices are ineffective. This can be upsetting for some employees who created those practices or tried to implement them. These employees may have trouble supporting a new procedure or strategy, due to a lack of recognition for what they had tried to achieve.

Related: How To Learn From Your Mistakes


Change is only effective if everyone in the organization participates in its implementation. Some members of the organization may be hesitant to implement a new strategy because it involves learning a new procedure or it changes the nature of their job. If a new strategy is not implemented throughout the whole organization, it may be ineffective.

Read more: How To Encourage Innovation in the Workplace (With Examples and Tips)


Adaptive leadership shifts power and control from a few top-level individuals to all members of the organization. Some top-level employees who are used to controlling much of the decision-making power may have trouble relinquishing their control to the whole group.

Related: Top 12 Leadership Certifications To Improve Your Leadership Skills (& Career)

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