What Is Adaptive Leadership? (Plus Pros and Cons)

Updated February 3, 2023

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 that may be effective in many industries and companies. If you're in a leadership position or at a company that might benefit from an adaptable leadership style, it may be useful to learn more about this model.

In this article, we define adaptive leadership, its four key principles, ways it differs from technical leadership, common traits in adaptive leaders, and the pros and cons of this style of leading.

What is adaptive leadership?

Adaptive leadership is a style of leadership designed by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky to address complex, long-term problems or challenges. It can also help organizations adapt to change. Here are a few key elements of the definition:

  • Adaptive leadership seeks to resolve recurring organizational problems through systematic change.

  • Unlike traditional leadership which relies on problem-solving from a few top-level managers, adaptive leadership enlists the creativity of an entire organization to address challenges. 

  • It can function in many different industries and within organizations of all sizes.

Related: Leadership Traits: 10 Top Qualities of Effective Leaders

The adaptive leadership model

There are three key areas of the adaptive leadership model. By implementing these three parts of the leadership model, leaders can make important decisions effectively:

  • Diagnosis: First, it's important for leaders to diagnose challenges by considering what elements of the organization function well and which might benefit from improvement. This can help you determine which elements are important to keep and which you might discontinue. 

  • Experimentation: Next, adaptive leaders can encourage experimentation and the development of new processes and procedures. They might also allow their teams to take smart risks to find innovative solutions to challenges and effective ways for the company to continue its growth. 

  • Assessment: After determining new possible solutions, leaders can implement them into the organizational framework and assess their success. They can use what they learn to continue or discontinue new solutions to best benefit the company.

Related: 5 Common Leadership Models for Your Business

4 principles of adaptive leadership

The four foundational principles of effective adaptive leadership are:

1. Organizational justice

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

Related: 12 Top Leadership Certifications and Courses To Pursue

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're aware of the proposed changes and can provide feedback. 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. This leadership style can empower team members 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're transparent in their communication style. They also hold themselves to the same standards to which they hold their team.

Read more: How To Improve Ethical Leadership Skills (With Examples)

Technical leadership vs. adaptive leadership

Adaptive leadership recognizes that there are two categories of problems:

  • Technical problems: Technical problems often have a clear solution. A few professionals working together may find that solution.

  • Adaptive problems: 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.

While technical leadership can be useful for solving specific professional challenges, adaptive leadership is an important skill for those with broad organizational responsibilities. 

Related: 10 Common Leadership Styles (Plus How To Find Your Own)

Adaptive leadership traits

A successful adaptive leader should display the following character traits:

  • Goal-oriented: Adaptive leaders link systematic change to long-term organizational goals. They take action with a specific result in mind.

  • Open-minded: Adaptive leaders create an open-minded and progressive environment in which to work. They can accept mistakes as part of the process of learning and growing.

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

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

  • Proactive: Adaptive leaders take a proactive approach, identifying challenges and investing the resources for solutions as quickly as possible. 

  • Curious: Adaptive leaders are curious. They embrace uncertainty and understand that sometimes, lacking an immediate solution to a challenge is part of the process of positive change.

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

  • Emotionally aware: Adaptive leaders are as concerned with relationships as they may be about 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

Pros of adaptive leadership

Here are some advantages of the adaptive leadership style:

Change as a positive

While some company leaders may see change as an intimidating inevitability, an adaptive leadership mindset encourages you to see change as an opportunity for positive outcomes within an organization. This can help leaders embrace important innovations and encourage company growth. It can also be a great way for companies to stay up-to-date with the latest social and business trends. 

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


Adaptive leadership relies on opinions and insights from individuals at all levels of the company, which can increase the level of inclusivity. This can help create a more positive company culture which may lead to happier and more productive team members. An inclusive work environment can also allow individuals from all levels to contribute their strengths and insights to solve a challenge, broadening the scope of possible solutions. 


The adaptable nature of this leadership style can help an organization find innovative and effective solutions to unforeseen challenges. At times when competitors struggle with new market forces, companies with adaptable leadership may thrive. This may help that organization increase profitability and success.

Cons of adaptive leadership

Here are some potential challenges of adaptive leadership:


Adaptive leadership involves buy-in from all members of the organization. This means adaptive leaders must encourage all individuals to shift their mindset and demonstrate the characteristics of an adaptive leader. This can be a challenge for employees who aren't focused on changing the organization.


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 challenging for some individuals who remember the implementation of those practices. These individuals may find it challenging to support new procedures or strategies, and may prefer to continue using older processes.

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 because it changes the nature of their job. To help individuals move past hesitancy, consider asking about and addressing individual concerns in an open-format question-and-answer session.

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 accustomed to making decisions may feel uncomfortable shifting their decision-making power. It may be helpful to remind these individuals of the benefits of adaptive leadership and re-focus their attention on the well-being of the company.

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