Adaptive Leadership: How to Effectively Lead Change

adaptive leadership for change management
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How the 5 Strategic Principles of Adaptive Leadership Support Successful Change Management

The term Adaptive Leadership was coined by Harvard University professor Ron Heifetz in his 1994 book, Leadership Without Easy Answers. The theory of Adaptive Leadership addresses the strategic question of how to mobilise people to adapt to change.

We don’t have to think too far back to realise how important this concept is. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how important it is to quickly adapt to new and fast-evolving circumstances. The Harvard Business Review was just one of the voices advocating Adaptive Leadership as the right sort of leadership model to assist in these sorts of situations.

But, Adaptive Leadership is not just relevant to crisis management. The pace of change in the business sphere demands an adaptive approach. For example, take the development of smartphones a decade ago, or now, the progression of AI; organisations that ignore these seismic technological shifts only put themselves in peril.

So how do we change and adapt to challenging environments? Ron Heifetz set out 5 strategic principles to guide leaders, and their teams, through this process.

5 strategic principles of Adaptive Leadership

These are the five strategic principles in simple terms:

  1. Diagnose the situation.
  2. Manage distress.
  3. Identify distractions.
  4. Delegate effectively.
  5. Encourage challenge.

Heifetz’s original wording was more lengthy, and each concept needs a little more unpacking, so let’s look at each in more detail.

Effective change management using adaptive leadership – video

1. Diagnose the situation 

The first step is problem diagnosis and understanding the situation. In the words of Heifetz:

“Diagnose the situation in light of the values at stake, and unbundle the issues involved.”

To analyse the circumstances Heifetz uses a simple problem typology and asks, what sort of problem do you face? Is it a technical or adaptive challenge? In this simple approach, a technical issue already has a known solution. These sorts of problems require management. Adaptive challenges are problems which have no precedent (such as AI) or ones that continue to evolve (like a pandemic) and therefore require leadership to address them. In this way, Heifetz reflects Keith Grint’s problem typology and technical issues are the same as tame problems, and adaptive challenges are synonymous with wicked problems.

One thing a leader can do to help at this stage is to ‘get on the balcony’ rather than being stuck ‘in the dance.’ In other words, a leader needs to take a physical or mental step back to gain perspective and assess the issue, slightly apart from the frenetic activity of the team. This concept is often referred to as leadership from the balcony and dance


2. Manage distress

The need for change can lead to resistance and distress. People don’t resist change per se, in fact, people frequently embrace change when they see it as positive. For example, few people will turn down a pay rise!

But change can challenge valuesassumptions and beliefs and therein lies the potential for conflict. Factions can form within a team, similar to the innovators, early adopters or laggards of the technological life cycle. The laggards bring dissent and resistance that provokes further discord. 

Therefore, the leader must keep casting the vision and assessing the workforce in how they are progressing through the adoption curve. It requires judgement to do this and set the right pace for change. The Iceberg Model is a useful tool to help analyse these sorts of stresses. 

Here, the ideal that Heifetz is expounding is to:

“Keep the level of distress within tolerable limits for doing adaptive work.”

Heifetz uses a pressure cooker analogy. The leader aims to keep the pressure up without allowing the vessel to blow up.

3. Identify distractions

The next step is to ensure that attention is focused on developing issues and not on less important distractions. Here once again the leader needs to do some diagnosis and identify which issues currently engage attention and differentiate between what is important and what is a distraction. When people find change difficult, they can adopt negative behaviours such as denying the issue, problem misdiagnosis, blaming others, delaying progress, or similar avoidance tactics. As Heifetz says:

“Identify the issues that engage the most attention and counteract avoidance mechanisms such as denial, scapegoating, pretending the problem is technical, or attacking individuals rather than issues.”

These negative behaviours must be identified, understood (once again, the Iceberg Model is useful here) and then challenged, to bring people back to the main issue. 

4. Delegate effectively

One effective way of keeping people mission-focused is effective delegation. If you can give people tasks that allow them ownership of the problem – or at least keep them focussed on addressing it – then this will help to minimise distractions. 

In my experience, it is productive for a leader to delegate to the point of pain, but only that far. In other words, it should be a little uncomfortable for the leader, who must trust the team member and also challenging for the individual being tasked, as the activity should stretch them. Or as Heifetz puts it:

“Allow people to take responsibility for the problem, but at a rate they can handle.”

In this way, the leader can place responsibility on the whole team while at the same time allowing development opportunities. But once again, the pressure cooker analogy applies. The team is put under stress to deal with the problem, but the leader needs to monitor levels of distress.

5. Encourage challenge

Voices of dissent can cause problems for leaders who are trying to encourage change, but a leader also must protect individuals who challenge them. This can be uncomfortable at times as these people can be a source of frustration to a person in authority, and destabilising for the team. Such people often seem unreasonable, but as George Bernard Shaw observed:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Organisations need people to challenge them, and all teams need atmospheres of psychological safety where members can raise objections or new ideas. Therefore, the leader has to:

“Protect those who raise hard questions, generate distress, and challenge people to rethink the issues at stake.”

These people, who bring the hard questions, are often leaders in their own right. 

The difference between authority and leadership

And here Heifetz draws the distinction between leadership and authority. An authority is a decision maker, someone with a specific leadership role and responsibility within a structure. These formal structures are important for bringing direction, protection, and continuity to a team. But leadership can come from anyone, even outside of these formal structures. Leaders bring influence and provoke change, no matter their role. Leadership should be encouraged throughout an organisation to ensure innovation, creativity, and challenge to the status quo. These individuals, demonstrating this sort of leadership, will often have the freedom to provoke rethinking that authorities lack.

How to develop Adaptive Leadership

So, to become a leader who can effectively navigate change, adopt the five principles of Adaptive Leadership:

  1. Diagnose the situation.
  2. Manage distress.
  3. Identify distractions.
  4. Delegate effectively.
  5. Encourage challenge.

In today’s rapidly changing environment – in business, politics or life – we must learn to adjust quickly and positively. In the words of the (unofficial) Marine Corps motto, as espoused by Clint Eastwood as Gunny Highway in heartbreak ridge, 

“You adapt, you overcome, you improvise!”

When you can do this, and encourage others to do the same, then you are on the way to becoming an Adaptive Leader. 

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