Guide: What Is Adaptive Leadership? (With Principles)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 5 September 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Businesses benefit from many styles of effective leadership, which can vary depending on the industry, goals and size of the organisation. Adaptive leadership is a style manager in many industries and companies find effective. Learning about this type of leadership can help you determine if it suits you and if you have the characteristics that can lead to success as an adaptive leader. In this article, we explain what adaptive leadership is, describe the principles of the approach, share traits of adaptive leaders and list its advantages and potential challenges.

What Is Adaptive Leadership?

Adaptive leadership is a style of team guidance designed to address complex, long-term problems or challenges. Adaptive leaders seek to resolve recurring organisational issues through systematic change developed by considering input from all members of the organisation. Unlike traditional leadership, which relies on problem-solving from a few top-level managers, this approach enlists the creativity and efforts of the entire company to address challenges. Leaders in many industries and within organisations of all sizes can develop an adaptive approach.

Related: 10 Common Leadership Styles

4 Principles Of The Adaptive Approach To Leadership

Here are the four foundational principles of an adaptive approach to leadership:

1. Organisational justice

Adaptive leaders create an environment in which every member of the organisation can offer insight, opinions and feedback. Professionals at all levels can trust that their colleagues and managers consider their input when developing new processes and making operational changes. Organisational input is integral to the adaptive style because it guides the improvement and maintenance of the company. This culture of equality and justice is key to implementing adaptive change.

Related: Business Ethics Examples (And How To Improve Them)

2. Emotional intelligence

Adaptive leaders value relationships, so they ensure each member feels heard and supported during problem-solving processes. This requires a high degree of emotional intelligence, which is the ability to handle relationships with empathy and awareness. Adaptive leaders also communicate with company investors and supporters to make sure they are aware of the proposed changes and can provide feedback about them. Positive relationships can lead to high organisational morale, which is a primary goal of this approach.

Related: How To Highlight Leadership Skills On A Resume: A Guide

3. Development

This leadership model recognises the need for organisations to adjust and adapt to stay relevant in a complex and ever-changing marketplace. Adaptive leaders recognise that developing individuals within the company is just as important as organisation-wide change. They empower their colleagues and employees to learn and grow through these changes and provide them with resources to do so, such as training programmes or mentorship opportunities.

Related: What Is Business Development? Definition And Skills

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. Adaptive leaders believe in fostering a culture of transparency in which everyone's ideas and opinions matter. To emphasise this, they act with integrity by being honest with their teams, admitting to their mistakes and accepting suggestions for improvement. They also ensure each member feels supported and valued when they are succeeding and when they require professional development.

Traits Of Adaptive Leaders

Adaptive leaders typically have specific traits. In this model, any member of the organisation can be a leader by developing these characteristics over time. A successful adaptive leader displays the following character traits:

  • Goal-oriented: These leaders link systematic change to long-term organisational goals. They act with a specific result in mind.

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

  • Appreciative of challenges: These professionals understand and appreciate challenges. They prepare their team members for problem-solving and 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 the time to improve the organisation.

  • Proactive: These leaders take a proactive approach. They identify challenges and invest the resources required 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: These leaders enjoy experiments and troubleshooting. They are prepared to reflect on their work and redirect as needed to resolve complex issues.

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

Related: Top Qualities Of An Outstanding Leader

Advantages And Challenges For Adaptive Leaders

As with any leadership style, there are benefits and potential challenges involved in this approach. Many organisations view the challenges as advantages, while others choose another leadership style because of the potential disadvantages. Exploring these aspects can help you decide if being an adaptive leader is suitable for your team and your organisation. Here are the pros and cons to consider:

Advantages

Here are some advantages of adopting an adaptive style of leadership:

Positive change

Adaptive leaders encourage positive change in an organisation by welcoming it. They view change as an essential part of a thriving company and seek opportunities for improvement instead of assuming the organisation operates smoothly. Adaptive leaders find constructive feedback about their methods and the organisation's processes helpful, as it allows them to identify and implement changes that can benefit everyone.

Related: 6 Vital Change Leadership Skills (With Tips For Practising)

Employee inclusivity

In an adaptive model of leadership, all organisational members can provide their thoughts, opinions and suggestions about company issues and policies. They can expect leaders to accept and consider their insight, as adaptive leaders understand the importance of receiving feedback from each level and department within the organisation. Encouraging input from teams, colleagues, executives and company supporters allows adaptive leaders to determine the types of changes that may benefit different areas of the company.

Related: What Are Diversity Skills? (Definition And Examples)

Flexible rules

Adaptive leaders have a relaxed management approach that allows for employee autonomy. The adaptive style views rules as guidelines instead of mandates. If an organisation finds it necessary to enforce rules continuously, this may signify an issue with the rules themselves. These leaders trust their teams can use policies to help them understand what their managers expect from them and allow it to guide their work. The exception is health, safety and legal regulations, which organisations enforce for the well-being of the company and its employees.

Effective roles

Adaptive leaders do not micromanage, as they believe their teams have the knowledge and skills to perform well in their roles with little oversight. This approach typically starts with the recruitment and hiring processes, where these leaders focus on finding the right person for each role instead of just filling a position. Ensuring they hire qualified candidates, provide them with the resources to succeed and encourage their feedback allows them to build teams with professionals who perform effectively and independently in their roles.

Related: A Guide On How To Build A Team That Is Strong And Successful

Challenges

As with any leadership style, the adaptive approach has potential challenges, which may include:

Decentralised organisation

An adaptive approach to leadership relies on a decentralised organisational structure, which focuses on the involvement of members across the organisation in planning and decision-making. This differs from the centralised structure of traditional organisations, which involves an established hierarchy in which the top levels of management make rules that apply to all levels of the organisation. While some leaders find the collaborative focus of a decentralised organisation challenging to create and maintain, many consider it a positive challenge to pursue because of the benefits it may offer.

Related: Centralisation Vs. Decentralisation: Differences And Benefits

Quick decisions

Adaptive organisational models allow for regular feedback from all levels, which results in the consistent evaluation of existing processes. This can lead to frequent changes in rules and policies, as adaptive leaders consider implementing change anytime, they see an opportunity for improvement. This can lead to quick decisions, which traditional leaders who prefer a planned approach may find risky. While making rapid decisions may sometimes have unintended effects, adaptive leaders embrace this trial-and-error opportunity. They often find that accepting the potential challenges of making unplanned decisions leads to positive results and they feel confident correcting those that do not.

Power shifts

Another challenge organisations consider when contemplating an adaptive style of leadership is the power shifts required to decentralise the structure and encourage a more collaborative management approach. Established leaders may find this aspect particularly challenging, especially if they have had the same leadership role for a long time or worked for many years to achieve their positions. Although the idea of changing to an adaptive style may feel intimidating, leaders at all levels may find they can form better relationships with their teams. This can lead to increased productivity and organisational success.

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