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Public admin explainer: What is adaptive leadership?

27 June 2017



Adaptive leadership is a practice for helping mobilise members of an organisation or community to adapt to significant change. It emphasises the importance of adaptation to a complex and rapidly changing environment, and focuses on creating the circumstances for good leadership and problem solving.

It hinges on four key arguments:

  • Leadership is a practice, not an inherent characteristic
  • Power is dispersed and leadership must therefore be a cooperative activity
  • Leadership is about addressing problems that lack known solutions
  • Organisations often need to face uncomfortable realities to progress.

Leadership that creates problem-solving capacity and learning

The variety of situations requiring leadership means that fixed approaches to solving problems are unhelpful. Contextual awareness is instead all-important – a good adaptive leader will be able to learn from their own experience and apply those insights differently in different contexts. They use the situation as the starting point of the analysis, rather than their own views. They keep an open mind while observing the evidence, before coming to a conclusion.

Instead of asking what personality traits make a good leader, the first questions to ask should be: what’s needed? What kind of leadership is required in the situation to mobilise progress on that work? Once these have been addressed, questions about characteristics, skills, values and default settings can be considered in a more targeted and relevant way. Spending time understanding the situation and ensuring the diagnosis is correct before jumping to action is a valuable habit.

This emphasises the importance of ongoing learning, meaning that leadership strength is developed and built through experience, and not an innate character trait. The upshot is that most people have the capacity to develop their leadership skills with practice.

However Harvard’s Ron Heifetz, one of the key proponents of the concept, argues that there are some necessary individual characteristics:

You can’t take somebody who has no stomach at all for ambiguity, no stomach at all for conflict, and has a very low tolerance for confusion, and say leadership is your professional mindset, because in most settings leadership is going to require the capacity to tolerate ambiguity, confusion, conflict and even disorientation, and stay in the game and not get overly anxious or frightened.

Technical skill vs leadership capability

Heifetz illustrates how adaptive leadership is different from a technical capability with the metaphor of the surgeon and the psychiatrist. Whereas the surgeon can solve the patient’s problem for them by applying their technical skill, the psychiatrist is only able to give the patient tools they can use to solve the problem for themselves.

While many leaders get to where they are thanks to their technical prowess, solving new problems requires a more creative and social approach. Faced with challenges lacking defined solutions, the adaptive leader must be able to empower communities and the staff in their own organisation to address those challenges themselves. Often this involves convincing people to live with a new situation they may initially be disinclined to accept.

“It’s about leaving people with more capacity than they had when you showed up…your job is not to keep them dependent, your job is to demystify and distribute and develop collective capacity”, Heifetz explains.

Principles for practicing adaptive leadership

Heifetz suggests six principles for leading adaptive work.

1. ‘Getting on the balcony’. This means not just observing the ‘game’ as one of the players, but being able to see the state of play from above, surveying an array of relevant factors. These factors might include shifting technological capabilities, changing expectations of clients/citizens, demographic movements, interdependencies and so on.

2. Identifying the adaptive challenge. What are the big problems your organisation faces? What realities are you not facing? Would expert advice and technical adjustments within the basic routines suffice, or will people throughout the organisation have to learn new ways of doing business, develop new competencies, and begin to work collectively?

3. Regulating distress. While adaptive change may be stressful for the people going through it, protecting staff from it will not help – leaders need to stimulate people to adapt to changing circumstances, discouraging expectations that executives will take the problem off their shoulders. In this context, Heifetz often refers to “turning up the heat” in the organisation so that people feel the need to change.

4. Maintaining disciplined attention. Individuals, groups and cultures are often locked into their own patterns of seeing the world and acting within it. As a result, it can be difficult to hold attention on the new realities and the difficulties that they present; people are good at finding ways to distract from the unpleasant, which can be a problem when faced with the need for adaptive change. In this context, leadership involves maintaining a discipline around getting people to face up to adjustments they are avoiding and draw out conflicts in a productive way.

5. Giving work back to people. Everyone gains special information from their own vantage point, so over-reliance on hierarchy can mean decisions are not being informed by those with domain expertise. Staff at the coal face often spot changes occurring long before their superiors. Fostering a responsibility-taking mindset about the problems faced will help avoid a mode of leadership where people higher up in an organisation take responsibility away from those who are best placed to make changes. According to Heifetz:

Getting people to assume greater responsibility is not easy. Not only are many lower-level employees comfortable being told what to do, but many managers are accustomed to treating subordinates like machinery requiring control. Letting people take the initiative in defining and solving problems means that management needs to learn to support rather than control. Workers, for their part, need to take responsibility.

6. Protecting voices of leadership from below. The voices of people lower in the hierarchy, as well as whistleblowers, often go unheard in large organisations, despite their potential for highlighting major problems that need fixing. Be careful not to reject such input because of the timing or tone with which it is delivered – such protagonists are sometimes frustrated or nervous and so are not as polished as you might like. Keep an open mind, be aware of your biases, such as mental models and personal views – and remember that criticism of your pet project does not mean criticism of you.

Want to learn more about adaptive leadership?

Generating Creative Outcomes with Communities: Workshop leader Paul Porteous – Director of Leadership Development and International Programs at the University of Canberra, former diplomat, and international lawyer – focuses on the value of collectively exploring solutions to complex contemporary problems. This workshop will be useful for anyone in the public sector keen to improve their community engagement practice. It will help participants reframe the adaptive challenges they face, test different interventions, and expand their problem-solving toolbox.

Towards Strategic Leadership: This two-week residential course will help public sector managers to reflect on and develop their leadership style as they transition into senior leadership roles. Co-directed by Paul ‘t Hart, Professor of Public Administration at Utrecht University and Associate Dean of the Netherlands School of Public Administration, and Robbie Macpherson from Reos Partners, TSL combines the latest leadership and management theory with real-world experiences. Participants will discover how to influence a situation even when they are not ‘in charge’, and to become more adaptive, innovative and resilient, with the skills and the confidence to try new approaches and learn from their experience.


Heifetz, R. A., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Harvard Business Press.

Heifetz, R. A. (2014) Can leadership be taught?, lecture, Harvard Kennedy School.

Heifetz, R. A., & Laurie, D. L. (2001). The work of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 79(11), 37-47.

Donaldson, D. (2017). Can leadership be learned? The Mandarin, 19 April.

Suggested citation: ANZSOG (2017). What is adaptive leadership? Public admin explainer, Melbourne: ANZSOG.

Published Date: 27 June 2017