Adaptation is the capacity of individuals, organisations or systems to evolve by adjusting or altering themselves to respond effectively to new environment. Successful adaptations are those that shed or re-arrange what is no longer required to move forward while preserving the essential DNA (values and culture) for survival, and creating or re-arranging the new DNA combination needed to become more resilient and flourish in the new context or environment.
Adaptive leadership is the practice of enabling others to adapt and thrive by mobilising them to deal with complex challenges. Thriving means gaining greater competitive advantage, shareholder value, higher levels of employee engagement, superior customer service, or stronger social or environmental impact.
Adaptive leadership is a practice – not a theory. It is independent from authority and it can be exercised by anyone within the organisation regardless of role or position. And it is most effective when dealing with problems without known solutions.
Technical vs adaptive challenges
One of the most common reasons why change initiatives fail in organisations is that they treat adapting challenges (sometimes referred to as ‘wicked’ problems) – those issues that are highly resistant to resolution – like technical problems – those issues that are easy to identify, well-defined, and have well-known solutions.
Consider this scenario. You are the HR Director in a large company that is planning to launch a new talent management system. Its successful implementation requires over 100 managers to use the system across multiple geographic regions by a certain date. One morning, while driving to work, you have a flat tyre. What do you do? Easy! You replace the flat tyre with the spare – technical problem solved! When you arrive at the office, you find a stack of emails and telephone messages from multiple regional managers and other employees questioning the implementation of the new system. Many people want to talk to you about it, saying you are missing key information. You already know, via the grapevine, that about 85 per cent of managers believe the old system did not need to be replaced, and that everyone is sick and tired of change. This is despite the fact that the communications team has sent multiple messages explaining the business case for the new system. You also know that if this change doesn’t happen successfully and on time, it will cost your company millions of dollars. How can you ensure that all managers will help implement the required changes on time? Can you treat this challenge in the same way you dealt with the flat tyre? I’ll let you answer this question – although we both know the answer.
The main challenges faced by today’s organisations are not technical but adaptive. Adaptive challenges are difficult to define and don’t have clear-cut solutions. They call for new ideas to bring about change in multiple places, and require the involvement of those directly involved.
Adaptive challenges require very uncomfortable work, including, for example, changing attitudes, behaviour and values. They also entail an increasing tolerance for conflict, uncertainty and risk. It is no wonder that adaptive change engenders resistance because it challenges our habits, our strongly held beliefs, and values. But this adaptation is critical to the survival of an organisation.
Core capabilities of adaptive leaders
To be effecftive, adaptive leaders need three core capabilities that match the following three steps of the adaptive process.
- Observe and diagnose the system
The first step to tackle any adaptive challenge is to observe, as objectively as possible, and diagnose the system or situation. This entails getting yourself onto the ‘balcony’ (helicopter view) to identify patterns and collect data without making assumptions or early judgements. It also means resisting the temptation to move quickly into action, as most people do – another reason why change initiatives fail. Be patient, yet inquisitive and persistent – put your researcher’s hat on!
Next, separate the ‘technical’ from the ‘adaptive’ elements of the situation, and diagnose and understand the political landscape by treating the organisation as a web of stakeholders asking yourself key questions e.g. Who are the key stakeholders? Where and what are the degrees of power and influence? What are the desired outcomes? What is the level of engagement? Where are the loyalties and hidden alliances? What are the potential losses and causalities?
- Make tentative interpretations
Observe and develop multiple hypotheses about what’s going on, and remember that hypotheses are simply propositions or interpretations that need to be tested along the way. To assist with this, look at the situation from multiple perspectives and never work alone – always use at least one other pair of eyes.
- Design and implement effective interventions
Design interventions based on your observations and interpretations with the collective goal in mind extending beyond individual ambitions and goals.
Effective interventions that mobilise people require ‘turning up the heat’ in the system to ignite and sustain the levels of energy that people need to be pumped up and deeply engaged. Such disturbance and discomfort enables people to think creatively and to be at their best. The real challenge is doing this without blowing the pressure cooker – work on the ‘productive zone’ of disequilibrium.
Remember, exercising adaptive leadership is dangerous. Always keep your eye on the thermostat!
Sebastian Salicru is a leadership development expert and author of Leadership Results: How to Create Adaptive Leaders and High-performing Organisations for an Uncertain World (Wiley, 2017). He is a business psychologist, Director of PTS Pty Ltd – a Sydney-based leadership consultancy, and an Associate of Melbourne Business School – Executive Education. To take the leadership capacity of your organisation to the next level visit
Leadership, context, and change are inseparable. As the context changes, so, too, does leadership. Business today is VUCA (volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous). This new context requires adaptability to survive – let alone to succeed.