As the name of the approach implies, adaptive leadership is about how leaders encourage people to adapt—to face and deal with problems, chal-lenges, and changes. Adaptive leadership focuses on the adaptations required of people in response to changing environments. Simply stated, adaptive leaders prepare and encourage people to deal with change. Unlike the trait approach (Chapter 2) or authentic leadership (Chapter 9), which focus predominantly on the characteristics of the leader, adaptive leadership stresses the activities of the leader in relation to the work of followers in the contexts in which they find themselves.
Overall, adaptive leadership offers a unique prescriptive approach to leader-ship that is applicable in many situations. Going forward, more research is needed to clarify the conceptualizations of adaptive leadership and validate the assumptions and propositions regarding how it works.
Headings of the Chapter
Adaptive Leadership Defined
Although people often think of adaptive leadership as being leader centered, it is actually more follower centered. It focuses primarily on how leaders help others do the work they need to do, in order to adapt to the challenges they face. Generally, adaptive leadership is concerned with how people change and adjust to new circumstances. In this chapter, we emphasize the process leaders use to encourage others to grapple with difficult problems.
Adaptive leaders mobilize, motivate, organize, orient, and focus the attention of others to address and resolve changes that are central in their lives. The first step will be to help followers address the challenges they are experiencing. These are some examples of cases where adaptive leadership would be beneficial.
As illustrated on the left side of Figure 11.1, the practice of leadership requires that leaders address three kinds of situational challenges. There are challenges or problems that are primarily technical in nature, challenges that have both a technical and an adaptive dimension, and challenges that are primarily adaptive in nature. Not all situational challenges are adaptive challenges. While addressing technical challenges is important, adaptive leadership is concerned with helping people address adaptive challenges.
Technical challenges are problems in the workplace or community that are clearly defined with known solutions that can be implemented through existing organizational rules and procedures. They are problems that can be solved by experts. For technical challenges, people look to the leader for a solution, and they accept the leader’s authority to resolve the problem. For example, if employees at a tax accounting firm are frustrated about a newly adopted tax software program, the manager at the firm could assess the software issues, identify the weaknesses and problems with the software, contact the company that provided the software, and have the programs modified in accordance with the accountants’ needs at the tax firm.
Technical and Adaptive Challenges
Some challenges have both a technical and an adaptive dimension. In this case, the challenges are clearly defined but do not have distinct straight for-ward solutions within the existing organizational system. The responsibility of tackling this type of challenge is shared between the leader and the people. The leader may act as a resource for others and provide support, but the people need to do the work—they need to learn to change and adapt. For example, if an urban hospital with a traditional approach to care (i.e., providers are the experts, and patients are the visitors) wanted to establish a patient-centered culture; the goal could be clearly laid out. To reach the goal, the hospital leadership, through its hierarchical authority, could provide in-service training on how to involve patients in their own care. New rules could be designed to preserve patients’ personal routines, to give them access to their own records, and to give them more control of their own treatment. However, the staff, doctors, patients, and family members would need to accept the proposed change and learn how to implement it. Making the hospital a model of patient-centered care would require a lot of work and adaptation on the part of many different people.
Central to the process of adaptive leadership are adaptive challenges. Adaptive challenges are problems that are not clear-cut or easy to identify. They cannot be solved by the leader’s authority or expertise or through the normal ways of doing things in the organization. Adaptive challenges require that leaders encourage others, with their support, to define challenging situations and implement solutions.
As shown in the middle of Figure 11.1, six leader behaviors, or activities, play a pivotal role in the process of adaptive leadership. Based on the work of Heifetz and his colleagues (Heifetz, 1994; Heifetz & Laurie, 1997), these behaviors are general prescriptions for leaders when helping others confront difficult challenges and the inevitable changes that accompany them. Although there is a general order as to which leader behavior comes first in the adaptive leadership process, many of these behaviors overlap with each other and should be demonstrated by leaders at the same time. Taken together, these leader behaviors suggest a kind of recipe for being an adaptive leader.
As represented on the right side of the model of adaptive leadership (Figure 11.1), adaptive work is the process toward which adaptive leaders direct their work. It is the focus and intended goal of adaptive leadership. Adaptive work develops from the communication process that occurs between the leader and followers but is primarily the work of followers. It occurs within a holding environment where people can feel safe as they confront possible changes in their roles, priorities, and values.
Another example where adaptive work can be observed is in a public ele-mentary school where the principal is asking the teachers to adopt the Common Core State Standards but the teachers, who have a proven record of success using their own student-centered curriculum, are resisting. To help the teachers with the intended change, the principal sets up a series of 10 open faculty meetings where teachers are invited to discuss freely their con-cerns about the new policies. The meetings provide a holding environment where teachers can confront their deeply held positions regarding the useful-ness and efficacy of standardized testing and what it will mean for them to creative Holding environment to shift to the Common Core. The principal’s role is to communicate in ways that support the teachers in their adaptive work.