One of the leading frameworks in leadership training and development today hinges on an ideology called Adaptive Leadership. Based on over 30 years of research out of Harvard University, the framework focuses on helping leaders thrive in the challenging environments of contemporary business culture. Dr. Ron Heifetz and co-author Marty Linsky synthesized the framework as a deliberate alternative model to the traditional concept of solitary, top-down command. The central idea is simple: empowering a team of leaders to organically collaborate with employees is a significantly more effective tactic than always deferring control to a centralized, omnipotent leader.
This concept has been popular in the armed forces for some time, where it’s often referred to as Decentralized Command. Former Navy Seal Jocko Willink lays the idea out in plain terms: “Decentralized command simply means that everybody leads. That’s what you want as a leader. Not just for everybody on the team to be able to lead, but for everybody on the team to be actually leading. It’s often counterintuitive, but it’s also extremely powerful.” At its core, Adaptive Leadership is about instilling the capacity in your employees to independently solve complex issues. Building that capacity centers around five core principles, covering a wide range of important key attributes.
1. Emotional Intelligence
First and foremost, adaptive leadership acknowledges the importance of emotional reasoning in complex decision-making. Accurate perception of others’ feelings, as well as a firm grasp on one’s own emotional landscape, are essential leadership tactics. And that’s because an effective leader needs to be able to handle interpersonal relationships with empathy and sensitivity, and they need to be able to not let their own emotions influence their behaviors.
2. Organizational Justice
While the signifier may evoke a grander sentiment, the meaning behind organizational justice is simple: the processes, structure, and operations of an organization need to be transparent and fair. As soon as an organization starts to feel disjointed, and it feels like one too many meetings are happening behind closed doors, employees can start to feel unfocused and even unimportant. Pivots and transformations are inevitable in any growing company, and honest leadership significantly increases the flexibility and resiliency of your cohort. Nothing discourages employees more than constant changes without proper communication.
One of the most important principles of adaptive leadership is an emphasis on continual growth on all levels of the organization. Every member of an organization should be encouraged to pursue self-improvement at all times. The pursuit of new ideas and tactics should be constant; the best and brightest are always looking for ways to get better at what they do. Innovation and creativity should always be praised.
Also essential to adaptive leadership is the ability to orchestrate all of other principles into a cohesive plan of action. A proven leader can get people on board with their plan with a combination of charisma, data-driven persuasion, and inspiration. And just as crucial as that knack for synthesis is the ability to remain agile and adapt to situations as things change. Course corrections are the perfect opportunity to demonstrate leadership ability and inspire confidence in your team.
5. Win-Win Mentality
Traditional business methods tend to revolve around the idea of aggressively winning every deal to the detriment of the other players involved. Adaptive leadership suggests a more contemporary approach; making every deal as mutually beneficial as possible. Instead of pretending that business is a zero-sum game, adopt a mindset of abundance. The more you get from any given transaction, the more you can give back. This logic applies to deals with external stakeholders, but it’s also useful to apply to interactions with vendors and customers. In some cases, what’s good for a company’s customers can also be good for the company itself. Furthermore, using customer feedback to fuel strategy moving forward can save a lot of time and guesswork.
An Aspirational Agenda
In sum, the five core principles of adaptive leadership are about creating business practices that foster transparency, empathy, curiosity, motivation, and benevolence. True leadership is not about cut-throat competition or self-serving schemes. A rising tide raises all ships, and adaptive leadership presents a framework for turning a team of employees and managers into a fleet of sturdy, agile ships. These aren’t simple concepts to grasp; the real feat is consistent implementation over time. When developing strategic moves and operating procedures, adaptive leaders work to pull from each of the five aforementioned principles. Of course, it’s not always possible to satisfy every requirement, and in that sense, this framework should serve as an aspirational approach, not an all-or-nothing, rigid modus operandi.