Adaptive Leadership: Embracing the Challenge and Thriving

As we're discovering, we can’t just sit this one out, hunker down and weather the Covid-19 storm. There are significant indicators that there is an ongoing need to adapt and continue the process of reshaping organisations and redefining the work being done. Trying to protect existing ways of work in response to Covid-19, with short term fixes, has for many proven to be more difficult than expected, and for some catastrophic in terms of revenue and employment or even closure. 

The other choice for leadership is to press reset, and use the turbulence caused by Covid-19 to build on and bring closure to the past and hope for the future. This involves targeting the core business of organisations in a way that both conserves and reinvents the culture or operational requirements. This may cause anxiety as people experience significant loss of traditional relationships, work conditions, and their way of life that they have previously taken for granted. However, this is not a time to be judgmental of how different people respond to any loss. This is a time to be empathetic and, through a strong sense of self-awareness, being aware of others' needs. Already, there have been many initiatives and creative enterprises that have shown this. Everyone will need other people’s help in some way, and embracing this vulnerability may contribute immensely to improved wellbeing, greater morale and even regenerated job satisfaction. Employees often have a range of strengths that have not been utilised in the past.

To foster the required adaptation, we need to think beyond what are considered best practices - learning from the future as it emerges. These are next practices; strategies and innovations that have not yet been thought of or tested before. This may confront loyalty to legacy practices and previous ways of solving complex problems. Frameworks and processes used in the past may not be applicable any more.

In order to thrive in this new paradigm, we need to distinguish the essential from the expendable. We need to ask ourselves two questions:

  1. What is so precious and central to our identity and capacity that must be preserved?
  2. What, even if valued by many, must be left behind in order to move forward?

Already, we have experienced difficult change due to the urgency of the need to respond to Covid-19 and, to make it even more complicated, the virus is mutating into different strains. Would we have made some of the necessary changes without Covid-19? Some creative and innovative leaders have demonstrated that the art of leadership for the future involves orchestrating the conflict, chaos, and confusion of change in a way that the disturbance has actually been productive rather than destructive. How have they achieved this? 

Adaptive LeadershipFirstly, adaptive leaders have their hand on the thermostat which measures the impact of changes and innovations in terms of how people feel, how their concerns have been addressed and the processes implemented to address these concerns. This involves a high level of emotional intelligence. Also, they have depersonalised potential conflict, remained calm and articulate, and acted politically as well as analytically in a way that reflects their position and responsibility. This has sometimes involved courageous conversations, being honest, authentic and expansive in their emotional reasoning. There is a need for organisations to change their culture to embed this aspect of adaptive leadership. 

Secondly, adaptive leaders acknowledge the interdependence of people. They have the capability of redefining collaboration. They use their leadership to generate more leadership deep in their organisations, and distribute leadership responsibility. This enables everyone to be inspired and be mobilised to generate solutions. The adaptive leader often gives away their authority and ownership, to leverage diversity strengths.

Most importantly, in response to Covid-19, there is a need to balance the managing of critical adaptive responses within, and surrounding the organisation with thinking and emotions. Adaptive leaders are both optimistic and realistic. To thrive in this challenging, sometimes overwhelming, complex environment, they find sanctuaries - a place or action which enables calmness, peace and relaxation - a space to think, reflect or just rest. They reach out to confidants, create new support networks, and do not lose themselves in their role. After all, they are still a mother, father, grandparent, friend or trusted colleague.

Mā mua ka kite muri, Mā muri ka ora a mua.

Those who lead, give sight to those who follow. Those who follow, give life to those who lead.

Authored by Craig McDowell, facilitator and coach.

If you’d like to learn more about adaptive leadership, contact Nicky or Kyran - 03 943 2373 or


Ron Heifetz et al
Otto Scharmer