Why flexible and adaptive leadership is essential in times like these

Over the past 18 months, there have been several factors that have turned established orders upside down and demonstrated the need for adaptability in business. Social unrest, environmental concerns, and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic have left an indelible mark on the business world. Ramifications are likely to continue for many years to come.

Businesses have needed to adapt and respond to the largest ever mass remote working experiment. Across all economies, industrial sectors, and organizations, we have discovered why flexible and adaptive leadership is essential. 

Those organizations that have failed (large and small) have been the ones that, for the most part, have been roadblocked by systems, processes, and strategies that have not been able to keep up with the unprecedented pace of change. 

In this article, I examine the adaptive leadership model in a little more detail and the advantages and disadvantages of flexible and adaptive leadership.

What is adaptive leadership? 

Adaptive leadership is the ability to adapt a leadership style depending on the situation and the people in that situation. It is a way of leading that assumes all people have the capacity to take responsibility for their development and growth.

Adaptive leadership starts with high emotional intelligence and self-awareness. Leaders are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, and this can be used to improve their decision-making: leaders need to know themselves to know how best they can lead others.

Adaptive leadership recognizes the importance of enhancing critical thinking skills and giving employees time to question assumptions, explore options, test ideas, reflect on what they are learning, and make their own decisions. It is a form of leadership that empowers people to create their own futures.

As we have seen through the trials of the global reaction to COVID-19, there are times when people may need a more directive approach and other times where they might want more freedom in getting things done. Those who practice adaptive leadership are equipped to lead with this flexible approach.

Principles of adaptive leadership 

The concept of adaptive leadership was first introduced by Ronald Heifetz (of Harvard Kennedy School, the public policy school of Harvard University) in the 1980s and has since been widely adopted by organizations across the world to address emerging challenges.

In the past, decision-makers had a rigid framework for how they would behave in certain situations. The current environment is too dynamic for such pre-existing frameworks. Today’s challenges rarely have a clear solution. Therefore, organizations need new ways of thinking. 

Adaptive leadership can be defined as the ability to change direction and adapt to a situation while remaining true to your values and mission.

The principles of adaptive leadership are:

  • Organizational justice

Ingenuity and creativity are required to solve problems that are ambiguous and unclear. Team members must be given the opportunity to express opinions and use their experience to help in this process. This involvement gives people more meaning in their day-to-day work, and this helps to promote the employee engagement that is needed to implement solutions.

  • Emotional intelligence

Adaptive leaders must be able to recognize their own emotional reactions and manage them, as well as those of others. Why? Because the ability to adapt necessarily requires people to let go of familiar processes to adapt to new ways of working.

  • Development

An adaptive challenge must be solved through experimentation of leadership styles and approaches. Adaptive work is shaped by learning from failures and the discovery of new solutions. Of the advantages of adaptive leadership is its ability to motivate continual learning and improvement.

  • Character

The adaptive leader understands that their success is founded on trust. They lead with character, applying the same principles and code of ethics to themselves that they do to others. Transparency and respect are watchwords of this leadership model.

The benefits of adaptive leadership 

Adaptive leadership can be beneficial, but it doesn’t come without its pitfalls. 

For example, an adaptive leader may make bad decisions due to not taking enough time to brainstorm all the possibilities and think about the consequences of their decisions. 

Another disadvantage of adaptive leadership is that it can be hard to find the right balance between giving people liberty and guidance. Too much guidance and the team will not feel like they are in control of any aspects of their own work. Too much liberty could result in a lack of focus on what must be done to hit goals and achieve targets.

Adaptive leaders also tend to be less focused on goals because they are more concerned about the people involved in the process. They also tend not to be able to take control of situations that need asserting dominance.

This said, when it is executed well, adaptive leadership has many benefits to a company’s culture and to its employees. Employees are more likely to feel appreciated when they know that they have input into how things are run. They also feel happier and more satisfied with their work.

Leaders who can adapt their leadership style to meet the changing needs of their teams and environments are better equipped to help everyone meet deadlines, goals, and expectations. In an uncertain world, adaptive leaders are prepared for change because they don’t fear it and instead embrace it.

In short, the benefits of adaptive leadership for business success can be summarized as follows:

  • It makes you prepared for the ‘unexpected’ 

  • It motivates teamwork 

  • It leverages individual strengths 

  • It promotes creativity and innovation 

  • It delivers results in an ever-changing environment

Isn’t it time you adopted leadership adaptability and flexibility?

The goal of an adaptive leader should be to help his team feel like they have control over themselves and their work, so they can perform at a higher level and enjoy what they do. They can change their strategies and tactics according to how their team or company evolves and progresses. 

Among all leadership theories, in an uncertain business world adaptability of approach must surely be the approach that will help a business survive and thrive in the long term.

I’d love to hear what you think. Let me know.

Would you like to hear more about leadership? To book me for entrepreneurial coaching or for a speaking event, please get in touch.

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