The Key To Building Adaptive Leadership

The Case For Adaptive Leadership

Do the challenges you face today seem more complex than they did, say, five years ago? Does it seem like they involve more people or that it takes more involvement from stakeholders to build a solution that works? Is it starting to feel like managing stakeholders is as complex as the problem itself?

Well, you’re not alone.

The types of challenges leaders and organizations face today are increasingly more complex and involve more diverse stakeholders. It is no longer enough to do things better, faster, and cheaper. Today’s difficult challenges require us to create solutions that require us to think differently—radically differently—while seeking to understand and mobilize an increasing array of stakeholders in ways we never have before. These are adaptive challenges and they require more than “business as usual” solutions. They require adaptive leadership.

Adaptive leadership is the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges without a  clear solution and thrive in rapidly changing environments. The challenge is that adaptive leadership turns everything we know about leadership upside down. It requires leaders to be inclusive, regardless of level, experience, function or stakeholder group. It requires leaders to put finding the best solution above their desire to being right. It also requires leaders to trade off the value of being recognized for their years of experience for their ability to accept and adopt a radically different point of view.

The Key To Building Adaptive Leadership

Helping individuals to change the way they view leadership in order to focus on the solution, rather than who came up with it is not possible without vulnerability.

Vulnerability, essentially the willingness to appear less than adequate, is critical to both resilience and adaptive leadership. Adaptive leadership requires us to be inclusive, vulnerable, and to invite other points of view to diagnose and solve complex and ambiguous problems with solutions that may have never been tried. It requires us to be open to possibilities like being wrong or uninformed and to pivot when a solution comes from where we least expected it.

Stress Stops Adaptive Leadership

Unfortunately, when faced with the rapid, disruption that adaptive challenges bring, our human nature is to respond with stress which makes vulnerability nearly impossible. No one leads well out of stress. Harvard professor Chris Argyris’ research tells us that under stress all human beings, even leaders, fall into the same traps that derail our performance.

  • Highly stressed people don’t collaborate well; they focus on being right. We fight to be right and avoid being wrong, to a point that closes off an open exchange of ideas.
  • When faced with difficult conversations, we strive to maximize comfort and minimize negative emotions. We sugarcoat and ask leading questions to avoid telling the truth that might hurt someone’s feelings or raise the tension in the room.
  • We fight to maintain control to the point that it impacts our ability to hear the other party and understand their perspective.

When stress causes us to try to maintain control or cling to being right, it is very difficult to be vulnerable. It’s not our fault. It’s human nature.

When we cannot be or are not willing to be vulnerable, we cannot lead effectively. Transformative ideas may come from anywhere. If we are reluctant to be wrong, those ideas may never come.

In corporations, these traps show up as politics, hidden agendas, and “every man/woman for themselves.” They make it extremely difficult for leaders to mobilize people effectively to make progress on adaptive challenges.

The Key To Overcoming Stress

Over the past 10 years of equipping leaders, we have come to the conclusion that in order to build Adaptive Leadership, we must first build the resilience required to enable leaders and organizations to intentionally over-ride human nature and replace it with something more effective in the face of adaptive challenges. Resilient people, by definition, are less stressed and:

  • More aware of how they show up as leaders
  • Better able to press the ‘pause button’ in the heat of the moment
  • Make more intentional choices aligned to their purpose
  • Are open to the collaboration required to mobilize people to solve adaptive challenges

The point is to build resilience before you need it. Resilient leaders enable organizations to be more resilient. Intentional preparation must be applied to both individuals and the organization to maximize its effectiveness.

If your organization would like help building resilience and becoming more adaptive so you can be energized and elevated in the face of rapid, disruptive change, call us. It’s what we do.

*This is an excerpt from Resilience: It’s Not About Bouncing Back, a new book by Jennifer Eggers and Cynthia Barlow scheduled to be released this spring. More details on preorders coming soon.


  1. Ann Cockerill on May 25, 2019 at 3:16 pm

    You are amazing! You nailed the problems I have and will try to conquer through building resilience before I need it- looking forward to your new book!!!