5 Essential Adaptive Practices for Agile Leaders


Adaptive leadership has taken on a new meaning during this current climate. It has challenged leaders to shift suddenly, mentally and physically, but also practically. Metrics tracked in February to gauge the health of the business are not the same metrics that need monitoring today. Strategic conversations have shifted to tactical ones. And sensitive topics that would have waited for in-person discussions are now taking place inside a video conference.


Leaders at all levels are drawing upon the critical elements of their leadership brand to help them navigate daily uncertainty. At this moment, the capacity to effectively perform the leadership responsibilities needed at scale in large, complex systems requires the non-linear interplay of priorities, functions, politics, and people. Adaptive leadership has never been more critical toward influencing dynamics in productive ways.


“Executives leading difficult change initiatives are often blissfully ignorant of an approaching threat until it is too late to respond.” ~Ronald Heifetz, the creator of Adaptive Leadership theory


Leadership Competencies of the Moment 

Although we don’t know what will be different on the other side of this present crisis, we do know transformational, adaptive change will have occurred at a deep level. Truly agile leaders need to understand the required shift in their contribution from driving results through hands-on influence to becoming:

  • Architects of change

  • Developers of flexible systems and organizations

  • Business strategists

  • Risk mitigators

  • Value creators

These specific leadership competencies require good judgment, sophisticated and courageous people skills, strategic thinking abilities, and a host of other valuable and rare assets. Most importantly, they are critical to the moment we now find ourselves. The following five essential adaptive practices serve as a starting point for agile leaders:


1. Accept that the playbook didn’t have this scenario in it 

A leader’s ability to tolerate ambiguity, and not act or react instantly, can be especially challenging for those with trained expectations for instant results. As an agile leader, understanding how today’s events will impact tomorrow’s plans is crucial. Adjust to the real business challenges of the moment, recognizing the metrics you previously led with no longer apply.


2. Use the immediacy of this crisis as “case-in-point” teaching 

As an agile leader, there’s no better time than the present to develop your people with real-world applications. Use the fluidity of this crisis to hear different perspectives. Manage conflict that emerges through consistent communication, providing context and insight to the decisions. Model accountability by accepting your portion of responsibility for what unfolds, the good, the bad, and the ugly. This example will set the expectations (and give permission) for others to follow.


3. Increase peer-to-peer learning, sharing, and support 

During unprecedented times like these, collaboration and team alignment across functions are incredibly important. Create an outlet to come together with other leaders to discuss the unknowns, share the questions asked, and talk candidly about what’s working and what’s not. Look for the alternate, and possibly better, future that the present challenge opens up and engage your people in defining change in order to meet that future.  Can your organization emerge even stronger and more rapidly aligned to its future than would have been possible without the disruption?


4. Challenge your assumptions by getting out of your intellectual and emotional comfort zone

Leading right now is a powerful learning experience that is sure to challenge one’s assumptions and routines. Adaptive leadership entails mobilizing others to be a part of the solution, to share in the risk/reward, and to foster individual role ownership and the outcomes produced.


5. Build-in time and structure for reflection and mindfulness 

Agile leadership in a time of crisis means digesting the experiences one has and consciously connecting the dots, so the lessons live on past this one moment in time. Even in this ever-changing environment, time and thoughtful attention—quietly alone—or in conversation with a mentor, peer, or coach can’t be overlooked. Schedule in the time so that you are ready for what tomorrow will bring.

Ronald Heifetz, who introduced the adaptive leadership model with Marty Linsky, defines it as the act of mobilizing a group of individuals to handle tough challenges and emerge triumphant in the end. Today’s crisis will take momentous effort and will not be easy. Developing these five essential adaptive practices will better enable leaders and their organizations to weather this, and future storms, emerging stronger than before.


Written by Kim Bohr

COO and Head of the Effective Organizations practice at Waldron, a CPI Firm

5 views