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Adaptive Leadership

Tomorrow's Academy

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Heifetz warned that there were a number of perils involved in adaptive leadership, because such challenges require experimentation, the discovery of new knowledge, and various adjustments throughout the organization. Only by adjusting attitudes, values, and behaviors could participants adapt to a new environment and sustain such change over time; this shift in values or perspective was the most difficult.


The posting below looks at the notion of "adaptive leadership," leadership needed when the solution is unknown and participants have to be drawn together to discern a new pathway. It is from Chapter 4, Preparing Leadership for the Future, in the book, Deeper Learning In Leadership :Helping College Students Find The Potential Within, by Dennis C. Roberts. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint, 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741 [] Copyright © 2007 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Rick Reis

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Adaptive Leadership


Ronald Heifetz's Leadership Without Easy Answers (1994) asks us to address leadership as it is informed by the nuance and dynamics of the group. He referred to two broad categories of leadership: technical and adaptive. Heifetz defined technical leadership as doing what was required to address an issue or problem when there was a known or knowable resolution. Adaptive leadership worked best when the solution was unknown and participants had to be drawn together to discern a new pathway. Technical leadership was more direct than adaptive leadership and was clearly more comfortable for organization members. In fact, it was so comfortable that members frequently sought a technical solution even when an adaptive response was more appropriate. For example, in a student organization context, technical questions related to participation would include what could be done to achieve more visibility on campus and which marketing and promotion methods would get the organization name out more effectively. An adaptive leadership question would refer to the organization's perceived or real values and how they can be promoted in a way that is of compelling interest to students. Essentially related to public relations, the technical question and response might achieve some gain. However, the issue of how to best promote the organization could be resolved within the organization's resources. Exploring the core values and purposes of the organization requires a deeper level of leadership and adaptive challenges, and it is on these challenges that Heifetz focused his attention.

Heifetz warned that there were a number of perils involved in adaptive leadership, because such challenges require experimentation, the discovery of new knowledge, and various adjustments throughout the organization. Only by adjusting attitudes, values, and behaviors could participants adapt to a new environment and sustain such change over time; this shift in values or perspective was the most difficult. For change to occur, participants had to be disloyal to their past and some of the constructs and relationships that shaped it. For example, if a student government were to consider abandoning formal organization processes such as resolutions, formal reports, and Robert's Rules of Order, they would have to be disloyal to the processes utilized in previous student governments, city councils, and even state and federal legislative bodies. Exploring new possibilities meant entertaining the prospect that current organization processes were ineffective. However, staying with the old way may have obscured the deeper and more important concern related to core organization purposes. Returning to the example of the student organization's participation, better public relations might help, but using a technical approach may also mask the more substantial change that could enhance the organization's effectiveness.

Heifetz noted that adaptive leadership was threatening to organizations and could elicit different forms of resistance. Marginalizing, diverting, and attacking were three strategies that organizations used to shut down adaptive change. These varied in the degree to which they represented overt or covert strategies, but they were relatively easy to spot as resistance. Another attempt that was less easy to identify was seduction or co-opting. In the co-pting strategy, members resisted adaptive leadership by incorporating it into the regular functions of the organization. An Example could be when a grassroots change effort, such as a drive to purchase only clothing produced in work environments that pay a fair wage, was incorporated into the institutional purchasing process. Such a strategy would not necessarily undermine the effort but could slow or reduce the impact of a more active student boycott of sweatshop-manufactured clothing.

Another important lesson that Heifetz offered was that leaders frequently avoided or did not listen to those who disagreed with them. Heifetz recommended doing just the opposite. In order to refine one's own strategy and respond to the questions of adversaries, one needed to listen carefully to the reservations others expressed. Listening does not mean abandoning one's goal but does push one to become better informed of others' reservations and thus work more effectively for change.

One of the most frequently cited metaphors from Heifetz's work is the concept of going to the balcony. Adaptive leadership would be most effective when leaders gained objectivity and perspective by going to the balcony to observe the dance floor below. Many leaders failed because they could not see the patterns, nuances, and intricacies of what was going on around them. A skilled and adaptive leader would use one or more strategies to help regulate the tension presented in an organization facing adaptive challenges. The adaptive leadership response included (Heifetz & Laurie, 2001); direction (identifying the challenge and framing the issues); protection (letting the organization feel tolerable external pressures); orientation (challenging current or quickly emerging roles); managing conflict (exposing or letting conflict emerge); and shaping norms (challenging unproductive norms). These adaptive leadership responses gave the work back to the group and sought to engage members more fully so that the best responses could be identified. Only by managing the tension of adaptive leadership could leaders hope to secure the fullest and most helpful contributions from participants.

Another caution Heifetz and Linsky (2002) offered was that those who wished to lead needed to learn to manage their hungers. Hungers need not be avoided but simply managed. The primary hungers they identified were power, importance, and intimacy. Power could undermine adaptive leadership because the need to control and to direct would prohibit others from taking on adaptive work. The hungers for importance and affirmation bred heroic desires and behaviors that robbed contributors of the opportunity to develop their own issues. Heifetz and Linsky proposed that the third primary hunger, intimacy, could result in seeking intimate company and relationships that would compromise effective leadership when left unchecked. There have been numerous public cases of leaders who have not managed their emotions, but the hunger for intimacy also routinely affects regular workplaces and communities where stress or loneliness cause leaders to turn to others for support and solace. Spreading office gossip and using confidants to vent about work frustrations are examples of sharing individuals' personal concerns that may reflect lingering hungers for intimacy.

The insights offered by Heifetz and his collaborators provide powerful lessons intended to help leaders maintain adaptive leadership commitments when appropriate. Falling into the resistance traps laid by others, not listening to those who disagree, losing objectivity, and falling prey to our hungers are all dynamics that can draw adaptive leadership away from its primary purpose: giving the work back to the groups and organizations we seek to lead.

Heifetz has perfected adaptive processes in his teaching. By creating course experiences that demonstrate the adaptive leadership variables he identified, Heifetz extended the relevance of the model while also providing guidance for those who wished to use the model in their own work. This Case-in-Point method has been described by Sharon Parks (2005) in great detail. This method of teaching provides the opportunity to use explicit and underlying issues in the group to demonstrate course content; thus the classroom becomes a studio for demonstration, performance, and experimentation. Although Parks described the teaching methods Heifetz used in a classroom setting, she offered insights that also hold relevance for cocurricular experiences. Most important, the Case-in-Point method enables the shift from positivist and heroic teaching to improvisational and artistic learning. Five elements-conscious conflict; pause; image or insight; repatterning; interpretation, testimony, and testing-form the core of both the artistic learning and leadership processes (Parks, 2005). Conscious conflict involves creating something new from what isn't working. Pause stimulates deeper thinking when the active mind is forced to step back. Image or insight occur when "aha" moments emerge, facilitating the resolution of conflict and students' abilities to interpret their own experiences. Repatterning results when previous assumptions are reconfigured in the light of new evidence. Bringing the new way seeing and thinking to another party or group for confirmation or contradiction gives rise to the interpretation, testimony and testing phase.

Heifetz's adaptive leadership model and the Case-in-Point pedagogy that he has perfected provide bridges between the worlds of studying, critiquing, and practicing leadership. With skillful and deep preparation, educators can adapt the pearls of wisdom in Case-in-Point learning to a variety of settings. The adaptive leadership model also provided a link between the two broad areas that framed the theories we have explored in this chapter. The Making the Match research determined that the two broad gaps in what employers seek and what higher education prepares graduates to do are managing people and tasks and mobilizing innovation and change. Technical leadership, focused on how specific and knowable strategies guide a leader-centric group, results in a type of leadership that is more related to managing people and tasks. Adaptive leadership, focused on eliciting full participation from community members to devise previously unknowable responses to complex and difficult questions, is essential to mobilizing innovation and change.


Heifetz, R.A. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Heifetz, R.A., & Laurie, D.L. (2001). The work of leadership. In G. Goleman, W. Peace, W. Pagonis, T. Peters, G. Jones, & H. Collingwood (Eds.), Harvard Business Review on breakthrough leadership (pp. 131-141). Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Heifetz, R.A., & Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the line: Staying alive through the dangers of leading. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Parks, S.D. (2005). Leadership can be taught. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.