What is the “Essential” Contribution of Adaptive Leaders?

by | Jul 30, 2020

What has your journey been like over the past few months? Have you and your organization adapted to the current realities or are you still reeling and in shock? Collectively, we are facing an unprecedented adaptive challenge.


What’s an adaptive challenge?

In our current world, leaders must distinguish between technical problems and adaptive challenges (Heifetz, 2009).  Technical problems have technical solutions that can be applied using existing know-how and management best-practices (linear thinking). Adaptive challenges do not have known or obvious solutions. Instead, they require interdisciplinary dialogue to support the emergence of an adaptive approach (non-linear thinking). Most complex challenges have both a technical component and an adaptive one. But simply trying to apply a technical solution alone to an adaptive challenge will result in failure and frustration.

How does it affect your organization?

The current global crisis is reinforcing how difficult it is for organizations and people to pivot quickly and illuminating weaknesses that have been existing within organizations unresolved. Adaptive challenges feel very scary and threatening—they provoke deep fear and anxiety in us. When we feel deep fear and anxiety, we resort to dysfunctional behaviors (such as addictions, distractions, and busyness) to cope with these uncomfortable emotions or numb-out the pain. And in our work and personal relationships we can come across as aggressive, passive, or withdrawn.

Our ability to think creatively and act wisely is greatly diminished when we experience a prolonged threat response.  In such scenarios, we just do what it takes to survive from hour to hour, or even minute to minute. This approach works to a limited extent to help us feel safe in the near-term, but will ultimately keep us stuck in the long-term.

What is your responsibility as a leader?

In order to think clearly and act skillfully, we need to effectively manage our fear and anxiety. This is where true leadership is fundamental to overcoming these behaviors. The essential role of leadership is to support people to regulate their fear and anxiety. In order to do this, the leader must first have the capacity to self-regulate.

Adaptive leadership means dealing with the uncomfortable emotions of self and others in a productive way. Failing to address and respond effectively to fear and anxiety will undermine change efforts and sabotage attempts to successfully adapt to a chaotic business environment and world.

If a leader is not mature enough to regulate their own inner landscape, they will not be able to support others to do so. As a result, such a leader will not be capable of handling the complexity with which they are confronted. To develop the capacity to self-regulate fear and anxiety, leaders can use practices such as meditation and mindfulness at work. The most effective self-regulation practices involve an embodied experience of presence and awake-awareness.

However, due to blind spots, genetic programming, and powerful psychosomatic conditioning, it is nearly impossible to do this work alone. This work is often referred to as emotional intelligence development. Finding the trusted advisor or voice of reason with whom to bounce ideas will be critical to finding the correct path forward.  Whether it be a co-worker, business partner or outside advisor, finding someone to support the regulation of fear and anxiety will lead to creative thinking, skillful action, and adaptive approaches to tackle the extraordinary challenges at hand.

Heifetz, Ronald A., Marty Linsky, and Alexander Grashow. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. Harvard Business Press, 2009.

Elias Ursitti is a leadership development facilitator and credentialed leadership coach.  His professional mission is to help leaders raise their level of consciousness in order to take skilled, wise, and compassionate action. Elias utilizes an adaptive coaching approach in order to best serve leaders and their teams in a range of challenging contexts.

Conscient Strategies was founded with the idea that every organization is capable of thriving through change. With a focus on strategy development, program implementation, workplace dynamics, and leadership development, Conscient Strategies equips leaders with the tools necessary to continuously navigate the constancy of change in ways that not only benefit their team, but, equally as important, their business outcomes as well. From mergers to c-suite changes to sudden or explosive growth, organizations turn to Conscient Strategies when change is threatening their financial health and cultural wellbeing.

Based in Washington, D.C., Conscient Strategies is comprised of a talented group of consultants, executive coaches, strategists, and account executives. The team has worked with organizations of all sizes in the private, federal, and non-profit sectors across the United States and Internationally.


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