What is Adaptive Leadership?

adaptive leadership bridges emotions holy spirit kotter relational Apr 05, 2022

What is Adaptive Leadership?

 Hi there, I’m Clara, and I teach Adaptive Leadership in the Church.  Yes, I hear you saying, but what is Adaptive Leadership?  

Adaptive Leadership is a leadership approach that was developed by Ronald Heifetz together with his colleague Marty Linsky and others at Harvard, starting in the 1980s.  There are three key books about Adaptive Leadership: Leadership without Easy Answers, first published in 1994; Leadership on the Line, first published in 2004; and the Practice of Adaptive Leadership, published in 2009.  If you want my recommendation, read Leadership on the Line.  


But what makes Adaptive Leadership different than other leadership approaches, like Kotter and Bridges?

I teach Adaptive Leadership not because I did a comparative analysis of leadership approaches and decided Adaptive Leadership is the best ever invented.   Truthfully, every leadership approach has its own strengths and gifts.  But I have spent over 15 years studying and using Adaptive Leadership and seeing its power to promote change.  

I’ve seen Adaptive Leadership move a community forward where quite literally decades of various (expensive) efforts have stagnated.  I have experienced Adaptive Leadership as powerfully connected with the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the community.  Someone said to me last year, “Adaptive Leadership is like a conversion experience!”  And it can be.  So that’s why it’s the approach for me.


Adaptive Leadership can look a lot like the Bridges model on the surface.  People will resist chance because of loss.  The work of the leader is in supporting people through that experience of loss and into a time of transition where the real transformation can take place.  Working together, the community figures out how to go forward into a new normal.  Go team!

 But this simple summary obscures why Adaptive Leadership is like a conversion experience. In Western culture (thus, in most Western leadership approaches), we think of communities as groups of individuals.  The leader is a separate person from the members of the community.  It is inherently an us / them dynamic.  

So when “the people in the community” are experiencing feelings of loss, we don’t expect that the leader might be feeling the same feelings.  And we don’t assume that the feelings of the community might influence the feelings of the leader, right?  That would be irrational, and leaders shouldn’t be irrational.

But let’s just think this through: if you’re the ministry leader of a community, aren’t you always affected by the feelings of your community?  Won’t you always consider their feelings before you decide to act?  Just think how often our are decisions influenced by our own feelings about their feelings!  In faith communities, “we” are powerfully emotionally connected with “them.”  

Adaptive Leadership begins with a picture of human communities not as collections of individuals, but as “emotional systems” in which everyone is influenced by the emotions of the community - including the leader.  We are all like teabags, steeped in the feelings of the community.  

Instead of pretending that we can just deal with all of that as “rational beings,” Adaptive Leadership allows this emotional reality to take centre stage.  It is not about whether this is a good thing (which it is) or a bad thing (which it can be as well); it simply is, whether we accept it or not.  So we shouldn’t fight it: we should lean into it and learn to work with it.  That’s what Adaptive Leadership helps us to do.


The heart of Adaptive Leadership is about distinguishing between technical problems and adaptive challenges.  Technical problems are those a community can solve rationally.  You can consult a book, hire a consultant, turn to an expert, or brainstorm calmly in a council meeting.  

Adaptive challenges go way beyond the rational.  They touch on our identity, how we live together, who is in and who is out, and the ways in which our values are out of alignment with the way we actually behave.  In short, they’re going to trigger us (collectively) at an emotional level.  You can’t deal with this stuff without people feeling things.  And that’s why the number one sign of an adaptive issue is when emotions dominate the discussion.  A brainstorming session in a council meeting will only lead to avoidance, or people losing their minds.  

That’s why we need a different leadership approach.  To lead through an adaptive challenge, you lead through the midst of those emotions.  And they’ll be your emotions too.

When we’re facing a global pandemic and everyone’s emotions are all over the place, we don’t have the luxury of waiting until we can lead rationally.  When every fundraising effort is characterized by emotional explosions, we can’t just avoid the problem forever.  When the bullies of a community just refuse to let good things happen, we could just let our fear of them determine the community’s agenda - or we can push back and learn how to be brave.

Adaptive Leadership gives us tools to lead through all this, while staying compassionate, focusing on enhancing collective wellbeing, and orienting the community toward the future.


And for me as a Christian, this is where the Holy Spirit comes in.  I have come to believe that the transforming work of the Holy Spirit happens at this emotional level.  When a community learns how to be brave together, how to trust each other more, how to step into the best that they are together, how to push back effectively against their bullies - that’s some beautiful Holy Spirit work. 

And that’s why I teach Adaptive Leadership.


If you're interested to learn more, check out my 3-session Zoom course, Leading Adaptively, offered in partnership with the United Church of Canada.


Reflection Questions:

  • As you read this post, was there a particular person, or persons, who came to mind, whose emotions influence your leadership decisions?  A vast majority of us say yes, so please don't let it be a source of shame if you say yes too.


  • Think of a time when you held back from a course of action because of how this person would react.  Journal or dialogue with a trusted friend 1-3 different ways that situation could have turned out.


  • Imagine the Holy Spirit gifted you right now with perfect confidence and courage regarding this person.  How would that change your attitude about a decision or challenge you're facing in your community?  How would you be free to act differently?


  • How would your newly-gifted courage free you up to be more compassionate to that person, and to your community as a whole?


Note: sometimes in our communities or our personal lives, we feel afraid of a person because our spidey senses tell us they are actually dangerous.  Abusers and bullies are not rare in the Church, nor in society.  So, please take these questions as prompts for discernment and reflection; they are not veiled suggestions that you should just "pull your socks up" and get on with being brave.  Discern wisely, and process your thoughts and feelings with trusted advisors - don't keep them to yourself.  Then, if you choose to act, use an action-reflection spiral: act, reflect, learn, and try again.  God bless.