Hints & Tips Blog

The Power of “adaptive leadership”

It’s no secret that the Coronavirus pandemic has sometimes pushed our ability to adapt to its limits. But even before the words lockdown, furlough or ‘new normal’ become depressingly familiar, the benefits of adaptive leadership were well known by some leaders. The last 11 months have only highlighted this further, so what is it, and how can we do it well?

Research from Harvard University forms the basis for adaptive leadership, and it was first described in Harvard Business Review in 2009 as a framework that could be applied in both large and small organisations, especially in times of turbulence and change.

2020 was a year when continual and relentless change made drawing up any kind of long term plan and then being able to diligently execute it over time seem like a distant pipedream. So, taking a closer look at adaptive leadership, with its focus on dealing with ‘turbulence and change’, seems timely.

For me, one of the most helpful analogies used by the proponents of this theory to explain it, Harvard leadership experts Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, is knowing ‘when to hit the dance floor’ (perhaps because the opportunity to dance anywhere expect my own lounge for the foreseeable future is also a distant dream!).

They describe adaptive leadership through the metaphor of the ‘dance floor and the balcony’. In other words, leaders need to be able to take a strategic overview of events (from the balcony) but also keep connected to and able to provide responsive solutions for what is actually happening on the ground (on the dance floor).

At any time both perspectives are key, but especially in times of uncertainty and change. But a leader’s ability to be able to not just do both, but move between the two rapidly and frequently, to ensure they keep an eye on the road ahead, but also spot and intervene as necessary when things in the here and now need remedial action, is even more important.

However, in order to prevent a constant change of focus and emphasis, where neither is done well, how do you know when you need to take a ‘breather on the balcony’, and when to get stuck into your ‘best moves on the dancefloor’? Here are a few questions to help you decide;

  • How good are your ‘upward communication channels’, & how likely are you to know about challenges brewing at the front line before they become major problems?
  • How aware are you of the overall ‘temperature’ of the company – do you know how resilient, or otherwise, the team is feeling?
  • Are you connected in with your customer base – do you know how high their confidence levels are, or the severity of the challenges they are facing?
  • Can you realistically see and predict what the level of demand for your product or service is likely to be over the next 1 – 3 years – and do you have a plan to deal with this?

Adaptive leadership is of course about much more than ‘hitting the dance floor’ at the right time, so if you want to learn more about how we can help support you through the next phase in your company’s journey contact  Rachel Hannan.

Or we’re offering a free one-hour virtual coffee and the chance to discuss any area of your business where you feel our help and support.


All of our consultants have successfully run businesses and our practical approach to supporting our clients enables us to share our real-world experience to positively impact on the performance of your business