What Is Adaptive Leadership? (With Principles and Traits)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published July 17, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

A company's managers and leaders adopt various leadership styles, depending on the industry, organization size, and mission. They can use the adaptive management technique to foster change and involve other employees in the company's management process. Understanding adaptive management can help you implement it in your workplace for better results and improved productivity. In this article, we discuss what adaptive leadership is, explain its principles, explore traits for adaptive leaders, and review the challenges of the leadership style.

What is adaptive leadership?

Adaptive leadership refers to a leadership style that addresses long-term and complex challenges and problems. This leadership technique seeks to use systematic change to solve recurring problems within the organization. In addition, adaptive management thrives on the idea that the best approach to difficult problems is to get input from members of the organization. Unlike traditional leadership, which relies on a few high-level managers to solve the company's problems, adaptive managers adopt the creativity of the entire company to address issues. You can implement this leadership strategy in organizations of all sizes across different industries.

Related: What Is Leadership in an Organization? (With a How-to Guide)

Principles of adaptive management

The four foundational principles of adaptive management are:

Organizational justice

Organizational input is the foundation of adaptive management. Adaptive leaders strive to create an environment in which every member of the organization is heard and listened to. If you want to create adaptive change, it's essential for you to adopt this culture of equality and justice.

Emotional intelligence

Adaptive management values relationships. Implementing this leadership style requires a high degree of emotional intelligence, which is the ability to handle relationships with awareness and empathy. In addition, adaptive leaders communicate with the stakeholders to ensure they're aware of the intended changes and create spaces for them to provide feedback. High organizational morale and positive relationships are essential to successfully implementing this leadership strategy.


This leadership model recognizes the importance of adapting and adjusting to ensure the organization remains relevant in the constantly changing, competitive, and complex marketplace. Adaptive leaders advocate that developing individuals in the organization is as important as company-wide change. These leaders encourage their colleagues to grow and learn through organizational change.

Related: What Does an Organizational Change Manager Do? (With Skills)


Leaders who practise this leadership style demonstrate ethical responsibility. Adaptive leaders foster transparent communication and hold themselves to the same standards they set out for their team. This principle helps them earn the respect of those they lead. Adaptive leaders welcome change and use diversity and challenges to improve the organization.

Related: What It Means to Lead by Example (And Leadership Styles)

Traits for adaptive management

Adaptive leaders have a particular set of character traits. As anybody in this leadership model can be a leader, they can develop their characteristics over time. Some character traits for successful adaptive leaders include:


Employers and hiring managers look for individuals who can work as a part of a team. In most industries, teamwork is a valuable and necessary skill to create a healthy and efficient environment to help the company meet its goals. While it may be helpful to know how to work individually, it may be more appealing to managers and employers if you demonstrate your willingness and ability to work with others.

In addition, collaboration is an adaptive skill because it highlights the differences between employees in a team. Learning to succeed as a group and work efficiently with others who have unique skill sets and personalities can help you show your adaptive qualities.

Related: How to Delegate Tasks at Work (With Tips and Definition)

Willingness to learn

Actively searching for and embracing new learning opportunities is an excellent example of your adaptive qualities. If you've worked with the organization for a long time, you can still find opportunities to learn new ideas. For instance, you can consider working with employees in other departments or requesting additional responsibilities that may require you to work outside your comfort zone.

In addition, your willingness to learn helps you grow in your role and gives you opportunities to improve your expertise and skills. Learning new ideas typically provides you with the knowledge to teach others, which is an excellent adaptive skill you can develop. Employers and managers value employees who can become trainers and mentors in the organization, as peer-to-peer training is an excellent tool to foster individual development.


As the company grows, there may be various opportunities to display your creative skills. For instance, suppose the company experienced challenges with its operational processes. In that case, you can develop new processes and techniques to help the company maintain its productivity and continue its operations efficiently. Innovation helps you think critically and identify resources you can use to improve a particular situation.

Being an innovative employee helps you appear unique because while your managers handle more complex issues, you can use your resourcefulness to solve other challenges. You may possess a sense of natural creativity if you're an innovative person. These skills work together to help you create improved and actionable solutions to challenges in your workplace.


As an employee, there may be instances where you aren't privy to some information or the precise details of a new strategy. There may also be situations where you don't understand the need for a change or your responsibilities in a new strategy. In such instances, being open-minded is an essential adaptive skill because it helps to take these scenarios at face value, remain happy to perform your duties, and assist where necessary.

In addition, this skill helps you listen to others' opinions and ideas and remain open to adjusting your approach and processes based on new information. Being open-minded also entails taking on new responsibilities, asking questions, and personally building relationships with other employees.

Related: Behaviour in the Workplace for Successful Employees


A determined employee can function without supervision, which means having this skill helps you work hard to ensure the company meets its goals, such as objectives set for productivity and sales. In addition, determination fosters other qualities, such as punctuality and efficiency when performing your duties. Similarly, it helps you remain motivated and persist while facing complex challenges associated with a project or task.


Being empathetic helps you understand the feelings of others. It's also an essential skill that encourages you to build and sustain relationships with others. Whether you're communicating with a customer or employee, being empathetic helps you control various situations and inspires you to show enthusiasm for the ideas of others regarding improving the company.

Challenges of adaptive management

Some common challenges you may experience when implementing this leadership strategy in the workplace include:


This leadership strategy requires all organization members to participate in the strategy. This implies that it's necessary for adaptive leaders to encourage all employees to have a shift in mindset and demonstrate adaptive qualities. Accepting change may be challenging for some employees who have no interest in changing and like the status quo in the organization. It's important for you to explain the merits of your strategy and how it benefits each member of the organization to encourage reluctant employees to support the approach.

Related: What Does a Leader Do? (With Definition and Valuable Tips)


Adopting an adaptive strategy implies that some of the company's current processes are ineffective, which may upset those who developed and implemented these processes. These employees may be reluctant to adopt the new approach because of the lack of recognition for what they created. You can overcome this challenge by optimizing the company's current processes rather than discarding them completely. Recognizing these processes' effective and functional aspects and incorporating them into the new strategy can help you show these employees that you value their contributions.

Related: What to Include in a Restructure Organization Plan


The change fostered by the adaptive management strategy is only effective in the organization if each employee participates in its implementation. These changes may require employees to learn new strategies and procedures and change the nature of their roles in the organization, making them hesitant to adopt the adaptive approach. To overcome this challenge, you can adapt training methods to aid the transition process and facilitate learning these new processes and strategies.

In addition, you can consider creating a team of employees who have a proper understanding of the strategy. This team ensures that those who require help and clarification have experts they can discuss with to guide them.

Related: 9 Onboarding Best Practices to Increase Work Productivity


Adaptive management shifts control and power from top-level individuals to other employees in the organization. It may be difficult for some executive members who are comfortable controlling the company's decision-making processes to relinquish the power. Consider implementing the adaptive strategy gradually to help others ease into it. You may also encourage leaders to delegate some responsibilities to others to help them see its benefits and focus on more complex issues.

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