How to handle tough challenges and emerge triumphant

Kate Killeen White
Kate Killeen White

Adaptive leadership is a model that was introduced by Heifetz and Linsky and is defined as the act of mobilizing a group of individuals to handle tough challenges and emerge triumphant in the end, writes Kate Killeen White.

Adaptive leadership recognises that there are two kinds of problems: technical and adaptive. With technical problems, a satisfactory pre-determined response is already available and one or more experts who possess solid reputations are sought to address the issue. Overall, technical problems are mechanical and can be solved by professionals. 

Within adaptive leadership, technical issues rely on protocol, procedures, rules and regulations to solve them. Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, depend on dynamic, people-focused solutions. With adaptive problems, there are no trained experts to deal with the problems at hand. Also, no set of established rules or procedures exists to address the issue. In most cases, the definition of the problem is vague and there aren’t any technical fixes. It is in such situations that the expertise of an adaptive leader becomes useful. Such an individual first helps to define the problem and then the adaptive leader mobilises co-workers to come up with possible answers.  

Responding to an adaptive challenge with a technical fix may have some short-term appeal. But to make real progress, sooner or later those who lead must ask themselves and the people in the organization to face a set of deeper issues – and to accept a solution – that may require turning part or all of the organisation upside down. This is the exact point when real leadership can be demonstrated but it is also the point of greatest risk and needs to be carefully managed.

In today’s fast-paced business environment, the old approach of direction being handed down simply doesn’t work anymore

Adaptive leadership principles are quickly replacing the more traditional top-down leadership structure of days gone by. In today’s fast-paced business environment, the old approach of direction being handed down simply doesn’t work anymore. No single person can solve all of a company’s problems, which brings in the need for adaptive leadership. Indeed, Covid 19 has forced us all to change the way we work and it is submitted that Covid 19 not only tabled the importance of adaptive leadership within our Health Services but it has actually served to demonstrate the enormous benefit and success that adaptive leadership can have.

During Covid 19, the entire system, from both a horizontal perspective and a vertical perspective, at government level and at community/front line level, worked together and put solutions in place (often overnight) to manage the Covid 19 crisis. These responses included the development of testing centres, to self-isolation facilities and varying vaccination centres in order to serve the entire population. The varying departments within and across our health services worked together to develop and implement the Covid 19 response strategy and associated solutions. Whilst sadly there have been many devastating occurrences associated with Covid – the health service did stand together to deliver on the strategy. This is adaptive leadership in true form.

Core Principles associated with Adaptive Leadership

These are the five core principles associated with the adaptive leadership model:

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive other’s feelings as well as your own. Adaptive leaders can control their own emotions and handle relationships empathetically. Empathy allows leaders to respond to adaptive challenges because they see the ‘people’ behind the issue.

Organisational Justice

People in positions of leadership need to be honest and open. Organisational justice refers to how employees perceive fairness in the workplace. If adaptive leaders present all the facts, changes are more readily accepted and understood by stakeholders and employees.


A key component in adaptive leadership is to embrace learning and continuous growth. Leaders shouldn’t be afraid to try new tactics to solve problems. They should also encourage innovation and creativity from their employees, even if the solutions don’t always work.


Adaptive leaders should be willing to switch course when something isn’t working. Being open to feedback is essential to the adaptive leadership framework. Adaptive leaders also embrace diversity and accept everyone’s unique perspective on how to solve challenges.

Win-Win Problem Solving

Instead of the classic divide and conquer approach, adaptive leadership requires us to think about how both sides can benefit. External stakeholders and members of the organization will gain more by working together.

Characteristics within Adaptive Leadership Organisation

Heifetz and Linskey also describe the following characteristics in an adaptive leadership organisation:

  • Elephants in the room are named: In a highly adaptive organisation, no issue is too sensitive to be raised at the official meeting, and no questions are off-limits;
  • Responsibility for the organisation’s future is shared: In an adaptive organization people share responsibility for the larger organisation’s future;
  • Independent judgment is expected: An organisation will be better equipped to identify and grapple with adaptive challenges if its people do not expect one person to have all the answers;
  • Leadership capacity is developed: Organisations enhance their ability to handle adaptive challenges by ensuring a healthy pipeline of talent;
  • Reflection and continuous learning are institutionalised: Adaptation requires learning new ways to interpret what goes on around you and new ways to carry out work.

Challenges in Implementing Adaptive Leadership

The adaptive leadership model is all about experimenting, discovering new knowledge, and making numerous adjustments. To sustain change and thrive, attitudes and culture needs to change. However, shifting individuals’ values, beliefs, and perceptions is difficult. Making changes requires an adaptive leader to be somewhat disloyal to their past and think progressively. In actual fact, adaptive leadership requires one to always think ahead. Policies, strategies and operating models are old as soon as they are distilled to writing. Adaptive leadership requires one to let go of the models that have been successful to date and future proof the design and operating models for service provision in order to continuously progress and remain ahead. 

Techniques to Manage Hazards associated with Adaptive Leadership 

As predicted by Heifetz and Linskey, adaptive leadership brings challenges. These challenges can be both external and internal. In order to manage these challenges, Heifetz and Linsky submit that adaptive leaders need to manage their environment (the organisation and its people) and adaptive leaders need to also manage their own vulnerabilities.

Heifetz and Linsky also offer some techniques to deal with the hazards and challenges of adaptive leadership. These techniques appear relatively straightforward in practice but, it is submitted, are difficult to execute. 

To manage external hazards an adaptive leader must:

Operate in and above the Fray

The ability to maintain perspective in the midst of action is critical to lowering resistance. An adaptive leader has to move back and forth from the balcony to the dance floor, over and over again throughout the days, weeks, months, and years of leadership. Taking a balcony perspective is extremely tough to do when a leader is fiercely engaged in operations, being pushed and pulled by the events and people around the leader. The practice of stepping back and seeing the big picture is complicated and can be difficult but it must be done. An adaptive leader needs to carve out time to see the big picture and focus on that.

Court the Uncommitted

The uncommitted are crucial to success. It is important for an adaptive leader to engage the uncommitted and bring all team members along. In order to do this an adaptive leader needs to demonstrate honesty at every level and practice what they preach. An adaptive leader must always act with integrity.

Cook the Conflict

Managing conflict is one of the greatest challenges any leader faces. The conflict may involve resistance to change, or it may involve clashing viewpoints about how the change should be carried out. If managed correctly, change and indeed conflict can be progressive and lead to improvement. An adaptive leader needs to be skilled in managing the conflict to the point where real discussion and decision making can take place.

Place the work where it belongs

Because major change requires people across an entire organisation to adapt, an adaptive leader needs to resist the reflex reaction of providing people with the answers and doing the work of others. Instead, in order for real and sustainable change to occur, an adaptive leader must transfer much of the work and problem solving to others and ensure that work is pitched at the correct level and is managed at the correct level.

Internal and Personal Vulnerabilities

Now, moving to arguably an even more difficult hazard associated with adaptive leadership – managing internal and personal vulnerabilities. The intellectual, physical, and emotional challenges of real leadership are fierce. So, in addition to moving from the dancefloor to the balcony, a real leader needs to regularly step into the inner chamber of their being and assess the tolls the challenges of leadership are taking. Two of the most common and dangerous hazards associated with leadership are the desire for control and the desire for importance. Everyone wants to have some measure of control. Yet some people’s need for control is disproportionately high. That need for control can be a source of vulnerability. Most people also have some need to feel important and affirmed by others. The danger here is that the leader will let this affirmation give rise to an inflated view. 

To manage this, an adaptive leader needs to anchor themselves and must find ways to steady and stabilise themselves. Adaptive leaders need to find a way to restrain desire for control and need for importance. Adaptive leaders need to find a safe place to repair psychological damage, acquire a confidence and read attacks as professional and not personal. To survive, an adaptive leader needs to find a sanctuary where they can reflect on the previous day’s journey, renew emotional resources, and recalibrate moral compass.


Adaptive leaders are open-minded, willing to self-correct and empathetic towards their employees.

As COVID-19 continues to impact the entire world, adaptive leadership has become especially relevant in our health services and across all services. Adaptive leaders are open-minded, willing to self-correct and empathetic towards their employees. In an organisation with adaptive leadership characteristics, every person’s opinions are valued. Each team member is seen to have the ability to solve an unknown problem. When external factors such as a crisis disrupt an organisation, adaptive leadership is needed to find creative solutions. These solutions focus on win-win outcomes and differ from traditional approaches. Although adaptive leadership requires a great deal of effort, it provides substantial returns. Adaptive leaders can enable a firm or organisation to weather storms and rise to the top even during periods of volatility. 

From a health services perspective, as we move to the next stage of the pandemic, it is submitted that we need to maintain a focus on adaptive leadership. The best of staff work for all of our health services, with talent and adaptive leaders operate in every area. It is submitted that we can continue to harness the leadership and talent within our health services and by operating the principles of adaptive leadership we can continue to develop services in a progressive manner by supporting adaptive leaders to flourish and grow, to remain anchored and continue to lead in an adaptive way. The people of Ireland deserve this and our front line heroes deserve this!

Kate Killeen White, Chief Officer, HSE South-East Community Care

HMI Council Member

Heifetz R, Grashow A, Linsky M. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press; 2009.

Heifetz R, Grashow A, Linsky M. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press; 2009.

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The Health Management Institute of Ireland (HMI) is the professional body for healthcare managers across all sectors of the health services in Ireland. Its overall aim is the development of standards of management competence and practice. We inform, educate and involve members and stakeholders in professional development and networking activities.