Adaptive Leadership: Responding to the (Permanent) Crisis

Groundbreaking leadership theorist Ronald Heifetz has argued persuasively that sustainable leadership is adaptive leadership. In this Harvard Business Review article, he notes that crisis has become a permanent condition, making adaptive leadership even more important for survival, innovation and transformation.

He writes: “The task of leading during a sustained crisis—whether you are the CEO of a major corporation or a manager heading up an impromptu company initiative—is treacherous. Crisis leadership has two distinct phases. First is that emergency phase, when your task is to stabilize the situation and buy time. Second is the adaptive phase, when you tackle the underlying causes of the crisis and build the capacity to thrive in a new reality. The adaptive phase is especially tricky: People put enormous pressure on you to respond to their anxieties with authoritative certainty, even if doing so means overselling what you know and discounting what you don’t. As you ask them to make necessary but uncomfortable adaptive changes in their behavior or work, they may try to bring you down. People clamor for direction, while you are faced with a way forward that isn’t at all obvious. Twists and turns are the only certainty.

Yet you still have to lead.”

The temptation in a crisis is to reassure, to return to business as usual, and to insulate a company or community from outside threats. But this is a mistake, because it can only lead to deepening crisis.

Heifetz (along with co-authors Grashow and Linsky) notes: “People who practice what we call adaptive leadership do not make this mistake. Instead of hunkering down, they seize the opportunity of moments like the current one to hit the organization’s reset button. They use the turbulence of the present to build on and bring closure to the past. In the process, they change key rules of the game, reshape parts of the organization, and redefine the work people do.”

130225141317-marissa-mayer-yahoo-story-topThe new CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, is trying to do just that — hit the reset button, building profits and new projects to get Yahoo back into competitive shape. Although she’s receiving mixed reviews, she’s also being praised for taking bold steps and writing “her own rules.” According to CNN, Mayer wants to work smart, avoiding burnout and increasing communication and strong, motivated relationships.

“”I actually have a very different philosophy about burnout,” she told BuzzFeed last year. “I don’t think that burnout comes from not getting enough sleep or not eating enough square meals. I think that burnout comes from resentment. … It is possible to work ‘too hard,’ but you need to figure out what things it really is you need to stay fueled up, to stay energized, to not get resentful.”

One of Mayer’s mantras for making decisions in life is to a) work with the smartest people she can find, and b) go for a challenge that makes her feel like she’s in over her head. Say, for example, taking over struggling Web giant Yahoo.

Yahoo’s undoubtedly hoping for a turnaround in both its finances and its products, one worth that $1.1 million bonus that Mayer was given. Optimistic observers are waiting to see Mayer apply some of the smarts and aesthetic sense she showed at Google.

“If Mayer were just another savvy Silicon Valley executive who’d spent most of her career at one outfit and never run a company, she might feel like a quixotic choice for a big, troubled public company like Yahoo,” Time magazine’s Harry McCracken wrote last July.

“But she’s Marissa Mayer. She played a key role in making Google into … Google. She’s famous for her obsessive focus on pleasing experiences, and the lengths to which she’ll go to measure whether something’s working for users or not.”

In essence, Mayer is hitting reset, facing the crisis straight on. The challenge, according to Heifetz, is providing effective leadership to change behaviors and create sustainable support to weather the inevitable distress resulting from the adaptation.

In 2001, Heifetz wrote (with Donald Laurie): “Mobilizing an organization to adapt its behaviors in order to thrive in new business environments is critical. Without such change, any company today would falter. Indeed, getting people to do adaptive work is the mark of leadership in a competitive world. Yet for most senior executives, providing leadership and not just authoritative expertise is extremely difficult. Why? We see two reasons. First, in order to make change happen, executives have to break a longstanding behavior pattern of their own: providing leadership in the form of solutions.

But the locus of responsibility for problem solving when a company faces an adaptive challenge must shift to its people. Solutions to adaptive challenges reside not in the executive suite but in the collective intelligence of employees at all levels, who need to use one another as resources, often across boundaries, and learn their way to those solutions.

Second, adaptive change is distressing for the people going through it. They need to take on new roles, new relationships, new values, new behaviors, and new approaches to work. Many employees are ambivalent about the efforts and sacrifices required of them. They often look to the senior executive to take problems off their shoulders. But those expectations have to be unlearned.

Rather than fulfilling the expectation that they will provide answers, leaders have to ask tough questions. Rather than protecting people from outside threats, leaders should allow them to feel the pinch of reality in order to stimulate them to adapt. Instead of orienting people to their current roles, leaders must disorient them so that new relationships can develop. Instead of quelling conflict, leaders have to draw the issues out. Instead of maintaining norms, leaders have to challenge “the way we do business” and help others distinguish immutable values from historical practices that must go.”

Adaptation is a risk. But shutting down and doing nothing in the face of change is far more dangerous in the ongoing, perhaps even permanent crisis of our transforming world.


  1. […] core values like generosity, and personal qualities like curiosity. This kind of team would make adaptive leadership easier, and, if diversity were honored, bring together people with common values who could also […]


  2. […] wrong, but because it’s hard, and true, and necessary. Diversity is difficult because our human relationships long for reassuring connections. I agree that meaningful collaboration, commonalities are only as good as the diverse perspectives […]


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