Six Steps for Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive leadership theory places a strong emphasis on overcoming challenges to achieve success in an organization.1 For school leaders, this means helping stakeholders navigate new and challenging situations that occur in the context of school improvement efforts. As Gina Davenport illustrates in her article on adaptive leadership and equity, school leaders who strive to adopt an adaptive approach should consider the following behaviors when addressing any situational challenge associated with a change effort:

1. Step back to analyze the situational challenge in its entirety. An adaptive leader must move back and forth between acting as an observer and a participant to gain perspective and see the bigger picture. A leader should ask, “What competing values and power conflicts exist in this situation, and how will I consider the entire context in helping others navigate the challenge at hand?”

2. Make an assessment of the situation and evaluate whether the challenge is technical or adaptive. Technical challenges can be solved by the knowledge of an expert, whereas adaptive challenges are complex, fluid, and change with circumstances. If the challenge is adaptive, the leader should consider steps 3–6 below in collaborating with stakeholders to address it.

3. Regulate the distress experienced by stakeholders. Stress is inevitable for those impacted by the challenge, so it is imperative that an adaptive leader monitor that stress to keep it in a productive zone. Create a “holding environment” where people can feel safe to exist in the struggle without feeling overwhelmed by it. This requires providing direction, protection, orientation, conflict management, and productive norms to support stakeholders.

4. Maintain disciplined attention to the tough work that needs to occur when navigating the adaptive challenge. Because change requires people to work outside of their comfort zone, many will attempt to avoid it. Avoidance behaviors can include ignoring the challenge, blaming others, or redirecting one’s efforts. An adaptive leader helps stakeholders confront the challenge head-on instead of retreating from it when the going gets tough.

5. Empower others to take an active role in navigating the challenge. An adaptive leader encourages people to think for themselves and make their own decisions. They also express belief in people’s abilities to be successful in solving problems. Providing appropriate levels of direction and structure helps stakeholders feel secure about the decisions they make as they navigate adaptive challenges.

6. Protect marginalized voices that can be lost or ignored by the majority. An adaptive leader understands that relinquishing control in this way will provide out-group members with the opportunity to be more involved, independent, and responsible for their own actions in the adaptive work of the group, which can ultimately create more commitment on their part.

When adopting these six adaptive leadership behaviors, it is important to note that they often occur simultaneously and interdependently when navigating the adaptive challenges associated with school change efforts (Northouse, 2019).