There’s a problem with #AdaptiveLeadership.

Benjamin P. Taylor
3 min readJan 4, 2023

And it’s actually the problem with most #leadership and #management approaches.

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First of all, what is Adaptive Leadership?

It’s an approach developed over more than 20 years by Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky, and their colleagues at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government

It’s frequently used in coaching and teaching leadership in #publicservices, and I’ll define it around several key distinctions it uses:

· Between technical problems (amenable to expert, authority-led solutions) and adaptive challenges (which experts can’t solve, where the goal is perhaps unclear or disputed, where an adaptive, learning approach is needed).

· Between authority — from role, structure and about providing protection and taking responsibility — and true leadership — mobilising people to address their toughest problems.

And it has a set of strategies about seeing the bigger picture (‘getting on the balcony’) and creating and holding the space where people confront these touch challenges.


So far, so good, right?

And indeed I teach and use adaptive leadership regularly — it has a lot to offer, particularly dealing with messy problems and in breaking people out of some of the limitations of hierarchical assumptions.


The problem is that, in the majority of cases I’ve seen adaptive leadership used as full-on strategy, it has supported leaders abdicating their structural leadership responsibilities.

Just as the push against ‘micro-management’ has often taken away real engagement with the work, and real management and accountability, many self-declared ‘adaptive leaders’ have ended up using the strategies to put people into that space of facing the real challenges incorrectly.

· Instead of ‘framing the adaptive or technical challenge’, every challenge becomes complex, messy, risky.

· In ‘giving the work back to the people’ and ‘resist the temptation to rescue people’, the expertise, authority, and necessary decision-making powers of the hierarchical leader are not used when they should be.

And in ‘allow conflict to unfold’ and ‘regulate stress and hold steady’, I’ve seen unproductive conflicts created and maintained.


Adaptive leadership is a powerful perspective when it pushes off traditional hierarchical leadership and a strong sense of responsibility. It’s a great coaching tool to help people act in new ways and see new possibilities.

But where it’s used as a system of leadership, in my experience, it creates pain.


Am I being unfair with my critique?

Have you come across a management approach that’s really about the whole organisational ‘system’?