Are You an Adaptive Leader?

FollowFollow on FacebookFollow on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterFollow on LinkedInFollow on TumblrPin on Pinterest

Have you ever searched on the term “leadership,” either in Amazon books or on Google? Try it. It’s mind boggling how many hits you get in both. So for those in search of leadership tips, it can make your eyes swim sorting through all the options. There’s one thing, however, that all those leadership gurus can agree on: organizational life is becoming increasingly complex. And healthcare is one of the industries leading the complexity charge.

So how do you lead in the age of complexity? The first step is to understand the nature of the problem you’re trying to solve. Does it fit any of the following characteristics?

  • The problem is unclear: you know you’ve got a problem but you’re just not sure exactly what’s going on.
  • The problem is rooted in attitudes, values, and beliefs: the solution relies on the people involved changing how they think.
  • The solution involves many: once you understand the nature of the problem, you realize that the solution involves those outside of your own department, possibly even outside your entire organization.
  • No single entity has the authority to impose a solution: because the solution crosses departmental, if not organizational, boundaries, it requires partnering and negotiation.
  • Implementation requires learning: since the solution requires those involved to change their thinking, they will need coaching and support in reflecting on their own work habits as well as thinking together with others to approach problems differently.

Problems that fit these characteristics are called adaptive problems, and they require an adaptive leadership approach. Adaptive leaders are those who do not impose solutions but rather help stakeholders explore their differences and discover solutions. Adaptive leaders spend a great deal of time asking questions and reflecting rather than directing. They’re what I would refer to as “leader as convener” – they bring key people together in conversation.

What do adaptive leaders do to be successful? Here are typical steps to applying adaptive leadership:

  • Identify stakeholders: determine who the key people are who can solve this problem.
  • Build relationships: take time at the beginning of the process to establish rapport and build trust.
  • Define the nature of the problem: resist the temptation to jump to solutions immediately – gather data and identify trends.
  • Explore the possibilities: practice brainstorming and encourage outside-the-box thinking.
  • Try out options: narrow the choices to the few best options and test them.
  • Evaluate and reflect on successes and/or failures: measure outcomes and impact and determine if you are moving in the right direction.
  • Repeat as often as necessary: the first solution may not prove to be the best, so be ready to cycle through this process as often as needed to achieve the desired outcome.

This last item is probably the most important part because it involves learning. As we have so often heard Albert Einstein quoted, the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Our work lives may sometimes feel insane, but adaptive leaders can help rein in that chaos just enough to help move us in the right direction.

Marty Jacobs, president of Systems In Sync, has been teaching and consulting for 20 years, applying a systems thinking approach to organizations. Her practice focuses on strategic planning, board development, community engagement, organization development, and team facilitation. Additionally, Marty has served on a variety of nonprofit, professional, and school boards over the past twenty years. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Marty received her M.S. in Organization and Management from Antioch University New England in Keene, NH. She can be reached at or


© Marty Jacobs 2012

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in Communication in Healthcare, Complexity in nursing, Diversity, Listening, Nurse Leadership, Teambuilding and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Are You an Adaptive Leader?

  1. Jim Murphy says:

    Adaptive leadership is good stuff, but the often made attribution of the quotation about insanity to Einstein is almost certainly incorrect. For perhaps the best discussion on this admittedly picayune point, see .

  2. Beth Boynton says:

    Hi Marty,

    Thanks for your excellent blogpost. I believe your article will help nurse and other healthcare leaders to make a big difference in patient safety, quality of care, staff morale, cost-effectiveness and patient/consumer experience by incorporating the principals you describe for successful adaptive leadership.

    I would also go as far as to say that most problems we have in healthcare have some ‘adaptive’ component to them and leaders who integrate these principals into everyday problem-solving would find them very helpful.

    Take care,

What are your thoughts?