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The Importance of Adaptability in Successful Leadership


8 min read

April 30th, 2024

outsourced accounting for SMEs

As a business leader, your job is not only to make decisions on behalf of your company. Your job also entails leading the people in your company. 

Key Takeaways

Whether you're aware of it or not, every leader has a leadership style. This style is characterized by the choices you make, the behaviors you exhibit, and the approach you take when interacting with, motivating, or influencing the people you're leading.

Not every business leader fits entirely into a single category of leadership style. Some styles of leadership are more appropriate in certain situations than others. 

For example, some business decisions might call for an autocratic style while others might be better approached using a more democratic style of leadership. There is no absolute right or wrong leadership style, but some leadership styles can be more effective than others.

One particularly useful leadership style that has been gaining popularity of late is adaptive leadership. Adaptive leadership is particularly useful during turbulent times when technology, the economy, and industries are shifting rapidly. In other words, adaptive leadership is especially relevant today.

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What Is the Adaptive Leadership Style?

The adaptive leadership style was officially developed by authors Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky, and Alexander Grashow in a collection of instructive texts on leadership.

Adaptive leadership is a leadership style that aims to help leaders address and overcome complex challenges through systemic change, pivoting, and adaptation. Additionally, adaptive leadership focuses on drawing input, creativity, and innovation from every level of an organization to effect change - rather than eliciting change completely from the top down.

Adaptive leadership has different models of action such as:

  • Anticipation - Seeing the likelihood of changing needs, options, or trends that will arise in the future
  • Articulation - Communicating the observations and explaining how they will impact the business if no action is taken
  • Adaptation - Continuously observing and learning to adjust your response as necessary
  • Accountability - Being accountable for transparency, openness, feedback, challenges, and communication throughout the process


  • Diagnosis - Identifying and understanding challenges
  • Experimentation - Investigating, developing, and trying new solutions
  • Assessment - Evaluating the efficacy of these solutions

Regardless of the specific model, all adaptive leadership styles are based on recognizing issues, developing potential solutions to the issues, implementing change, and then seeing how well the changes work.

Additionally, in adaptive leadership, problems or challenges are separated into two different categories, technical problems and adaptive problems. Technical problems have clear solutions and can easily be solved by a small team. Adaptive problems are more complex and difficult to define. Their solutions are not usually simple and tend to require input from several people in a business. As a result, adaptive problems take longer to solve than technical problems.

With adaptive leadership, one of the primary challenges is that it requires leaders to push people out of their comfort zones, question the status quo, and gain buy-in regarding new solutions.

The Benefits of Leadership Adaptability

No matter what leadership style you naturally favor, taking a page out of the adaptive leadership style guidebook offers many benefits:

Enables a Growth Mindset

The opposite of a fixed mindset (i.e. the point of view that things are static and can't be changed) is a growth mindset, and the growth mindset is much better for business. In business, a growth mindset allows you (and your people) to continuously learn, grow, adapt, and change as needed to improve, take advantage of opportunities, and overcome challenges.

Read More: The Pros and Cons of Outsourced Accounting Services for Businesses

Visionary Leadership

The leader of every business must have a vision for the future. The adaptive leadership style keeps a leader's focus on the future, as they are continuously looking for signs of future change, opportunities, and challenges. As a result, you naturally begin to develop a future vision for the company and how it will change and adapt to become stronger in a future landscape.

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Proactive Change-Management Skills

Change management is a major challenge for every business leader. However, it is necessary to learn how to manage change effectively because change is always necessary. The adaptive leadership style facilitates proactive - rather than reactive - change. Taking this head-on approach to tackling challenging and leveraging opportunities is much more successful and way less stressful than simply reacting to problems that have already occurred and missing out on opportunities that were not anticipated.


An adaptive leadership style requires and encourages flexibility. This means that adaptive leaders become more open to considering new ideas and feedback that comes from all of the people in their businesses. As a result, fewer stones are left unturned in the process of bettering a business.

The Landscape Will Always Be Changing

Often attributed to the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, the popular saying, "Change is the only constant in life," rings true in the world of business. What sells today might not sell tomorrow, and what works today likely won't work tomorrow.

Rather than fighting the reality of flux in life, the adaptive leadership style leans into and attempts to leverage change for its own benefit.

Stay Ahead of the Curve

Changes happen regardless of what you choose to do in the present. The adaptive leadership style aims to stay ahead of the curve and a step ahead of the competition by anticipating and preparing for change.

Read More: Financial Reports vs. Management Reports: What’s the Difference?

How to Be Smart About Adaptive Decision-Making

Adaptive leadership is most successfully executed when openness and creativity are paired with critical thinking. In a sense, every creative idea should be viewed as a theory and then put through the scientific method of testing to determine whether or not it is a valid change or innovation that should be adopted and put into practice.

10 Leadership Best Practices for All Leadership Styles

Effective leaders share the following qualities and practices:

1. Vision and Strategy

Business leaders need a future vision for their businesses. This vision should include concrete goals (SMART goals are best!) and a fleshed-out strategy for achieving those goals and making the vision a reality.

2. Building Trust

Effective leaders value trust. They work to earn the trust of their people, and they trust the people they choose to hire.

3. Communication and Transparency

Effective leaders are always good communicators. They facilitate open paths of communication between themselves and their people. Additionally, they operate transparently with honesty about challenges, opportunities, and plans.

4. Provide and Ask for Feedback

Effective leaders offer positive and negative feedback and also actively seek positive and negative feedback of their own. They must accept this feedback with grace and gratitude, ensuring their people feel safe and welcome to speak their minds. Opening up to a leader is done at great personal risk, so an environment of psychological safety is imperative to leaders receiving honest feedback.

5. Listening and Hearing

Effective leaders listen. They hear, consider, and thoughtfully respond to the feedback and ideas they receive.

6. Delegate and Empower

Effective leaders trust their people. As a result, they feel confident in delegating tasks to their people and empowering their people to be effective and valuable. Additionally, they provide opportunities for their people to obtain the skills, education, and experience they need to be better at their jobs and excel in the tasks, work, and challenges they are assigned.

7. Emotional Intelligence and Empathy

Effective leadership requires empathy, and empathy requires emotional intelligence. A leader must be able to understand and empathize with his or her people in order to lead them well.

8. Recognizing and Rewarding Success

Effective leaders don't take credit for success. Instead, they recognize and reward their people for their successes.

9. Accountability

Effective leaders take accountability for failure. Additionally, good leaders understand that the pathway to success is paved with failure. As a result, they interpret failure as learning, rather than actual nail-in-the-coffin failure.

10. Ongoing Self-Development

Effective leaders actively work on improving their leadership skills, business acumen, and emotional intelligence through ongoing education and training.

Providing the Information Decision-Makers Need: Outsourced Accounting for Businesses

In every style of leadership, leaders must know their numbers. All leaders must be informed about the actual health and performance of their businesses. Successful business leaders base the decisions they make and also base their evaluations of outcomes on real, accurate, and timely data.

In order to have this kind of information available at all times, your business needs a back office that is working for you. This means having a system that automates as many manual processes as possible while providing you with application options that enable you to track more than just financial data. With the proper tools and system in place, your back office can extend beyond the basics of bookkeeping and accounting to become a powerful enterprise resource management department designed to help you make data-driven decisions to become a better, more adaptive business leader.

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