Applying Adaptive Leadership to a Virtual Workforce

The Adaptive Leadership style is a follower-centered approach that focuses on the leader and followers ability to adapt to change. While the name of this approach, adaptive leadership makes one think that it is concerned with how leaders adapt, it is actually more about the adaption of followers. Originally developed by Heifetz (1994), adaptive leadership conceptualizes the leader not as one who solves problems for people but rather as one who encourages others to do the problem solving. Adaptive leadership revolves around the followers and involves them in making decisions to create an environment in which change is manageable.   

Leaders practicing adaptive leadership focus on how to help people adjust to changing problems and situations. In these situations, adaptive leaders enable employees to solve their own problems and provide them with a safe space to adapt to changes to the organizational environment. Thus, adaptive leaders need to be very aware of the environmental context in order to facilitate this in the organization, such as being able to see the big picture, which in turn helps them to provide direction. The emphasis on this leadership style is on engaging followers in a variety of behaviors to support the workforce. 

Adaptive work is necessary in response to problems or crisis situations that may arise in which there are no clear cut solutions or fall outside of the normal realm of operations (Northouse, 2019). Most organizations have employees that look to authority to handle problems. However when organizations face adaptive challenges, looking primarily to authority for answers can become self -defeating. In adaptive leadership, the leader doesn’t have all the answers but allows the followers the opportunity to creatively find new ways to work with and adapt to the challenges.  

The current COVID-19 pandemic is an example of an adaptive challenge. Adaptive leadership is what is needed in times of distress such as with the COVID pandemic where organizations are having to create new working procedures and processes to ensure operational efficiency. When organizations were suddenly faced with transitioning to a virtual and remote workforce, leaders were faced with a multitude of challenges and issues. Leaders using adaptive leadership were able to function as resources by allowing employees to figure out which solution would work best for their unique circumstances. This adaptive style of leadership allowed more input sharing by the employees because each individual knows what the exact circumstances of their remote work situation entailed and what their individual needs were.  

There are a variety of ways that adaptive leaders can be effective at helping followers adapt to change that will have a lasting effect on their employees in the workforce. 

Best Practices for Adaptive Leaders:

1. By giving followers space to grow and problem solve challenging situations, adaptive leaders facilitate new ways for employees to solve problems and learn from their experiences.  Adapting to these types of challenges requires leaders to listen to the individuals facing these challenges and considers input from the employees on how to effectively adapt to the challenges.  

2. Since the main function of leaders in the adaptive leadership approach is to help others participate in the work which needs to be done in order to adapt to change, adaptive leaders should encourage followers to establish trust and confidence in their own abilities. Adaptive leaders need to facilitate an environment where others are able to be heard on difficult topics, provide space to process information, and to create change within the organization.

3. By putting the follower first, adaptive leaders should demonstrate leadership that prepares and encourages people to deal with situations arising from environmental conditions.  This type of leadership approach benefits not only the follower but also society as a whole.  Adaptive leaders that empower their employees create a safe environment to tackle difficult issues and adapt to situations that lie outside the current way of operating.

Adaptive leaders can provide resolutions to challenging situations by earning the trust of employees and encouraging them to alter their behaviors for the betterment of the individual and the organization. Adaptive leaders are critical in these unprecedented times as situations and circumstances are ever changing. 

By: Dr. Deanna R. Davis, Associate Professor, School of Business, Northcentral University


Heifetz, R. A. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Northouse, P. (2019). Leadership: Theory and Practice (8th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.