All Articles Leadership Strategy Navigating change: The essence of adaptive leadership

Navigating change: The essence of adaptive leadership

Navigating change is challenging for leaders, but Naphtali Hoff offers three scenarios that offer lessons in good leadership.

5 min read


navigating change

twomeows/Getty Images

naphtali hoff 2018 cropped

The ability to navigate uncertainty and lead through change has become paramount in today’s ever-evolving landscape. Adaptive leadership, a concept introduced by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, emphasizes the importance of agile, flexible and proactive leaders in addressing complex challenges. This leadership style is not about having all the answers but empowering teams to adapt, innovate and thrive amidst constant change.

Let’s explore some real-life leadership challenges and scenarios to help us better understand what adaptive leadership looks like in practice.

Scenario 1: Adapting to technological disruption

A midsize marketing agency is facing technological disruption in the form of new AI-driven software. The team worries about their relevance as this technology could replace traditional data analysis methods and campaign strategies. The leader recognizes the need to adapt swiftly to stay competitive and relevant in the industry.

How the leader should handle it:

  1. Assess and acknowledge. The leader should openly recognize the technological advancements and their potential impact on the company’s operations. This includes initiating discussions to understand team concerns and the potential challenges arising from this disruption.
  2. Encourage innovation. Foster a culture of innovation by encouraging team members to explore the capabilities of new technology. Create a safe space for experimentation and learning, allowing the team to test and adapt their existing methodologies using the latest tools.
  3. Invest in learning. Allocate resources for training and upskilling. Provide opportunities for the team to learn about the new technology through workshops, online courses or mentorship programs. Empower team members to become proficient in utilizing these tools effectively.
  4. Facilitate change management. Guide the team through the transition phase. Implement a change management strategy that includes clear communication, outlining the benefits of the technology and addressing concerns or resistance among team members.
  5. Monitor progress and adapt. Continuously monitor the progress of integrating the new technology. Be open to feedback and adjust strategies as needed. Celebrate successes and learn from setbacks, fostering a culture where adaptability is valued and rewarded.

Scenario 2: Leading through uncertainty

A global supply chain disruption occurs unexpectedly due to geopolitical tensions. A manufacturing company faces raw material shortages and logistical challenges, impacting production schedules and delivery commitments. The workforce is anxious about job stability and the company’s future.

How the leader should handle it:

  1. Transparent communication. The leader must communicate openly and transparently with the team regarding the situation. Address concerns, share available information and reassure that the company is working on strategies to mitigate the impact.
  2. Strategic decision-making. Engage key stakeholders to assess the situation and strategize for alternative supply chains or solutions. Make decisions based on available information while remaining flexible to adapt as the situation unfolds.
  3. Empower and support. Empower employees by involving them in problem-solving discussions. Encourage suggestions and ideas from the team regarding navigating through the disruption. Offer support, such as flexible work arrangements or counseling services, to alleviate stress.
  4. Resilience-building. Foster a sense of resilience among the team. Highlight past instances where the company successfully overcame challenges, emphasizing the collective strength and adaptability of the workforce.
  5. Continual assessment and adaptation. Regularly assess the situation and adapt strategies accordingly. Keep the team updated on any changes or progress, reinforcing that adaptability and resilience are critical during uncertain times.

Scenario 3: Transitioning to agile work practices

A large corporation operating with a traditional top-down hierarchy changes its organizational structure to embrace agile methodologies. This shift involves empowering cross-functional teams, promoting quicker decision-making, fostering collaboration and encouraging innovation at all levels. However, many employees are accustomed to the hierarchical system and may need help to adapt to this new way of working.

How the leader should handle it:

  1. Communicate the rationale. Clearly communicate the reasons for the shift towards agile practices. Explain how it aligns with the company’s goals, enhances productivity and allows quicker responses to market changes.
  2. Provide training and resources. Offer comprehensive training on agile methodologies for all levels of the organization. Ensure employees understand the principles, tools and practices of working within an agile framework.
  3. Empower teams. Encourage autonomy and empowerment among teams. Leaders should delegate decision-making responsibilities and support teams in setting goals and priorities.
  4. Facilitate cross-functional collaboration. Encourage collaboration among different departments and teams. Create spaces for regular interactions, workshops, or meetings where employees from various backgrounds can collaborate and share insights.
  5. Support and manage resistance. Address resistance by actively listening to concerns and addressing misconceptions about agile methodologies. Offer support to individuals who find it challenging to adapt and provide coaching or mentorship if needed.
  6. Implement incremental changes. Gradually implement changes rather than sudden overhauls. Start with pilot projects or teams to test the agile approach, learn from the experience and adjust accordingly.
  7. Evaluate and adapt. Continuously assess the effectiveness of the agile practices. Gather feedback from teams and stakeholders to identify what works well and needs improvement, then adjust strategies accordingly.
  8. Recognize and celebrate progress. Acknowledge and celebrate achievements and successes resulting from adopting agile practices. Recognize teams and individuals who embrace the new methodologies and contribute to their successful implementation.

Adaptive leadership is not about having all the answers but empowering teams to navigate challenges by fostering adaptability, innovation and resilience. Leaders who embrace this approach can effectively steer their teams through uncertain and dynamic environments, turning challenges into opportunities for growth and development.


Naphtali Hoff, Psy.D., is an executive coach and president of Impactful Coaching and Consulting. He can be reached at 212.470.6139 or at [email protected].

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


Subscribe to SmartBrief’s FREE email newsletter on leadership. It’s among SmartBrief’s more than 250 industry-focused newsletters.