Adaptive Leadership versus Authoritative Expertise

Leadership always occurs within a context. The type of leadership required – the leader that will be most successful – is that which best reflects the context within which it operates. If the world around us – including the global systems, our industry, our organisation, and our team – is changing dramatically, then our definitions of what good leadership looks like also need to change.

Our societies are changing rapidly from those based on structures of hierarchies and standard answers to ones that are constantly changing (even volatile), interconnected, networked, ambiguous and increasingly complex. Our leadership models must adapt to this new world.

One the experts doing significant work on trying to understand what leadership should look like in these turbulent times is Prof Ron Heifetz of Harvard. He has suggested a model he calls ‘Adaptive Leadership’. To explain the concept, he contrasts his model to traditional leadership (the type most iconically taught on MBA courses around the world – including Harvard). The traditional model might be called ‘Authoritative Expertise’.

In a world where the problems are known and the solutions clear, what we need is a leader who can “get the job done”. We need a leader with authoritative expertise who can deliver the desired results, using an agreed set of methods to deal with a clearly defined issue. You want these types of leaders when you have a crisis: the airplane’s engine is on fire; or when you’re doing something life threatening, like open heart surgery. Or during times of “business as usual”. These leaders know what they’re doing, they have experience and we should do what they tell us to.

But what about those situations where the solutions are unclear, or even unknown. Even more difficult: what about those situations where the problem (or set of problems) is not clear? In this environment, authoritative experts can actually do untold damage. In these environments, we need adaptive leaders.

Heifetz makes these points about adaptive leaders: The point of “adaptive” leadership is to do for an organisation what adaptation does in nature. In nature, a successful adaptation results in an organism being able to thrive in a challenging and changing environment. Survival is not enough. Organisms that are merely surviving will die the moment the environment becomes a little challenging. To survive, you must thrive. You can then handle challenge and stress by quickly developing a new adaptability in order to maintain itself in that stressed environment. In nature, there are three main tasks for adaptation: what DNA will we keep; what DNA will we discard; what innovation do we need to deal with the change around us. This is a metaphor for what leaders need to do today.


Here is a video based on the principles in his book, “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership” (buy from Amazon.co.uk or on Kindle) was captured from a lecture series he ran in Australia. It’s an hour, but well worth the time:

Professor Ronald Heifetz Adaptive Leadership Presentation from Jimmy Tsang on Vimeo.

In the video, Heifetz identifies seven mindsets of adaptive leaders:


    Conserves essential values and capacities: recognises what is valuable and worth keeping, while adapting those things that need to change.

    Experiments pervasively: everything is open for trial and error investigations.

    Scans 360 for new challenges: they don’t wait for challenges to come to them – they go looking for these challenges. This is not just formal ‘environmental scanning’ – it is a way of thinking rather than merely a process.

    Improvises responsively: fast-paced improvisation, which requires taking a lifetime of experience and bringing it together to respond to unique new circumstances. I think one of the best works on this topic is Strategic Intuition by William Duggan (read our summary here).

    Model consistent, orienting values: showing what values mean by their real-life expression is invaluable; wall-charts with lists of values are empty words.

    Have a stomach for losses: accepts that change will entail loss as well as gain, and that you have to move on from the past to create the future. Leadership is hardly ever a win-win game, and leaders have to take tough decisions – but also “hold people tightly”, with compassion and clarity, through the changes.

    Distinguish leadership from authority: when you have the know-how and a technical problem presents itself, then authority is all you need. But in an adaptive situation, we need leaders: people who know what to do when no-one knows what to do.

Our work at TomorrowToday leads us to add a few more items to his helpful list – maybe things that are slightly more practical:


    Seek the right questions rather than The Right Answer: too many leaders are trapped into thinking they must provide all the answers. Good adaptive leaders will ensure we’re asking the right questions. They know the answers will change, but that if we have the right questions we will continue to be able to keep up with these changing solutions.

    Comfortable with paradox: right-right thinking: they recognise that sometimes you have to choose between a right and a right; and that sometimes is no one single correct solution. It’s not about finding the win-win or compromise, but recognising the competing solutions and either making a call to choose one, or finding a way to hold them all in tension. Systems-thinking provides helpful frameworks here.

    Embrace difference: adaptive leaders actively seek to create environments of true diversity – unlike the environments we have now which are often happy to simply create variety, but without pushing forward to an interacting ecosystem that is truly diverse. This is particularly important when it comes to putting teams together.

    Promote dialogue and collaboration: we need people from every part of an organisation to engage with adaptive problems, not waiting for the authoritative experts to show them the way. We need leaders who create this type of environment.

    Focusing on the need for Self-Organization, emergence and feedback loops: this is a lesson taken directly from chaos/complexity theory. As a dynamic organisation adapts it will often do so as a result of unpredictable forces, and much of the change will be unpredictable. We cannot pre-programme the rules beforehand and anticipate every issue that might arise, and so we need to learn to lead and respond without dogged rules and regulations. In their place, we need processes of dialogue and engagement. Ideas, strategies and actions will emerge as a result of generative dialogue. Rapid testing of ideas, strategies, systems and actions, and then feeding back the results will allow any person, team or organisation to change direction and adapt to a changing context.

    Engage in new ways of learning that are risky, uncertain and messy: almost all leadership and management development programmes are designed to be safe, to have predictable outcomes and consistent processes. My South African business partner, Keith Coats, recently wrote about this on his blog.

    Introducing Future Trends: unless a futures context is developed, any strategy for any issue will be based on traditional tools of experience. Although only demographics can be predicted with accuracy, identifying future trends will allow those involved to build scenarios to anticipate the impact of these trends. It is vital to have as many people as possible involved in thinking about the impact of future trends.

    Prepared to unlearn: they hold their truths lightly: leaders who see themselves as the learned may very well discover that what they know equips them for a world that no longer exists. We need leaders who comfortable knowing that they are learners.

This is a starting point for your investigation of this issue. I hope it’s inspired you to move towards adaptive leadership as a model for yourself and your team.

“The thinking that created the problems we are
facing will not generate the solutions that we need.”
. . . Albert Einstein

4 thoughts on “Adaptive Leadership versus Authoritative Expertise”

  1. Excellent, as always. The hierarchical style of leadership is great on the battlefield – to a certain extent – when all the objectives are known in advance. When the “fog of war” descends – which applies to business as well – there has to be a different style of leadership. I know a man who was CEO of a very successful company. He said to me “I had 42 managers under me, no, actually, that’s not correct, I was under them.”

    Someone very successful pointed out that in times of change, the learned are decades out of date, and the learners are the people who can take charge – or words to that effect.

    Why are the learned out of date? Because they were trained by people who trained 20 or so years before. Shades of Alvin Tofler here!

  2. Calera says:

    Very helpful list of traits that great leaders have. Also, that is one of my favorite Einstein quotes! Love seeing it published here!

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