Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Creating a culture of Adaptability is Key to Successful Leadership.

Written by: on March 3, 2023

The pace of changes has increased significantly since the beginning of the 21st Century, and success in organizations is becoming more about adapting to the environment.  The challenge of leadership is not just about adapting to the environment but also leading their followers to change and adapt to the environment. People have inertia and resist change; a leader has to overcome this inertia and lead people to change. Some changes are slow and predictable, but others can be both fast and unpredictable, and the leader needs to be equipped and ready to adapt, or he/she is doomed to fail. The Covid19 pandemic in 2020 was unexpected and disrupted life, and everyone was confused and afraid; this was uncharted waters, and everyone had to figure out how to survive. Heifetz, Linsky, and Glashow’s book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, is a hands-on, practical guide containing stories, tools, diagrams, cases, and worksheets to help you develop your skills as an adaptive leader, able to take people outside their comfort zones and assess and address the toughest challenges.[1] Ron Heifetz is a co-founder and Principal of Cambridge Leadership Associates, the author of numerous books on adaptive leadership, and a consultant in adaptive change.


The authors, who have a lot of experience in helping people and organizations create cultures of adaptive leadership, identify two types of organizational problems or challenges. Technical challenges are predictable and generally have known solutions. They can be resolved through the organization’s usual way of doing things. The solutions to these technical challenges can be routinely attended to through standardized operational processes, procedures, and discretion decisions as necessary. On the other hand, adaptive challenges require shifts in the usual way of thinking, doing, communicating, or relating. There are no known solutions. Drawing this distinction helps a leader to step back and be more conscious of his thoughts and attitudes. Tackling the adaptive challenges requires changing the existing order of things. This calls for the leader to be creative in modulating the degree of the challenge to ensure that uncertainty is sustained but can be manageable. Challenges come with inherent risks, and the leader has to work towards minimizing the impact of the risks and ensuring he/she maximizes the gains.

A situation like the covid19 was an adaptive challenge with many disruptions. Leaders had to take steps that minimized risks by adopting protocols that minimized the spread of the disease and losses. Still, at the same time, the adaption of technology that supported remote working helped continuity in their organizations. Many organizations benefited from the lessons learned, and some have adapted new ways of transacting business. A good example is the Hybrid model, where some employees work remotely. In contrast, others work in the office, and the leader has to develop ways of managing the face-to-face group in the office and those working remotely. Razette has helped many organizations navigate these changes and create a new organizational culture that helps such organizations thrive.[2]

The authors attribute the failure to distinguish between technical and adaptive challenges as a key reason for difficulties in achieving desired outcomes. Treating adaptive challenges as technical challenges does not resolve the challenges but rather leads to stalled or problematic change efforts. In today’s rapidly changing world, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership can be very helpful but requires building an organizational culture that continually encourages flexibility and a readiness to change. your handbook to meeting the demands of leadership in a complex world. It can be dangerous, difficult work when change requires challenging people’s comfort zone in their familiar reality. Many people will feel threatened as you push through major changes regardless of the context, whether in the private or the public sector. As a change leader, you must develop a culture that allows people to embrace the necessary change. Ron Heifetz first defined this problem with his distinctive adaptive leadership theory in Leadership Without Easy Answers.[3]

Heifetz, Linsky, and Grashow have written a good tool for any leader to use in learning and applying adaptive leadership. It is a great read that I will add to my library of reference books. In the words of one commentator of the book,  “If you want to help your organization, your community, and your society to thrive in a changing world; If you want to mobilize greater progress; If you want to strengthen your practice of leadership; if you want to help others strengthen their capacity, this book is about the possibility”[4] The book also equips you to challenge the status quo and to build the resilience of the leader to face any kind of challenge. “Adaptive leadership is an approach to progressing on the most important challenges you face….”[5]

Adaptive leadership is also about working with others to achieve your set goals. The authors emphasize involving other people in the change. People will resist change if they are not involved in the process. Other people will just resist and view your efforts as a waste of time and resources because they were not involved; involvement leads to ownership of the process and active participation. The practice of Adaptive leadership adequately addresses these issues and shows how to get people involved. It provides a framework for individuals and organizations to adapt and thrive in challenging situations. Change requires you to challenge people’s status quo or, in some sense, be disruptive, which is not easy work. As you undertake major changes, the political and organizational fallout can be deadly, but managing change is the essence of leadership, finding ways to make it work. Working with adaptive leadership means reminding yourself that it is okay to fail, that people don’t always have to like you, and that you must let go of the past. According to the authors, the adaptive response to the challenges encountered or presented over time to any systematic efforts towards a goal is leadership. This involves two core processes, diagnosis, and action, which must be understood and carried out within the system by the leader.

[1] Heifetz, Ronald A., Marty Linsky, and Alexander Grashow. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. (Boston, MA, USA. Harvard Business Press, 2009).


[2] Razetti, Gustavo. Remote, not Distant. Design a Company Culture that Will Help you Thrive in a Hybrid Workplace. (West Point, MS. Liberationist, 2022).

[3] Heifetz, Ronald A. Leadership Without Easy Answers. (Cambridge, MA. Harvard University press, 1998).

[4] Heifetz. A Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Pg. 1.

[5] Ibid,’’’pg. 3.

About the Author


Mary Kamau

Christ follower, Mother of 3 Biological children and one Foster daughter, Wife, Pastor, Executive Director of Institutional Development and Strategy in Missions of Hope International, www.mohiafrica.org.

14 responses to “Creating a culture of Adaptability is Key to Successful Leadership.”

  1. mm Eric Basye says:

    It seems like you really connected with the book. Beyond COVID19, are there other ways in which this book has been informative for you in your work, or possibly principles you had already adopted prior to reading it?

    • mm Mary Kamau says:

      Thank Erick, for your comments and your question. Beyond Covid19, there are many lessons learned during the pandemic that we are very keen on keeping, and they relate so much to the practice of adaptive leadership. These include flexibility and retrospection; we step back and learn to debrief and reflect on what was done well and what areas we need to improve. This has been very helpful as it has provided a framework for continuous improvement while at the same time allowing the participation of all stakeholders in goal setting, decision-making, and evaluation.

  2. mm Jonathan Lee says:

    Hi Mary,

    ty for your post. What are some practical methods you utilize to develop adaptive leadership in your staffs?

    • mm Mary Kamau says:

      Thank you Lee for your question, I find myself practicing both being “on the field” to play the role assigned to me within the organization and also retreating to be “on the balcony” to watch from a distance. We are learning to debrief with our staff and visiting mission teams to reflect on what was done well and what was not and to take corrective measures. With this learning from The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, I am looking forward to doing it even more intentionally.

  3. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Hi Mary,
    Thank you for your well written post on this week’s reading. I was wondering what steps you might employ to empower your board and workers to be adaptive leader/partners in your work?

    • mm Mary Kamau says:

      Thank you Denise for this question that helps me to think through on how to apply the lessons from from the book. We have been involving the board but in a more passive role which I would equate to tackling technical issues. I look forward to sharing the lessons with our board who can be very helpful as independent observers “on the balcony” and give objective suggestions. For our staff, I would also want to encourage retrospection through having debriefing meetings to reflect on how they can keep improving on how they do their work and solve organizational problems.

  4. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Mary, thank you for this informative post. You write about the need to work with others. When a team faces an adaptive issue, what do you think are the keys to success for the team?

  5. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Mary: I thought the authors distinction between technological problems and adaptive problems to be helpful, too. I had never thought of it like that before, but just the simple act of classifying them helps to approach them differently.

    • mm Mary Kamau says:

      Thank you, Troy, for your observation, for me, this will have an impact on how I solve problems in the organization, and I hope to be more intentional in distinguishing between technical issues and adaptive issues and treating them differently.

  6. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Mary: I find you to be a very adaptive leader from our interactions over the years. Did you find any particular tool either ‘on the balcony’ or ‘on the playing field’ that you would want to implement within your organization over this next year?

    • mm Mary Kamau says:

      Thank you, Kayli, for the compliment. Our work context calls for us to be adaptive because we work in vulnerable communities, and none is homogeneously identical to another. This calls for us to customize our model to every new context. I liked being “on the balcony” to gain a different perspective from a distance or from a vantage point, to ask myself why things did not work, and to have time to reflect. While I have done this unconsciously in the past, I will be more intentional because I have learned how important it is to always be “on the balcony.” It is also important to be in the field to play the role assigned to you, but I will also be intentional in determining when to be “on the field” and when it is important and instrumental to be “on the balcony.”

  7. Elmarie Parker says:

    Hi Mary. Thank you for your thoughtful engagement with this adaptive leadership book. You and Wallace have been growing your organization through many technical and adaptive challenges over the years. In your post you write: “People will resist change if they are not involved in the process. Other people will just resist and view your efforts as a waste of time and resources because they were not involved; involvement leads to ownership of the process and active participation.” I’m curious to learn more about specifically how you have involved your large and diverse team in the process of these changes? How specifically have you encouraged ownership? And, what new insights about this did you gain from reading Heifetz et.al.?

  8. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Mary thank you for your engagement with this book. You note the authors reveal, “Challenges come with inherent risks, and the leader has to work towards minimizing the impact of the risks and ensuring he/she maximizes the gains.” In what ways have you experienced this to be true? What might be ideas Friedman offers that could help?

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