The Better Work Project: Adaptive Leadership

15 April

How do we learn at the speed of change? In this podcast we discuss adaptive leadership. What is it? And how can managers move from a traditional command and control paradigm to one of sensing, responding and adapting to change?



  • Guest presenter Pat Reed details her background in adaptive leadership. Her career began as a clinical psychologist and in criminal intelligence before she was recruited to Walt Disney where much of what we know of complex adaptive leadership originated. She was then recruited to Universal Studios and the GAP. She’s also led the agile community of practice at PMI. She currently teaches at UC Berkeley having previously taught at Denver and Woodbury Universities.
  • Pat explains adaptive leadership is all about people.
  • Adaptive leadership is what leadership needs to be. It originated from Harvard University, from two thought leaders, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky almost 40 years ago when we were recognising the current world of leadership wasn’t working.
  • Learning leadership is absolutely vital. It’s about building capabilities while learning – mobilising yourself and team to work in extreme uncertainty.
  • When teams embrace agility they learn about self-empowered teams, so one question is what happens to the managers?
  • Managers need to take the role of the coach leader, setting the tone to provide air cover and psychological safety.
  • Middle managers have been labelled as the frozen middle. Their role and value proposition changes. They need to replace command and control behaviour with sense and respond behaviour. It’s about everyone taking a step back and finding out how to create value and how we will measure that.
  • The key is setting the manager up so that everyone can learn in extreme uncertainty. So that new role is very important. At eBay they amplified the brand of the 400 mid-level managers as being an agile leader to drive the change.
  • When you create clarity then the role becomes sought after and a source of pride.  At eBay, they created learning circles to help agile leaders to learn from each other. They then built a strong community.
  • Adaptive leadership is intended for anyone regardless of role. It is the ability to learn and take action quickly.
  • The environment that needs to be created to sustain transformational change and success requires clarity of expectation of outcome and to hold people accountable for delivering on that accountability requires trust and builds trust. It requires behaving in a way that all of the team needs are met.
  • Trust and psychological safety are preconditions to operating as a leader with a real growth mindset. It’s important to be self-aware of triggers that compromise your ability to lead.
  • Leaders need to role model and demonstrate courage, trust, and confidence.
  • We need to let go of our judgement that the system is broken, and we need to fix it. Too often we start a transformation effort thinking that this. We have to learn to see the system where it is and help it to evolve into a more effective and adaptive system.
  • Our neural networks are hardwired to default to learned behaviours. Our mind is conditioned to seek clarity and avoid complexity. We have to acknowledge this and threat triggers.
  • We won’t know the answer in extreme uncertainly, but we must have confidence that we will learn and generate new knowledge.
  • A growth mindset is crucial for success. Microsoft is a great example of creating a culture around this.
  • Balancing self-awareness with action is important. It’s a fine line and we need to recognise our habits and triggers.
  • Need to see our role in the dilemma or paradox and then learn and adapt.
  • We need feedback loops to create strong behavioural modification of forming new habits at the same time we’re letting old habits go.
  • Believing ourselves to be an expert is harmful. Things change so quickly.
  • Falling back on old knowledge thinking probably won’t serve us.
  • Thriving in the unknown requires us to be a learner.