What is Adaptive Leadership?

What differentiates the theory of adaptive leadership from other theories is that it distinguishes the exercise of authority from the exercise of leadership.  When other theories use the term “leader” or leadership “positions,” they are actually referring to people in positions of formal authority.  On the contrary, the adaptive theory proposes that there is no leadership position or role.   Leadership is an activity that anyone can choose.   It is not inherent to any particular traits accompanying a formal position, be it CEO, President, Mayor, or teacher, etc.  

One important implication of this distinction is that there is no guarantee, simply because people occupy positions of authority, that they are exercising leadership.   We muddle the meaning of the term leadership by labeling people as “leaders.”  This results not only in confusion, but also in danger as people become disappointed when those in position of authority, those they label “leaders,” fail to exert leadership.

The adaptive theory distinguishes between the types of problems that leadership addresses.  When an organization or community already has within its repertoire the information and skills required to address its problems, these can be solved by the exercise of authority.  They don’t require leadership.  These are technical problems in that they don’t require new learning or system change.

Addressing adaptive problems, however, requires that in order to make progress over time people, with or without authority, do the work of engaging multiple stakeholders with competing definitions of the problems and of ideas for their resolution.  Leadership then is the activity of supporting/holding/guiding people through this learning, while orchestrating the conflict involved, and on behalf of a better future, connecting the various stakeholders to a shared purpose that allows them to endure the inevitable losses involved in such a process.

 Why Do We Need Adaptive Leadership?

As the world becomes smaller, humanity in its tribal, ethnic, and religious gatherings are being forced to confront long festering conflicts that have no clear agreed definition or quick fix - problems that involve peoples’ most precious values and deepest fears where their identities and loyalties are threatened.  

“Adaptive” leadership is the capacity to mobilize people to address such problems. “Adaptive” in that communities have to sift through what’s precious from what’s expendable in order to make progress towards a new future that cannot emerge because our present levels of understanding and skills are inadequate.


Even though the political leaders who participate in the negotiation of a peace agreement may frequently change some of their attitudes, this is not true of their constituents.  The painful work of transitioning from a relationship of enmity into a relationship of partnership must now begin.  However, the negotiation process does not prepare the warring communities for this.  

Political leaders and their communities find themselves in a vacuum, facing a profoundly fearful challenge that they cannot possibly accomplish, are not equipped to accomplish on their own.  Yet at the very moment when they need outside partners to help them begin moving towards an unknown and therefore frightening future, they are abandoned by the third-party to their own efforts to make the agreement a living reality, as if that new reality was a simple after-the-fact matter. 

The third-party brokers of an agreement may leave behind technical assistance such as economic support or peacekeeping troops.  They may leave in place formulas, "technical" solutions for governing structures.  But the work facing communities at the implementation stage is no longer technical.  Identities are now at stake.  Old world views are threatened.  Peacemaking requires ‘adaptive’ leadership.  

Traditionally, however, third party intervention efforts tend to view the achievement of a peace agreement as a "technical" matter, with the signing of the agreement as the measure of success.  An agreement is viewed, in its own right, as cause for congratulations and celebration.  Often Nobel Peace Prizes are distributed in recognition of this achievement as if the mission is accomplished.  For example, Yasser Arafat, Simon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin, in the Middle East, and David Trimble and John Hume in Northern Ireland, all received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in negotiating respectively the Oslo Accords and the Good Friday Agreement.  Having reached agreement, the third-party mediation team then quits the process.

This is a strategic mistake and morally questionable.  As they attempt to get their constituents on board in the wake of a peace treaty, the pressures on political and community leaders are enormous. The leadership challenges are daunting.  The changes that are required in the social system to permit this change are also daunting.  Abandoning the parties at this stage represents a leadership failure.  Without third party support, we witness many treaties fall apart.

We saw this happen in Northern Ireland.  As soon as the Good Friday Agreement was achieved, Senator George Mitchell and his third-party team left the country, and the peace process unraveled for almost two years. The British and Irish governments had to ask Mitchell to return to re-engage the process.  He returned to Northern Ireland for a second time and managed once more to get the parties to the negotiating table.  However, once again, when this technical mission was accomplished, Mitchell left, even though the participants had not learned how to manage their own process. 

We saw the same dynamics also after the peace agreement negotiated at Oslo between Palestinian and Israeli leaders.  In the absence of third party leadership and support the process unraveled.  Also, in Bosnia, two years after Dayton, Richard Holbrooke admitted that much of what had been announced in the agreement to make the Federation viable was still not implemented.


Leadership at this stage of implementation requires getting people in the warring communities to question their certainties – a profound challenge when each community has done everything to avoid this.  Being open to the “other” means accepting responsibility for being a partner in the conflict.  And accepting responsibility involves feelings of humiliation, guilt, and loss -- humiliation because the victims must accept that they are not just innocent martyrs; guilt because violent acts though righteous have caused death and suffering; and loss because each party feels their world is crumbling when they give up the identity that requires an enemy.  These feelings are difficult to endure.

A peace process however, is not complete until communities who have been former enemies have adapted to a new way of living together. 

In order to fly, birds don’t have to reconfigure their identity.  The capacity for flight is programmed into their genes.  Unfortunately, humans are not programmed for peace.  At stake are values and norms that polarized communities clung to for centuries.  Each has colluded in creating a system to perpetuate a social system based on demonizing the “other”.  Therefore, engaging with the enemy demands a change in consciousness, a new way of being with each other, and a willingness to risk loosening the hold of old concepts and embracing new possibilities. 

The work facing groups at this implementation stage is not technical but rather calls for what Ronald Heifetz refers to as adaptive” work - the process of mobilizing people to address problems that are not clearly defined and for which there are no clear solutions. 

Understood as adaptive work, the challenge of third-party mediation is not simply to arrive at a peace agreement, but to help the parties develop local leadership that deals with the struggles of both finding and maintaining peace through an ongoing evolutionary democratic process.