9 JUNE, 2021


Adaptive leadership has proven to be critical as the world navigates increased rates of change.
But what exactly is adaptive leadership? What can organisations do to foster it? And, most importantly of all, what are the personal characteristics needed to support a transition to adaptive leadership?
These are the questions I set out to explore in a recent DeakinCo. webinar with four talented HR and organisational development experts.

Glenn Campbell, CEO, DeakinCo.

Adaptive leadership embraces change, experimentation and innovation. It’s essential for solving problems in a fast-paced world and, along with resilience and critical thinking, adaptive leadership exemplifies the workplace of the future. Interestingly, adaptive leadership also recognises and embraces failure. In my view, we all learn so much more from reflecting on failure than we do from reflecting on success.

However, adaptive leadership is something that must be fostered by the organisation. The best and most effective organisations embrace flexibility and collaborative work practices, while facilitating and supporting adaptive leaders. They value learning, diversity and continuous improvement. Organisations with leaders who are responsive to change and transformation, leaders who build robust cultures and teams, have been proven to thrive under challenging circumstances.

And challenging circumstances need adaptive leaders: people who are resilient and who have a growth mindset. They have an ability to harness the energy and intelligence of their teams to get people working together in agile ways to solve problems.

I spoke with Danielle Phelan, Group Manager for Capability at Silver Chain Group, a national provider of complex health and aged care in the home. “The real secret sauce,” she said, “is being able to adapt and change in a way that helps people feel positive, so that everyone can thrive.” That means it is crucial for adaptive leaders to involve their teams, asking for their ideas, and helping them to be part of the solution. This collaborative approach leads to positive, and often permanent organisational changes, as a result of the challenges that everyone has worked through together.

Sheree Savage, General Manager of HR at ASX – the Australian Securities Exchange – agreed. She told me that the most successful leaders were those who created trust in employment relationships: “Having mutual commitments to each other, focusing on engagement and then approaching the pandemic and the work that was in front of us as a partnership.”

Another person who believes in the importance of recognising and embracing failure as just another part of the journey is Gavin Freeman, an organisational psychologist who has worked with the Australian Olympic team as well as some of Australia’s top corporations. For Gavin, an adaptive leader helps their team members to develop adaptive mindsets too. “It’s a continual learning process,” he said, “and it’s about proactively taking the team on the journey.” Gavin also noted that positivity and optimism are critical to building resilience.

Finally, Dr Andrea North-Samardzic, Director of Deakin University’s MBA program, got me thinking about how we don’t always appreciate the importance of diversity to adaptive mindsets and leadership. “The more you’ve worked with people from different and diverse backgrounds,” she said, “the more you’ve got exposure to those expanded mental models.” To that end, it’s important for emerging and existing leaders to actively seek out and establish cross-disciplinary teams. Adaptive leaders stretch themselves by working with new and different people and are ready to throw themselves in at the deep end. New experiences help us all to learn and grow.

Adaptive leadership is crucial because it’s a key differentiator. It overcomes adversity and underpins success in team collaboration, creative problem-solving and enhanced workplace performance. The effective workplaces of the future, the successful professionals of the future, will be those who embrace adaptive leadership now.

The DeakinCo. Adaptive Leadership webinar is available to view here.

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