Adaptive Leadership, Fact or Buzz Words?

Melbourne University From the SelectedWorks of Derek J Ambrose Dr 2011 Adaptive Leadership, Fact or Buzz Words? Derek J Ambrose, Dr Available at: h...
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Melbourne University From the SelectedWorks of Derek J Ambrose Dr


Adaptive Leadership, Fact or Buzz Words? Derek J Ambrose, Dr

Available at:



Doctor Derek Ambrose FCPA, FCSA, FCTA, FCIS, FIPA, CAHRI, IBAL Copyright 2012: Smartpublicleadership: All rights reserved

Recently I came across several conversations where the colleagues were discussing the virtues of adaptive leadership. Initially I froze with fear on account of here we go again on another buzz phrase conjured up to sell meaningless outcomes, make someone wealthy, and again add confusion to the leadership debate. In my own mind the words of Abrahamson rang loudly in my ears, and are quoted along with other authors in this extract from Ambrose (2009) a survey conducted in 1988 highlighted credibility as an issue in management practices indicating that “80 percent of the Fortune 500 companies that adopted quality circles in the early 1980s had dropped them by 1987” (Abrahamson, 1996, p. 147). From this, it is clear that management practices grew in popularity, and that the cycle time of program acceptance and rejection was, and is, fluid. From a protective instinct, Abrahamson (1996) points out that the desire to appear to be a sophisticated manager seeking to prove worth by implementing and espousing the most current leadership techniques, saw an explosion of consultants and management books as organisations responded to new competitive threats by adopting new management technologies. Adjacent to this phenomenon are Kouzes & Posner (1993, p. 22) who note that much of the “change process that is implemented by companies focussed on superficial trappings”. It is an irony that managerial credibility has been undermined by precisely the same actions that managers have adopted in their efforts to muster credibility (Zucker, 1996). Being ultra curious I decided to research adaptive leadership, whilst having written a doctorate on transformational leadership, adaptive leadership was not a term that I was familiar with. However, before the research commenced I questioned my colleagues as to what did adaptive leadership actually mean? To which they answered, you know, it means leadership adapting to demands and situations, leadership providing innovation, and leaders being the best positioned to be adaptive. From this explanation I pondered, that to my thinking adaptive leadership was little more than actually dealing with the situation, and adapting the resource or input to achieve the desire outcome, so maybe I am missing something here? Well let’s go and do some research to find out what people are writing about, and why is it selling? And why the hype? In the first instance let’s look at the definition. The Macquarie dictionary states adaptive being an adjective meaning to make suitable; adjust or modify fittingly, leadership is not defined, as no exact definition can be agreed upon. Therefore, we have an adjective that 2 Copyright 2012. Smartpublicleadership. All rights Reserved.

describes an action, and a non definition of leadership, but we can live with the leadership outcome, as most of us have a general understanding of leadership. So the question is asked how the above has been turned into a leadership style. Some academics, and authors have decided it’s a leadership style, books have been written, explanations posted on the internet and so on. However, I provide you with this thought. Isn’t adaptive leadership inherent in everyone’s daily activity of survival in life, and the workplace?

As for example we adapt to changing situations, there is no cereal in the

cupboard for breakfast so we have toast, that’s being adaptive. The Manager at work says we are behind on filling the orders, so the management and plant workers decide to work extra hours to meet demand, which again is being adaptive and displays normal leadership practices and undertakings.

Urgent correspondence arrives, so the employee adapts by

making that a priority, and addresses it straight away, adaptive again. I suggest it’s very obvious that the terminology “Adaptive Leadership” maybe just that, a terminology, that is not new, and has been inherent in civilisation for a very long time, and has not been provided the credibility by the prominent researchers into leadership of recent times. Therefore, Abrahamson’s words are like the reality check of here we go again with another fad, not supported by enough empirical research to establish its validity. In an effort to appease my debate, I produced a matrix on adaptive leadership and measured it against the transformational leadership style, matrix attached, and found that all of the proposed specialties of adaptive leadership are certainly ingrained into transformational leadership. Whilst not being opposed to considering any new knowledge, in the leadership construct and context, the introduction of buzz words without being supported does little to add to the knowledge. This type of activity increases confusion in leadership understanding. It maybe reminiscent of someone searching for leadership “nirvana”. For which I might add, I am sure as social beings being a component of social science we have not yet reached the pinnacle in understanding leadership on what we already know through the literature. Another one of my thoughts is that “Adaptive Leadership” as a leadership style encompasses an old one but a good one, “that there is nothing new under the sun”. This caption readily rushes to my collective thinking, and unfortunately for me adaptive leadership is on my

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discovery just that, an action, common to everyone, that has been around since mankind existed. For those who are considering, searching and evaluating the leadership landscape, may I suggest to you that you need to reflect on the adjective of “adaptive leadership” and new leadership theories, with the litmus test being, is that theories, or ideas need to be in the first instance empirically tested and sustainable, and how does it compare against the accepted literature? I will leave you to think through this question and form your own evaluation. Written by Doctor Derek Ambrose, Australia’s leading academic in public sector transformational leadership. 5/1/2012


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Transformation Leadership (TL)

Heifetz et al believe that leadership is, at its essence, about influencing change that builds and enables the capacity of individuals and organizations to thrive. Specifically, that leadership is the practice of mobilizing groups of people to tackle tough challenges and thrive. The bottom line is that leaders need to understand the importance of adaptation and are able to employ the relevant processes and tools to build the adaptive capacity of organizations. What does it mean to be adaptive?

Increases efficiency by moving decisionmaking responsibility to the frontline. Efficiency is achieved with limited supervision. To make frontline responsibility effective, leadership must give workers the opportunity to develop quality decision-making skills and learn to trust them.

The word “adaptive” in adaptive leadership is drawn from evolutionary biology and refers to the process that organisms follow if they are going to survive and thrive. The three components of this process (applied to organizations) are to 1) preserve the organizational elements necessary for survival, 2) remove (or modify) the elements that are no longer necessary or useful, and 3) create (aka innovate) new arrangements that enable the organization to thrive.

All the TL leadership dimensions naturally preserve and improve organisational elements TL leadership dimensions are measured to provide modification and improvement All TL leadership dimensions enable organisations and more importantly individuals to thrive. Difference here is that adaptive seems to be structured only at THE ORGAINSATIONAL LEVEL, whereas TL is at the Organizational, leader and follower level.

What does it mean to thrive? In adaptive leadership, to thrive is to develop new capabilities and strategies to address changes in the environment (e.g. industry) and realize strategic vision and goals. The key for an adaptive leader is to understand what it means for a specific organization to thrive, and then help make that happen. To thrive is to successfully adapt to circumstances, make desired changes, and stay anchored to what is best about the organization in the process. This requires an appreciation for the core values, purposes (whether explicit or implicit), and the history of the organization.

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TL develops new capabilities and improves capacities Suggest that to thrive is the main core of every organisation, nothing new!! Adapt to circumstances is covered in TL through Being Entrepreneurial, Resolving Complex Problems All TL leadership dimensions incorporate the ability to make informed and measured improvements that provide the flexibility for leaders and followers to adapt. All TL dimensions are based on values


The adaptive leadership approach views leadership more as a process than a set of competencies. Having said this, the following are some skills, attitudes, and implied qualities that align with adaptive leadership. •

All the TL leadership dimensions cover the so called adaptive competencies that are nothing new of general everyday leadership where people are intent on completing business with the best possible outcome in mind.

The adaptive leader needs to be able to connect organizational change to the core values, capabilities, and dreams of the relevant stakeholders The adaptive leader seeks to foster a culture that collects and honors diversity of opinion and uses this collective knowledge for the good of the organization The adaptive leader knows that change and learning can be painful for people, and is able to anticipate/ counteract any reluctant behavior related to the pain The adaptive leader understands that large scale change is an incremental process and needs to be persistent/ willing to withstand pressure to take shortcuts

What is the theory that informs adaptive leadership? The theory that informs adaptive leadership appears to be more about the nature of organizations than about the nature of leadership. In the writings of Heifetz et al, the clearest theoretical underpinning is the speculation that organizations adhere to the same processes outlined in evolutionary biology. It is the task of the leader to understand this theoretical framework (metaphor?) and use it to guide and strengthen the organization. If you are familiar with adaptive leadership, let me know if you agree or disagree with this notion that its theoretical focus is on organizations rather than on leadership.

What is the theory that informs transformational leadership? Whilst Burns (1978) and Bass (1985a, 1985b) were the initial modern day researchers and the main instigators of the transformational leadership model, several other authors (Kouzes & Posner, 1992; Cacioppe, 1997; Berry & Cartwright, 2000; Cardona, 2000; Sarros & Santora, 2001, 2002; Alimo Metcalfe & AlbanMetcalfe, 2000, 2001 & 2006) have also supported and endorsed the Bass model. The Bass model, emanating from Burn’s (1978) initial model, has been subjected to extensive evaluation and consideration with recent developments, adding to the model espoused by Sarros & Santora (2001, 2002) and AlimoMetcalfe & Alban-Metcalfe (2000, 2001 & 2006). This endorsement has been significant in that a stream of these and other authors have not in context, changed the model to any

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significant degree. Particularly Sarros & Santora (2001, 2002) and Alimo-Metcalfe & Alban-Metcalfe (2000, 2001 & 2006) noting that these authors have developed additional aspects, such as terminology changes by Sarros & Santora (2001) and a new model by AlimoMetcalfe & Alban-Metcalfe (2000, 2001 & 2006). These additions have added to recent knowledge, and further supported and endorsed the transformational leadership construct and its benefits for followers, leaders and organisations. This supports the transformational leadership style as a preferred leadership style for individuals and organisations to adopt.


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Not empirically proven Is based on the organisation only Is based on the notion of being fluid, that is flexibility, so not new Leaders have been adapting to organisational circumstances every day for centuries The definitions are mixed, one is that its organisational based, another, is the difference between reality and vision, another compares the adaptive against the mechanical aspects of an organisation, which means what? A range of different ideas and concepts, not grounded in or supported by real evidence How do you measure adaptive leadership? It’s not a leadership style, it is a process of changing direction and adapting to the environmental circumstances on an organisational basis only It’s not a leadership model or paradigm Its competencies are only a fraction of servant and transformational leadership within the visionary paradigm It is purely an adjective SORRY ITS ANOTHER BUZZ WORD DESCRIPTION

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