Adaptive Coaching Strategies for Leadership

Aug 23, 2023

While writing this I researched a misquote that is often used by those who write Chat GPT articles on Adaptive Leadership. Darwin never said that species that adapt survive. He merely said the fittest survive. That’s true for the Adaptive Leadership framework, now a buzzword.

If the theme of adaptation is to survive and grow, one of the seminal books on this was The Living Company written by Arie de Geus, of Royal Dutch Company, the innovator of Scenario Planning. De Geus compared the Living Company to a perennial river with attributes of

  • Sensitivity to their environment
  • Cohesive with a strong sense of identity;
  • Tolerant to experimentation and risk, and
  • Conservative in financing

In this later-day article, de Geus adds innovation and collaboration as critical to longevity


What is Adaptive Leadership?

Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky from Harvard are generally credited with the development of the term and concept of Adaptive Leadership. The idea at the core was to adapt innovatively to changing environments faster and better than through traditional leadership solutions of the 1990s could.

The framework derived from multiple existing Change Management theories including those of Kurt Lewin, ADKAR, etc., and also brought in additional lenses.

What does it say?

Some key concepts of this framework are:

  • Be situationally aware of pain points, challenges, and desired outcomes.
  • Innovate disruptively. Unfreeze status quo.
  • Critically reflect on change.
  • Action Learn leads to a flexible Learning Organisation.
  • Collaborate systemically in teamwork. Empower multiple leaders and delegate them with authority to own and reinforce the change.
  • Bring in diverse futuristic perspectives from all stakeholders.
  • Create a psychologically safe space
  • Manage expectations with emotional intelligence and DEI principles.
  • Use a Win-Win approach flexibly to situational demands.


Adaptive Leadership and Systemic Team Coaching 

Management lore is replete with multiple frameworks from Autocratic to Servant leadership. The underlying factors of the Adaptive Leadership model had been addressed through multiple other models as well. Adaptation is a change model to turnaround an ailing organisation. It is the middle path between discarding all that’s old and being an ostrich with its head buried in the sand.

The systemic team coaching approach is powerful in implementing Adaptive Leadership.

  • Observing, interpreting, and intervening from a larger systemic perspective of challengingly exploring to discover the elephants in the room of cultural beliefs and values.
  • Create awareness of such dysfunctions as Cycles of Failure and Dependence on Authority, and redress them through structural changes.
  • Create a psychologically safe space where conflicts can be encouraged to emerge and resolved.
  • Work towards a system, in which each individual and team can contribute and lead.
  • Develop a system that is courageous to experiment, reflect, learn, and thrive.
  • Help build a leadership style that embeds
    • Collaboration
    • Empathy
    • Resilience
    • Flexibility
    • Open Mind Open Heart, Open Will
    • Action Orientation
    • Strong ethical cultural values

Adaptive Living Companies

Most companies, especially family-owned ones, rarely survive two generations. There are many professionally managed companies that have survived longer than that. A few that have survived and grown over a 100 years are


  • Tata Group
  • Birla Group
  • General Motors
  • General Electric
  • Proctor & Gamble
  • Nestle
  • 3 M
  • Johnson & Johnson
  • Ford
  • Siemens
  • Nokia
  • Unilever (94 years old)

I am sure there are more. If there were well-researched books that compare and contrast the leadership styles adopted, not adapted, by these companies, they would make fascinating and value-added learning. Please share if you know of any. Want to write one? We shall publish!

Ram Ramanathan, MCC
Ram Ramanathan, MCC


Ram is the Founder and a Principal at Coacharya. As the resident Master and mentor coach, Ram oversees and conducts all aspects of coaching and training services offered under the Coacharya banner.

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