Adaptive leadership

3 min readFeb 15, 2020

In our work on change, we’ve reviewed how to diagnose the system, make sense of it and stimulate it. Often, this involves working with teams. If our societies have been able to form cultures with self sustaining norms which gives our cultures the capability to adapt and scale, thanks to its capacity to internalise the wisdom of those around us and those before us, can teams do the same?

Adaptive leadership is the practice of mobilising people to tackle rough challenges and thrive. It’s about adapting to influences — methods, behaviours and beliefs — from other systems — cultures, fields & organisations. It anchors the ability to change and adapt to changing needs, practices & motivations of citizens, networks and even society within values of public service. It helps you improvise, learn and iterate, allow time for yourself and others to adapt and challenges you to move to the edges to test your capacity (or that of your organisation, neighbourhood or network) to adapt. It’s also about encouraging to challenge the expectations of people you look to for authority and subsequently manage the resistance they may display.

Some of the most adaptive cultures I’ve seen are:

Foundations like ECF who have rethought how to use investment in a way that supports not just individual organisations or projects but the ecosystem through their concept of the Ideas Camp and nudging projects into wanting to work with others to create networked collaborations.

Councils like Lambeth have not only responded to the financial & social pressures that all local authorities face, but conceptualised how it wants to reinvent itself and the relationship it has with the residents & communities it services, through turning it services into cooperatives and defining cooperative behaviours that its staff will adopt.

Neighbourhoods like Totnes are not only putting in practice community-based solutions that help tackle local and global issues, through becoming a Transition Town, but are leading the way for other towns in this network and inspiring neighbourhoods nearby to innovate new forms of democratic participation.

People aren’t afraid of change but of the loss that it may create. I’ve seen various types of resistance to change in myself and others, as well as work avoidance techniques. Adaptive leadership argues that you need to help people navigate through the uncertainty and discomfort the change, or rather the loss/es that they might experience. But what this technique argues is necessary is not making it comfortable for people to cope with change, but to tolerate the discomfort and help people distinguish between what is really critical to preserve and what they can expend of during the period of change. Here are some solutions we’ve used to overcome them!




Head of Policy Design, Scrutiny & Partnerships @newhamlondon #localgov Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese