The Adaptive Leader- Getting on the Balcony during a Crisis

If the global pandemic of COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that serious disruption can happen when we are least expecting it. Workplaces are facing new or persisting challenges each day – and while we work to recover, leaders will need to remain agile when making key decisions.  It’s during these disruptive times that implementing an adaptive leadership approach will become more important than ever.


What is Adaptive Leadership?

Over the past several weeks, balconies across the world have become an influential symbol of resiliency with the parade of heartwarming performances, encouragement and gratitude. Coincidentally, this idea of “getting on the balcony” was first introduced by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linksy, when they developed the concept of Adaptive Leadership: an act of mobilizing individuals to manage challenges and emerge triumphantly in the end.

This practical framework was designed to help leaders and organizations adapt to changing environments – and more importantly, effectively respond. The concept is based upon 6 key principles to apply when managing adaptive problems.  Now unlike technical problems, which often have a clear process and solution, adaptive problems are often vague and complex.  Think of COVID-19 as an adaptive problem.  No one could have predicted which businesses would be impacted, the number of individuals that would be laid off, or the economic impact that may result for months to come.  In essence, adaptive problems are uncertain and uncomfortable, and quite often require changes in our values, attitudes or habits of behaviour.


What Can Leaders do to be Adaptive?


1. Get on the Balcony

The first principle of ‘getting on the balcony’ represents taking a step back to gain a clearer view of the bigger picture and reality ahead. Leaders are encouraged to step away from the conflict or challenge in order to see it fully and ask ‘What is going on here?’  Effective leaders resist the tendency to be swept up in the action and are able to move back and forth from an active and reflective position. Looking at the problem from the balcony allows leaders to better observe patterns and identify the best move forward.


2. Identify the Adaptive Challenge

It’s common that complex challenges will have both technical and adaptive elements; therefore leaders will need to diagnose the areas that require technical solutions and/or adaptive work. Will technical adjustments and expert advice suffice, or will people need to learn new ways to proceed? What exactly needs to be worked on, and what are the values, beliefs or attitudes that will need to change in the workplace?


3. Regulate Distress

Feeling distress during change is inevitable, yet too much distress can be debilitating. Adaptive leaders must create an environment where people can explore new learning and maintain a productive level of tension without an overwhelming amount of change.

The reality is that people can learn only so much so fast.  This principle is all about the ability to model an emotional capacity to tolerate uncertainty and frustration. Leaders should draw attention to the tough questions and conflict; while at the same time establish a method towards problem solving.


4. Maintain Disciplined Attention

This principle requires that leaders encourage people to focus on the tough work they need to do. Unfortunately, this does not always come easy, as some people naturally dislike change. Leaders need to remind people why it is important to accept change rather than avoid it, or displace the responsibility on others. The adaptive leader’s role is to encourage people to drop their defenses and openly confront their problems.


5. Give work back to the people

In times of crisis, people often expect leaders to step in to make decisions and resolve the problem. Although this expectation may be essential in many cases, adaptive leaders challenge this expectation and encourage people to take responsibility during the change process.  Rather than micro-manage, adaptive leaders must learn to support and instill the confidence in their people.


6. Protect the voices from below

It can often be tough for those in lower levels of the organization to speak up and voice their concerns. Adaptive leaders act as their voice to ensure that all opinions and interests regarding change are considered. Likewise, they ensure that any dominant views are questioned. It’s important that leaders resist the tendency to lessen or ignore minority voices for the sake of pleasing the majority. This requires leaders to let go of some control, while giving others more control.


The path ahead

Let’s face it; no organization will ever be immune to change. Rather than complain or feel frustration when change occurs, adaptive leadership allows teams to expect the unexpected and take a proactive approach when change occurs. This helps organizations to identify new ways of doing things for the greater good.

The good news is that you don’t have to be in a leadership position to be an adaptive leader. Adaptive leadership can be practiced by anyone as the style encourages a collaborative approach and innovation from all.

However, you may see some reluctancy from your team if the change requires a shift in personal values. Likewise, some people may be hesitant to learn a new procedure or implement a new strategy if it means the nature of their job will alter. For those in senior leadership positions, this will necessitate communicating why the traditional ways of conducting work are no longer effective.

None of this is going to be easy – there’s certainly no rulebook for leaders during times of crisis. Adaptive leadership is about gaining perspective and purposefully navigating the uncertainty triggered. We hope the above principles help provide insight to stay resilient, adaptive and to step out onto your balcony.


If you have any questions or seek additional HR services during this uncertain time, give us a call at 604. 916.6199 or connect at  We’d love to hear from you!


Related Links:

How Do I Support My Employees’ Mental Health in Times of Turmoil? Mental Health Amidst COVID-19


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