Adaptive Leadership in a world of COVID-19

Updated: May 8

Momma said there would be days like this. She never said that every day would be like this!

Talk about leading in a world of perpetual whitewater…even before the appearance of the Coronavirus, leaders everywhere had to deal with a constantly changing world. Then, KABOOM…all that change got changed by the change of a lifetime.


Now, many leaders are dealing with the existential crisis of keeping their businesses afloat while they do the best that they can to lead their teams through the anxiety of the coronavirus itself. We are faced with layoffs or furloughs or even just dramatic shifts in how work gets done shifting from working on-site to working “in place.”  (#WFH).


To effectively navigate through the treacherous whitewater rapids tossed their way by COVID-19, leaders must amp up their ability to lead their organizations through adaptive change, a concept introduced by Ron Heifetz in his book, Leadership Without Easy Answers.


Adaptive Change is different than the technical or routine change many of us are familiar with. In routine change, the problem is clear, a leader or expert can provide the solution and can be relatively easy to resolve. Adaptive change is radically different. The problem is often not clear. No one knows THE answer. Defining, solving and implementing a solution all require new learning. Yeah, pretty much sounds like what leaders face dealing with the coronavirus.

As leaders, how do you most effectively lead your teams through sudden, disruptive change layered on top of the adaptive change many were already experiencing? Here are a few thoughts:


1) Answer the question, “What’s happening to me?”


In this time of extreme disruption, people who probably felt pretty secure a week ago are now wondering if they can pay rent or their mortgage and keep food on the table. Leaders need to communicate early and often about what’s going on while recognizing that anything we think today may change dramatically by tomorrow. It’s hard to hear or understand anything else until people know what the impact will be on them…as painful as that might be.

Do not let the fact that many things you think, say or do today will change tomorrow. Be open and honest with people and be clear that some decisions will continue to change over time.


2) Recognize and Lead through the Emotional Reaction to Change.


Even in the best of circumstances, many people are uncomfortable with change and experience a range of emotional reactions, including:

  • A strong desire to “go back to the way it was.”

  • A feeling of not having the capabilities to adapt to the change.

  • A feeling of being alone in coping with the change – even though millions of people are going through the same change – which is likely to be hugely magnified because so many people are now physically isolated at home.

Those emotions will be magnified as you deal with COVID-19. Leaders need to recognize those emotions and meet people where they are before they can engage in constructive conversations about how to move forward. Take extra time to connect with your teams, listen to and empathize with their concerns and emotions. Only then can you get to resolution on how to move forward.


3) Get on the Balcony…


There are thousands of issues grabbing for your attention. Getting “on the balcony” means that you must maintain perspective on the big picture – keeping your organization afloat, dealing with the daunting impacts on your team, preparing for the next “normal” whatever that is – even as you sort out, or delegate, many of those items grabbing for your attention.


4) …while you also stay focused on the critical goals.


You have to recognize and deal with the tough issues. People will want to go back to their comfort zone. Leaders have to keep them moving forward in the effort to refocus on work or even providing help in sorting out their team members’ challenges.

In this environment, the goal may be simply to preserve the existence of your organization. Given the dynamic nature of the challenges posed by COVID-19 the methods may change daily or even hourly. You’ll be constantly challenged by how to maintain relationships with your team, your customers and your suppliers as we work through the crisis. For many, this will be in the context of dramatic impacts on the financial viability of your organization.


5) Engage others in helping to find solutions.


In adaptive change, literally no one knows the solution. This creates a great opportunity to engage everyone in finding solutions.


6) More than ever…smash the “Marshmallow layers…”


…in the organization that prevent the voices from all over the organization from speaking up. It’s especially important to engage and protect the creative deviants against those who want to slam dunk solutions. Adaptive change occurs through experimentation. More now than ever, you want people who view things differently to be able to speak up. You’ll have to be prepared for failure – not all of the experiments or decisions will work — but learn from them and then quickly move on as you continuously adapt to the constantly changing landscape.


7) Stay optimistic…


…that you and your organization can make your way through the crisis. This isn’t a naïve, “whistle past the graveyard kind of optimism,” but the resolute optimism that you and your organization can adapt to whatever gets thrown your way as the crisis continues to evolve. People need hope…that hope and optimism needs to be founded in a true belief that you have the capability to work your way through the challenges.




Intrigued by what you’re reading? Download our white paper on converting strategy into execution and learn more about us by visiting our website. WhiteWater International Consulting, Inc. helps organizations understand the challenges they face and helps enterprises achieve and sustain outstanding performance through unleashing the passion and capabilities of its people. Because an organization is only as good at the people who power it.

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