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The Importance of Adaptive Capacity in Leadership

We are currently living in a time without precedence. Business leaders in a very short period of time were affected by a pandemic causing many businesses to literally close overnight. In addition, we are experiencing a social change movement that was triggered by the death of George Floyd in police custody. The social movement quickly became a national movement affecting most businesses. Bennis and Thomas (2002) wrote about important leadership characteristics in dealing with what they called “crucibles.” They defined crucibles as experiences that shape leaders. We are definitely in a period where leaders are experiencing crucibles. Bennis and Thomas identified four leadership characteristics that they considered essential:

  • the ability to engage others,

  • to have a distinctive and compelling voice,

  • a sense of integrity, and

  • adaptive capacity.

They considered adaptive capacity the most important of the four. A leader with adaptive capacity is able to transcend adversity to emerge stronger than before. Adaptive capacity has two primary qualities:

  • the ability to grasp context, and

  • hardiness.

The ability to grasp context refers to being able to consider multiple factors to put a situation into perspective. For example, leaders today need the ability to grasp the context of Black Lives Matter in order to have adaptive capacity in dealing with the issues presented.

Boylan and Turner (2017) offered a definition for adaptive capacity after reviewing the literature using the term. “Adaptability is a change in behavior characterized by innovative or creative approaches in anticipation of, or in response to, environmental changes appropriate to solve problems” (p. 186). They described adaptability as both a mindset and a cognitive ability. It is a way of thinking. The expand the leadership characteristic and apply it to organizations. An organization needs to have adaptive capacity or “an open mindedness to expect and accept change” (p. 188). The mindset can be applied to planned or unplanned change. Unplanned change is the most challenging because it requires an adaptive mindset. The pandemic and the social change movement were both events requiring unplanned change. A leader must not only have adaptive capacity, they need the ability to create an organizational climate with an adaptive mindset. Doing this provides a competitive edge.

Northouse (2016) described adaptive leaders as helping people address adaptive challenges. They help others to “confront and adjust their values in order to adapt and thrive” (p. 292). There are six leader behaviors in creating an adaptive organization:

  • get on the balcony (finding perspective in a challenging situation),

  • identify adaptive challenges,

  • regulate distress,

  • maintain disciplined attention,

  • give the work back to the people,

  • protect leadership voices from below.

In summary, adaptive capacity is an important leadership characteristic. We are seeing leaders being tested with today’s events. The leaders with foresight and adaptive capacity will guide their organizations through the unplanned changes to emerge stronger than before.


Bennis, W. G., & Thomas, R. J. (2002, September). Crucibles of leadership. Harvard

Business Review, 39-45. Retrieved from

Boylan, S. A., & Turner, K. A. (2017, April). Developing organizational adaptability for complex environment. Journal of Leadership Education. doi: 1012806/V16/I2/T2

Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice (7th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

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