Better Bossing: Lessons from Adaptive Leadership

Which ideas from adaptive leadership can we adopt to help us connect and adapt to become a better boss?

4 min readJul 3, 2022
Two characters to represent a boss and colleague relationship

As I’ve written about becoming a better boss I’ve developed a simple model to describe the factors that might affect the relationships between a leader or manager and their colleagues. The model describes how factors of competence, confidence and compatibility can affect our relationship to a boss, or if we’re a boss the relationships we have with those we work with. The idea behind the model is that our own preferences and default behaviours not only affect our ability to respond to different technical challenges, they also determine how easy we find it to work with other people. When we combine this idea with some of the lessons from ‘adaptive leadership’ we unlock insights to help us become a better boss.

In ‘The Practice of Adaptive Leadership’ the authors draw a distinction between technical challenges and adaptive challenges that is useful when we think about being a boss. “Technical challenges” are those for which there are usually ready-made scripts or solutions. We can solve this type of problem by applying technical expertise — and we can develop our technical expertise through practice, training and rehearsal. Technical challenges are fairly easy to spot, problem definition is clear and a leader will usually rely on ‘authoritative expertise’ both to solve the problem and for their legitimacy.

Adaptive challenges are different. Problem definition usually requires effort and experimentation. These types of challenges require you to learn on the job — so the biggest qualification is your ability to learn. The distinction between technical and adaptive challenges can also be seen in the way Amy Edmondson describes routine operations when compared to complex and innovative operations.

Edmondson introduces the process knowledge spectrum to show how complexity increases from routine operations, through complex and innovative operations on a scale or spectrum.
Edmondson introduces the process knowledge spectrum to show how complexity increases from routine operations, through complex and innovative operations on a scale or spectrum. For Routine operation learning is focused on improvement (usually for efficiency). Leaders develop standards and scripts or “routines.” In Complex operations the combination of factors presents challenges. Often, old and new tasks combine to increase challenge. Most problems are process problems which disrupt or impede and perpetual problems solving is a way of life. In innovative operations we need to experiment to generate new possibilities. We improvise on the go and failure is to be expected.

Lots of people fail at being a boss because they convince themselves that being a boss is a technical challenge which relies on authority. They’re wrong. When we orient our relationship between boss and colleague solely around power and authority, we try to force the relationship into the realm of a technical or routine operation. But leadership is a verb, not a job. And being a great boss is an adaptive challenge.

Once we’ve understood that being a boss and managing relationships as a boss is an adaptive challenge, we can start to focus on the adaptations that might be required to do the job well. I think these adaptations fall into the three categories of my model — we may be required to adapt in terms of:

  • Competence — developing skills to supplement or support those we lead and to adapt for the constantly evolving external context.
  • Confidence — consider the interpersonal and psychological dimensions of the relationship and how this might affect our performance and the performance of those we lead
  • Compatibility — consider the priorities, beliefs, values, habits and loyalties at play within our relationships and how these might affect interactions.

Each of these sets of questions is a fluid, interrelated set of factors which will affect every individual and group dynamic. While it’s presented as a list, the reality that this isn’t a simple script to run through to optimise relationships. It’s the categories in a continuing audit a leader must make to optimise their relationship and be a good boss.

A diagram to illustrate the loop described in the caption — inspired by the principle of adaptive leadership. The diagram illustrates which managing people is an adaptive challenge, rather than a technical challenge.

Being a boss requires us to a adapt to those we lead — and to encourage them to adapt to what we need. We can do this through the double-loop learning inherent in reflective practice, humble inquiry and adaptive leadership. This asks us to develop technical competence — but to apply this to diagnosis, rather than jumping straight to action. Our authority as a boss might give us permission to “act first,” but formal authority doesn’t guarantee success. The intervening steps of Diagnosis and Evaluation/reflection improve our effective and our ability to operate across contexts.

The real secret to “better bossing” is applying the lens of enquiry and experimentation both internally and externally. Adaptive Leadership teaches us that in the midst of challenges, we need not only focus externally on the challenges within the context, but also consider how our own behaviour, attitudes and preferences might affect our performance. We need a perspective on ourself as well as the systemic context in which we find ourselves. This is why being a boss is an adaptive challenge. We need to look for and negotiate the possibility of adaptations across competence, confidence and compatibility for ourself and the other person and find a way of achieving the best outcome for ourself, the other person and the organisation.

A four box did describing the central idea of adaptive leadership: how we must diagnose the system, diagnose self, take action in the system and take action on the self.

To lead effectively, you also have to examine and take action toward yourself in the context of the challenge. In the midst of action, you have to be able to reflect on your own attitudes and behavior to better calibrate your interventions into the complex dynamics of organizations and communities. You need perspective on yourself as well as on the systemic context in which you operate.

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Heifetz, Grashow and Linksy

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I'm a Creative director at the BBC. I like words, design, data and magic. These are all my own views (apart from retweets. I borrowed those to look clever.)