One of the most notable leadership books of the 2000s is The Practice of Adaptive Leadership by Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky, and Alexander Grashow. This stellar work focuses on developing the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. Adaptation is a key skill for leaders who are creating stable and sustainable enterprises while managing change.

As I discussed this book with a friend, I came to a realization about myself and about adaptive leadership: To be adaptive leaders, we must be adaptive learners. I realized that virtually everything I know, I learned from someone else. I don’t mean in the way a student learns from a teacher. Rather, I mean learning by listening to and observing the lessons shared through the viewpoint of another’s perceptions and experiences. Listening and observing are keys to being an adaptive learner. 

Informational versus Contextual Learning

In most cases, I can’t pinpoint exactly what I learned from any particular individual because it wasn’t informational learning. Adaptive learning is contextual learning. Learning from the context of a person means learning to see how ideas matter within a distinct situation. It isn’t abstract or detached from experience. Rather, it is how an idea transitions from the idea itself to something practical and real and how it is applied in a particular situation.

An example is the role and implementation of values in an organization. There are two types of values: those a company formally claims are values and those that are practiced by the people in the company. These two sets of values are not always the same, congruent, or even aligned. Depending upon various conditions, the same understanding of a value will have a different application in an organization.

Company A espouses to be an open, transparent organization placing a high value on communication. Company B makes the same claim. The difference is in their context.

Company A is physically structured so that executives are separated into their own individual offices. Communication is mediated by administrative assistants and written information distributed throughout the company. If you want to speak to one of the vice presidents, you go through their assistant or look at the latest memo.

Meanwhile, company B is physically structured around an open-space concept where information can be shared freely simply by walking across the way or meeting at a shared workspace. Regardless of one’s position within the company, their office is in the midst of this open concept. The benefit of this open-office approach is a greater exchange of ideas.

So, two companies may claim allegiance to the same values, but their application of those values can be totally different. To understand the difference is to understand how to integrate these insights and apply them in your own context.

My friend Dana Leman of RandomKid, an award-wining organization for kids, educators, and youth group leaders, told me about her experience when she toured the Bloomberg’s headquarters in New York City. Bloomberg successfully follows the company B model and is so successful probably as a result. Through my conversation with Dana, my perception of how best to organize office space has changed.

This is how adaptive learning happens. We listen for insights for applying ideas in various contexts. The more we learn from others, the clearer our own understanding becomes and the closer we get to becoming adaptive leaders.

This kind of understanding is tacit and intuitive. It isn’t an understanding derived from an analytical process. Rather, our brains weave together many thoughts, impressions, experiences, and feelings to provide understanding. The more this emergent awareness is allowed to take place, the greater the capacity for adaptive leadership.

How to Practice Adaptive Learning

Adaptive leadership is a shift away from the old command-and-control method. It requires openness to other people’s ideas and experiences and an appreciation of their particular context. The easiest way to begin to learn this kind of adaptive behavior is simply to listen and apply the good ideas you hear. Here a few guidelines:

  • Listen and learn from whomever you meet; you can learn something from everyone.
  • As you listen to others, ask questions to clarify their experience.
  • Listen without trying to compete; listen to learn.
  • Express gratitude for your encounter.
  • Take what you see and hear, and then reflect, process, and apply what you’ve learned.
  • Share what you’ve learned with others.

My Takeaway as an Adaptive Learner

From many conversations over the years about what was happening within various organizations, each conversation contributing a piece of wisdom and understanding. Creating a holistic perspective, I learned the qualities of effective leadership. These are not my original ideas, but rather a catalog of what I’ve learned from other people. These lessons have wide applicability, and this is how the Circle of Impact came to be developed (shown below). This is the product of contextual learning, not simply the exchange of information.

Ed Brenegar - Circle of Impact


The 7 Top Benefits of Adaptive Learning

1. We learn that ideas matter.

Ideas are the key to understanding where we are and how we can adapt to the changes that are constantly confronting us. Ideas connect us to people. They are tools for being more effective communicators. At the most fundamental level, all learning is about ideas. Without ideas, we are left only with feelings. As a result, adaptive leaders must also be idea people who are interested in the ideas of others, not just in their own ideas.

2. We learn that relationships matter.

When we place ourselves in a position to learn from every person we meet, we come to understand how our interaction within a social context is where the action of organizations is found. The greater our capacity for forming adaptive learning relationships, the greater our capacity to develop the adaptive capacities of employees. Those adaptive capacities provide employees the opportunity to lead from their own specific work context. This is part of what makes a community of leaders.

3. We learn that organization structures are either tools for adaptive learning and leadership, or they are obstacles.

If the structure of a business does not provide a way for people to learn from one another and to apply that learning, then it is stuck in an unsustainable system of operation. For many businesses, the structure of their organization is, seemingly, the only tangible, secure, concrete part of their company. It is a monument to the past, not a platform for constant adaptation and innovation.

4. We learn that learning matters more than knowing.

When our posture toward others is one of openness, we are less concerned about making sure they understand how much we already know. If this is an issue, practice asking questions about things you do not know. Read books on subject areas you know nothing about. Stop trying to reinforce your own knowledge and start expanding it. Listen for the wisdom and insight others have to share.

5. We learn that if we never stop learning, we also never arrive at a full and complete understanding of anything.

Adaptive learning isn’t a tactic we deploy for a period of time to ramp up our current knowledge on a subject. Rather, adaptive learning is a lifestyle of openness to new ideas, fresh insights from people, and a reflective approach to applying ideas by doing things differently one step at a time.

6. We learn that adaptive learning changes us so that adaptive leadership is possible.

Adaptive learning simplifies the way we approach leadership. It becomes about the impact we need to have right now. The old model of strategic planning is having to change to become more adaptable. The reverse approach—being adaptable to change—produces leaders who are nimble, intuitive, and able to take advantage of the changes that are constantly happening. To adapt is to change. To change in this way is to make a difference that matters and create impact. Becoming impact-focused simplifies leadership.

7. We learn that adaptive learning leads to adaptive leadership, which leads ultimately to becoming a community of leaders.

An adaptive leader will be most effective in creating a culture of adaptive learning. To do so means that each person takes responsibility for their learning, their contribution, and their responsibility to create impact. Adaptive learning starts with the personal decision to learn from others. This nurtures within the individual the personal initiative from which all leadership originates. It isn’t just an individual initiating change; it is the whole organization as a community functioning as adaptive leaders.

This is a community of leaders.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Dr. Ed Brenegar is a Leader for Leaders working with individuals, their teams, organizations and communities who find themselves at a point of transition. Ed has developed an innovative leadership model called, Circle of Impact, that clarifies what the impact of their life or the work of their organization can be. From this perspective, impact is the change that makes a difference that matters. Ed. for over 30 years, has inspired and equipped people and organizations to practice this fresh understanding of leadership. All leadership begins with personal initiative to create impact that makes a difference that matters. Everyone within an organization or a community can, therefore, practice leadership initiative. In so doing, they turn what were once leadership-starved organizations into leader-rich cultures that make a difference that matters.

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