Leadership during permanent crisis

This article was written by Herbert Thomas, Programme Lead for the Master of Contemporary Education

When Covid-19 was first identified towards the end of 2019 we could not have guessed what the next two years would hold for us. Equally, it is not at all clear what might happen over the next two years. In the past leaders assumed that crises, even complex ones, have a definite beginning and a definite end. Approaches to crisis management have, in the past, been based on this assumption. Knowing what we now know about Covid-19, it is not at all clear when, how or whether Covid-19 will disappear at all. In this respect, at least, we are in territory beyond the realms of traditional crisis management. 

As leaders in schools, the temptation is to address challenges brought about by Covid-19 using the same leadership approaches and strategies used in the past to solve discreet crises. Adaptive leadership theory suggests that this would be a big mistake. 

Adaptive leadership is a response to the following problem: what does leadership in an organisation look like in a world where the pace of change is increasing exponentially – or, as Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky (2009, p.2) suggest, “a world characterised by permanent crisis?” The problem is captured vividly in their description: “People clamor [sic] for direction, while you are faced with a way forward that isn’t at all obvious. Twists and turns are the only certainty. Yet you still have to lead.”

They suggest that any response to a crisis necessarily entails two parts. First, there is the emergency phase during which leaders need to ‘stem the bleeding’ and buy time. Secondly, there is the adaptive phase during which leaders need to “tackle the underlying cause of the crisis and build the capacity to thrive in a new reality.” (Heifetz et al., 2009, p.2) 

Generally, school leaders are very good at addressing the emergency phase. On the one hand, traditional leadership and crisis management approaches provide useful guidance for action in emergency phases and, on the other hand, emergency phases often demand strong authoritative leadership and decisive action. School leaders tend to address the adaptive phase less well. Leadership during this phase is difficult and demands a totally different leadership approach. 

In the process of negotiating both the emergency and the adaptive phases of a response to a crisis, leaders will come across two different kinds of challenges, namely technical challenges and adaptive challenges. Technical challenges are problems that are well-defined and understood. Such challenges can be met with established processes and procedures – or can be addressed by a few technical experts. In other words, we know how to solve such challenges and, given the right resources, we are able to do so in relatively short time spans. Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, require significant (and often painful) shifts in people’s habits, status, role, identity, way of thinking, etc. There are no clearly defined solutions to such challenges and leaders are faced with a range of ill-defined options, each of which might give rise to unanticipated consequences. Such challenges take much longer to address – and, in environments characterised by constant change (‘permanent crisis’), such challenges become the new normal. In other words, even speaking of ‘solving’ such challenges loses meaning because the moment you think you have dealt with a challenge, it mutates and presents you with fresh challenges. 

The question is how leaders can use adaptive leadership approaches to successfully negotiate adaptive challenges like these. The pandemic has gradually redefined schooling and posed great challenges for school leaders, who are required to lead adaptively for foreseeable disruptions in the teaching reality. Building resilience and distributing leadership are possible approaches that leaders could adopt to promote social-emotional well-being of their teachers and students as well as multi-perspective collaboration for better organisational adaptability in such a difficult time (Bagwell, 2020).

Before we examine some of the key components of an adaptive leadership approach, it is necessary to highlight an important consideration. When leaders are faced by adaptive challenges, their instinct might be to sit tight and employ the traditional leadership skills that have served them well in facing down technical challenges. This is a mistake because adaptive challenges require both traditional leadership skills and new leadership skills. For this reason, Heifetz et al. refer to leadership as “an improvisational and experimental art” (2009, p.3). 

Adaptive leadership revolves primarily around ‘re-imagining’ and ‘reshaping’ the organisation. A first important aspect of this process is leaders being able to foster adaptation. They do this by: 

  • confronting loyalty to legacy practices and understanding that their desire to change such loyalty makes them targets of attack;
  • distinguishing the essential from the expendable; and 
  • Avoiding grand and detailed strategic plans – focusing instead on running numerous experiments (Heifetz et al., 2009). 

A second important aspect of adaptive leadership is embracing disequilibrium. As long as people feel stable and safe in their comfort zones, they are unlikely to change. Leaders thus need to create and maintain a productive zone of disequilibrium – one where either too little or too much disequilibrium has negative impacts on effective change. In order to lead effectively in such environments, leaders need to depersonalise conflict by focusing on the nature of the problem, rather than on the personalities of the people involved. Furthermore, this will require the creation of safe spaces within which courageous conversations can be had. Such conversations will enable interactions around conflicts, losses and negotiation over competing interests. 

A third important aspect of adaptive leadership is the generation of leadership. This aspect springs from the fact that most changes in organisations result from micro-adaptations that take place in smaller teams – in response to the micro-environments within which such smaller teams work. For this reason, top-down hierarchical decision-making and responsibility is not particularly effective. Rather, leaders need to distribute leadership responsibility, “replacing hierarchy and formal authority with organisational bandwidth, which draws on collective intelligence” (Heifetz, et al., 2009, p.6). In developing such distributed leadership responsibility, leaders need to leverage diversity. Diversity of philosophy, skill sets, views and approaches provides a more robust response to rapidly changing challenges. 

The fourth aspect of adaptive leadership is in many ways the most important aspect. If leaders are to be the primary instruments of adaptation, they have to look after themselves if such leadership is to have any chance of success. Furthermore, leaders need to recognise that, just as their followers need to adapt, so too do they. This entails leaders allowing themselves to be both optimistic and realistic about the adaptive challenges to be faced. Unbounded optimism can easily be construed as incompetence or an inability to comprehend the nature of the challenge. At the same time, leaders need to find “sanctuaries where they can reflect on events and regain perspective;” and they need to “reach out to confidants with whom you can debrief [their] workdays and articulate [their] reasons for taking certain actions” (Heifetz et al. 2009, p.7). Both of these activities should result in leaders being able to bring more of their emotional selves to work. A more emotional approach provides some evidence of leader engagement and can be a powerful motivator towards change. Finally, leaders should not lose themselves in their roles. After all, adaptive challenges might very well entail changes to leadership roles and positions. Too much of an investment in a leadership role leaves leaders vulnerable when such changes happen. 

In summary, adaptive leadership focuses on a leadership approach that can be employed in facing down a rapidly changing context or environment. The focus here falls on the way in which the context within which leadership takes place can change, often rapidly. 

A good summary of adaptive leadership is provided by Heifetz in the video below. 


Bagwell, J. (2020). Leading through a pandemic: Adaptive leadership and purposeful action. 
Journal of School Administration Research and Development, 5(S1), 30-34.

Heifetz, R., Grashow, A. & Linsky, M. (2009a). Leadership in a (permanent) crisis.
Harvard Business Review, 87(7,8), 62-69. 

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