11 Adaptive Leadership Examples

11 Adaptive Leadership ExamplesReviewed by Chris Drew (PhD)

This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

adaptive leadership example and definition, explained below

An adaptive leadership style is flexible and best suited to handle unexpected challenges and circumstances.

The style is problem-oriented and able to respond to fundamental changes in an organization or a fluid situation by making bold but necessary decisions.

Modern industry is fast-moving. Businesses must be responsive to changing market parameters, consumer preferences, disruptive technologies, restrictive government legislation, and even environmental disasters.

All of these factors can have dramatic effects on the operations of any organization. Therefore, having an adaptive leadership style is imperative.

Examples of adaptive leadership include the directors of emergency response agencies, presidents of international health organizations, and United Nations ambassadors.

Definition of Adaptive Leadership

Many organizations today require leaders that must respond quickly to unanticipated challenges that may have severe consequences. They need adaptive behaviors.

Circumstances dictate that everyone involved must change their usually daily routines, alter personal and organizational strategies, and develop a nimble mindset that is responsive instead of static.

Adaptive leaders have several characteristics in common with other well-known leadership styles.

For example, they have a high level of emotional intelligence, which helps them motivate others in high-pressure situations. They encourage an open work environment where employees are free to express their views and take risks. They operate with a high standard of ethics and responsibility, which includes admitting their own mistakes.

Examples of Adaptive Leadership

1. President of Foreign Operations  

Multinational corporations have operations in dozens of countries. If in the manufacturing sector, their supply chains can be spread across entirely different regions of the world.

Each country they operate in has its own set of rules and regulations, not to mention various languages, cultures and customs.

Having an autocratic leadership style simply will not work. Negotiating the ins-and-outs of so many nations must be handled by someone that is highly adaptive and flexible.

In any given week, they may need to travel to two or three different countries for important meetings with top executives and government officials.

Some of those countries may have an unstable political or social environment, which means that challenges to operations can come from any direction. Therefore, the person put in charge of handling foreign operations, most definitely needs to have an adaptive leadership style.

2. Head of Emergency Response Team  

Local municipalities, large cities, corporations and even school districts may contain an emergency response team (ERT) for when the unthinkable occurs.

There are a wide range of threats, from fires to earthquakes.

Unfortunately, there is no amount of planning that can fully prepare an ERT for all events. 

The head of the ERT can have their team attend federal training, participate in mock drills and simulations, and even acquire direct experience in a natural disaster, but the fact remains the same: no two emergencies are going to be identical. 

Therefore, the head of any ERT must have an adaptive leadership style. They must be able to respond to any number of extreme events, deal with tremendous pressure, and adjust to fluid circumstances that may change on a minute-by-minute basis.

3. Introduction of Educational Technologies

As the world has increasingly moved online, schools have had to change. Adaptive leaders have led this change.

Educational technologies have required a complete overhaul of schools’ pedagogical approaches. Teachers have had to be trained in how to utilize online platforms and learn to maintain student focus while students have screens in front of their faces.

Principals, IT staff, and school counselors were presented with a myriad of new challenges that no one saw coming. Even those with a traditional leadership style had to adapt. 

Autocratic leaders had no choice but to listen to their subordinates and accept a good idea no matter its source.  

4. UN Ambassador

Adapting to unexpected circumstances is a core skill for a United Nations ambassador. The world is a big place and multiple crises can erupt without warning.

Being able to make bold decisions and work with others that have completely different ways of thinking are key. Decisions will need to be made quickly. It may be necessary to formulate a strategy that is not perfect and could have negative as well as positive consequences.

Existing policies may need to be circumvented to put the wheels in motion rapidly. The stakes are high and pressure-packed. More than likely, no solution will be completely satisfactory and  critics will scrutinize those decisions for months.

Of all the jobs to have in the world, being an ambassador to the United Nations is one in which an adaptive leadership philosophy is essential.

5. Becoming the New Manager  

Whether being hired from outside the company or transferred from a new division, replacing a well-liked manager can be wrought with challenges.

There may be resentment from existing staff due to their loyalty to the previous manager, or jealousy from those that think they deserved the promotion.

Being an adaptive leader in this situation is vital. Instead of making drastic changes to the policies and procedures that everyone is accustomed to, a better approach could be to make some adjustments to one’s own ways to more smoothly ease into the new role.

This can include seeking the input of staff on various issues, spending extra time on team-building, and paying special attention to interpersonal dynamics. The bottom line is that it would be wise to adapt instead of trying to force everyone else to change immediately.

6. In-Game Coaching Adjustments

Coaches can formulate all the game plans they want, but once that whistle blows to start the game, anything can happen.

The opponent may be tougher than anticipated, injuries to key players can occur at any moment, and although hard to believe, refs can make bad calls. 

This is why some of the most successful coaches in sports are masters of adaptive leadership. They are willing to change their plans instantaneously to adapt to changing circumstances. 

Although their team may be stifled during the first half, intermission will allow time to adapt. During halftime, the coach makes the necessary adjustments to game strategy, play-calling, and even player personnel.

When the game resumes, it’s like watching a whole different team. The adjustments work and the team goes on to win.

This is adaptive leadership that many coaches simply don’t possess. Either their egos are too stubborn or they don’t have the necessary cognitive flexibility.

7. Houston, we’ve had a problem….

Apollo 13 was supposed to be the third mission to land on the moon. Unfortunately, the astronauts never made it.

Instead, on April 13, 1970, an oxygen tank exploded, causing the second tank to also fail, followed by the normal supply of electricity, light, and water to also be lost. They were 200,000 miles from Earth. The mission scrapped. Now it was a race against time to save the astronauts’ lives. 

This led to one of the greatest examples of adaptive leadership in history.

However, instead of it being an example of a single individual leader, it’s an example of a dedicated team of professionals on the ground and in space all working together.

Captain Jim Lovell and fellow astronauts Fred Haise and Jack Swigert, along with flight director on the ground Gene Kranz and his amazing crew, worked tirelessly to devise one solution after another.

The astronauts eventually made home safely.

8. Not Switching to Android, Nokia

Most examples of adaptive leadership are stories of success, with experts in leadership often pointing to case studies of adaptive leaders that made all the right calls. 

Well, a more balanced perspective should include examples of failure as well. Perhaps one of the biggest disasters in the telecommunications world was a result of Nokia’s refusal to scrap their in-house operating system for Android.

Not only did the in-house OS not function properly, but no one was making apps for it. 

The Nokia executivess failed to fully appreciate the changing market, failed to respond to consumer preferences, failed to understand the importance of apps, and failed to admit fault.

These failures to implement an adaptive leadership style led to the downfall of the world’s leader in smartphone sales. The Nokia leadership was too stubborn to adapt, and hence failed miserably.  

9. The Decline of Encyclopaedia Britannica      

The Encyclopaedia Britannica is the world’s oldest English-language general encyclopedia. It was first published in 1768 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Although other encyclopedias did exist in other languages, the Britannica was unique in its way of providing a definition of terms for quick reference, combined with a more detailed explanation for those that wanted a more thorough explanation.

However, on March 14, 2012, it stopped producing its print editions and took a step into the digital world to prioritize its online publications and apps. The books had been printed for 244 years, but just as with so many other print publishers, it shifted to an online presence.

As Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., stated, “We’re digital, we’re mobile, and we’re social,” Cauz said. “We’re a very different company from 20 or 30 years ago.”

For a company so steep in tradition, it took an adaptive leadership style to make such a tremendous transformation.

10. Director-General, WHO    

The World Health Organization (WHO) is one of the most important organizations in our world today.

The WHO’s mission is to promote health throughout the world.

It does so by improving access to healthcare and medicines, help nations develop emergency response mechanisms, work to eradicate high-impact communicable diseases, and address climate-change issues spanning the globe.

The consequences of failure can literally result in the loss of millions of lives. Therefore, the leader of this vital organization, the Director-General, must be an individual that possesses outstanding leadership skills.

Given the nature of the job and the range of activities, only someone with an adaptive leadership style can cope with the demands. 

They must be of high moral character, have a high degree of cognitive flexibility, and be able to adapt to ever-changing circumstances and pressures with decisiveness and confidence. 

11. Ted Turner, founder of CNN 

Ted Turner became the head of his father’s billboard advertising business in 1963. Ten years later it was one of the largest outdoor advertising businesses in the U.S.

But, he noticed that clients were shifting to radio and TV. Soon afterwards, he adapted and bought two small, and failing, TV stations.

By the mid-1970s, his programming was being broadcast via satellite across the country. In addition to old shows like Green Acres and The Andy Griffith Show, he was also broadcasting live sports. 

His next adaptation would be his boldest. In June 1980, he launched the world’s first 24-hours all-news network, called CNN. Nearly everyone in the industry predicted failure. The first years were rough and a financial disaster, but as the history books tell us today, CNN would grow to be one of the largest news broadcasters in the world.

As Ted Turner stated, “I was cable before cable was cool.” Being able to see the need for change before everyone else is a true hallmark of an adaptive leadership style.


There are many types of leadership styles, some of them are skilled at dealing with technical problems, keeping projects on schedule, or making everyone happy. The adaptive leadership style however, is a leader that is skilled at making decisions in response to changing demands.  

Sometimes those decisions must be made quickly, and sometimes they have to be made more deliberatively. To accomplish these feats, the adaptive leader is a capable problem-solver, able to anticipate issues, and has a high degree of emotional intelligence to persuade and motivate others.

Executives that lead international organizations, manager’s that handle a company’s operations in numerous countries, and professionals that coordinate emergency response teams, must be adaptive leaders.

Any other style of leadership or leadership concept in these situations could result in a full-blown disaster.


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Kuluski, K., Reid, R. J., & Baker, G. R. (2021). Applying the principles of adaptive leadership to person-centred care for people with complex care needs: Considerations for care providers, patients, caregivers and organizations. Health Expectations: An International Journal of Public Participation in Health Care and Health Policy, 24(2), 175–181. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/hex.13174

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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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