Leadership Spotlight

Addressing Adaptive Challenges

A stock photo of a male dealing with stress.

According to an August 2020 Pew Research poll, 67 percent of U.S. adults indicated that the coronavirus pandemic had changed their lives.1 This virus could result in lasting changes in American behavior and social norms—it already has had a profound impact on work, school, worship, commerce, sports, and social interactions. These adjustments have proven difficult for many people, with more than a third of Americans reporting significant psychological distress.2

Necessary Change

While the permanency of the pandemic’s impacts on behavior and social norms remains to be seen, it seems likely that adaptations will continue to be necessary for several months to come. This will create challenges for leaders seeking to help their organizations adapt and succeed in a time of uncertainty and difficult change. Leading through difficult but necessary change requires leaders to account for and address competing perspectives, help followers recognize and understand the impetus for change, and give followers ownership of change implementation to ensure lasting impact.

During the pandemic, many people have had to deal with difficult issues, like how to homeschool young children while working, care for isolated loved ones from a distance, make career changes necessitated by economic shifts, or remain in community and in relationship when they cannot be with their loved ones in person. In law enforcement specifically, leaders are dealing with additional challenges, like how to implement reforms and move toward positive policing approaches, best respond to societal requirements for increased transparency while maintaining operational security, and improve trust and mutual understanding within their communities.

Adaptive Leadership

Harvard University’s Dr. Ronald Heifetz has written extensively about adaptive leadership, or the challenge of leading people through the process of resolving complex problems that require them to learn new ways to thrive, rather than rely on what has worked in the past.3 In his books The Practice of Adaptive Leadership and Leadership without Easy Answers, Heifetz presents an adaptive leadership construct designed to help leaders shepherd followers through the difficult process of adjusting to changing requirements for success in today’s complex society.

Adaptive challenges require learning and differ from technical challenges, which can be addressed using previously established approaches.4 The novel coronavirus presents an adaptive challenge that has required significant efforts to learn how best to adapt, whereas the seasonal flu is a technical challenge that simply requires a vaccination each year. Before an adaptive challenge can be addressed, it first must be clearly identified, which requires leaders to extract themselves from the day-to-day chaos to step back and examine the context in which the organization exists, identify important patterns, and adopt a strategic perspective.5 Leaders must take care to modulate, or meter out, the distress associated with the change so that followers can adapt well over time.6 Throughout the process, leaders must be disciplined about directing attention to the adaptive challenges at hand and about giving the work back to the people so that they have ownership over the change process.7

Divisions and differences of opinion over pandemic response efforts are growing, and addressing those deep divisions is necessary for effective change.8 Heifetz emphasizes the importance of seeking competing value perspectives throughout the process of leading through adaptive challenges. In fact, according to Heifetz, “the inclusion of competing value perspectives may be essential to adaptive success.”9 Former president Lincoln’s intentional inclusion of political opponents in his cabinet—during the Civil War, one of the greatest adaptive challenges the country ever has faced—remains one of the best examples of including competing value perspectives more than 150 years later.


Change always presents challenges. When facing difficult, but necessary change either at home or at work, consider applying Heifetz’s adaptive leadership approach to help those in your care understand and embrace the need for change and, in the process, create the lasting impacts necessary for long-term success.

Cara Fishman, an instructor in the Leadership Education Unit at the FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight. She can be reached at cefishman@fbi.gov.


1 “Most Americans Say Coronavirus Outbreak Has Impacted Their Lives,” Pew Research Center, March 30, 2020, accessed December 16, 2020, https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/03/30/most-americans-say-coronavirus-outbreak-has-impacted-their-lives/; and Kat Devlin and Aidan Connaughton, “Most Approve of National Response to COVID-19 in 14 Advanced Economies,” Pew Research Center, August 27, 2020, accessed December 16, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/08/27/most-approve-of-national-response-to-covid-19-in-14-advanced-economies/.
2 Scott Keeter, “A Third of Americans Experienced High Levels of Psychological Distress During the Coronavirus Outbreak,” Pew Research Center, May 7, 2020, accessed December 16, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/05/07/a-third-of-americans-experienced-high-levels-of-psychological-distress-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak/.
3 Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2009).
4 Ibid, 303-307.
5 Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); and Ronald Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie, “The Work of Leadership,” Harvard Business Review, December 2001, accessed December 16, 2020, https://hbr.org/2001/12/the-work-of-leadership/.
6 Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers, 258-260.
7 Ibid, 260-262.
8 Devlin and Connaughton; and Cary Funk and Alec Tyson, “Partisan Differences Over the Pandemic Response Are Growing,” Pew Research Center, June 3, 2020, accessed December 16, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2020/06/03/partisan-differences-over-the-pandemic-response-are-growing/.
9 Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers, 23.

“Adaptive challenges require learning and differ from technical challenges, which can be addressed using previously
established approaches.”