We’ve been conditioned to believe leadership is granted with authority and privilege. But some of the greatest leaders of our time have emerged from modest ranks.

In this guide, we’ll examine Adaptive Leadership: a framework that empowers you to view the everyday choices you make as an opportunity to lead and build, no matter where you sit. 
Malala broke the silence from a small village in Pakistan to lead the global fight for girls’ rights to education. Martin Luther King Jr. marched the streets of segregated Alabama to helm the American civil rights movement. 
Many of us are itching to make a difference, but we often feel stuck or demotivated because change is slow or we disagree with the decisions of those in positions of power. 
It takes individuals with courage and audacity to step out of traditional leadership structures and chart a new path. It requires looking at leadership as an act — not a title — and exploring stubborn problems with creativity. 


In this guide you’ll learn: 
  • What adaptive leadership is and why it matters
  • Which challenges can be tackled with adaptive leadership
  • 3 steps to use adaptive leadership to implement change
You’ll hear from Eric Martin, Managing Partner at Adaptive Change Advisors, who specializes in leadership development and systems change. We’ll explore Eric’s book, Your Leadership Moment: Democratizing Leadership in an Age of Authoritarianism, and his insights from Acumen Academy’s BUILD 2021 Conference. 

The principles of adaptive leadership

Adaptive Leadership is a practical framework developed at Harvard Kennedy School of Government for leading change, particularly during times of uncertainty or when there are no easy answers. It’s an important skill for anyone looking to drive systemic change in an increasingly complex world. 

As a framework, Adaptive Leadership means shifting your mindset in three key ways:

1. Holding the tension between the reality of where you are and the audacious vision of where you want to be. 

Adaptive leadership requires a willingness to change perspective: to observe your work and actions from a different angle, and then take action with grit and determination.  
Gayathri Vasudevan is the Co-Founder of LabourNet, an Acumen-investee and social enterprise which provides vocational training to improve opportunities for individuals in India’s informal workforce. During the pandemic, India’s 100 million migrant workers were suddenly left without income, food, or means of travel, and were often thousands of miles away from home.
Overnight, Gayathri transformed all of LabourNet’s learning spaces into accommodations, sought out food suppliers, and ultimately provided the 100,000 workers they were currently training with the food and shelter needed to survive. She raised more than a million dollars and partnered with government, civil society organizations, and a global community of philanthropists, including Acumen

With a new perspective, Gayathri realized it’s no longer enough for corporations to provide funds for basic skills training when only 15% of India’s population receives social protection. Determined to challenge the status quo, Gayathri holds the tension between where LabourNet is, and their new vision to secure contracts with corporations that ensure not just consistent wages, but importantly, social protection of the workers.


2. Having the courage to do what’s right, not what’s easy. 

Adaptive leadership requires the willingness to see a situation for what it is, and the courage to do what’s necessary to change the status quo. 
Stephanie Strong is the founder of Boulder Care, an Acumen-investee and telehealth startup providing addiction treatment to improve the lives of people with substance use disorders. They offer medication, resources, and support to help patients succeed on their own terms.
The U.S. healthcare system is riddled with barriers that make it difficult for individuals to overcome addiction — an overly complex healthcare industry grounded in shame and punishment, fueled by revenues, and focused on short-term treatment rather than longer-term accompaniment. 
While some might say this is a problem to be solved by the government, Stephanie breaks the mold to do what’s right for patients. 
“I think the government can play a really important role in expanding access to health care services and in covering the cost of care. But realistically, there are strengths that startups have that governments or even large corporations don't,” she says. 
For example, Boulder Care bypasses the 28-day treatment model of rehabilitation centers and the requirement that patients show up in person, daily, for treatment. With Boulder Care’s online service, patients can avoid common feelings of shame while standing in line at treatment centers, and also avoid spending time and money to travel for treatment.

Most people agree that our systems are broken, but not many are willing to do what it takes to fix them. Through the practice of moral imagination and the courage to exercise her own act of leadership, Stephanie aims to fix a crucial but broken system.


3. Holding your ideas loosely but your values firmly. 

Adaptive leadership means being flexible: it requires walking into a situation with an open mind but remaining steadfast in your commitment to find solutions that drive positive change. 
Sonubal, a 2021 New Acumen Fellow, and an executive at PRADAN, works to facilitate development projects that enhance the socio-economic wellbeing of women in the poorest regions of India. 
India Fellow


Sonu is with Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN), working directly with the poor indigenous communities in Betul, Madhya Pradesh. He focuses on strengthening women's collectives and facilitating development projects to comprehensively enhance their socio-economic wellbeing. Sonu also anchors a block-level sub-team to streamline ...

While on a trip visiting a rural community, Sonubal was invited to a low-income school for an Independence Day gathering. He noticed that no women from the community attended the function — and observed the same pattern at other village meetings over the coming months. Confused by their absence, Sonubal stressed to the community the importance of women’s representation at these gatherings, and took it upon himself to walk across the village and mobilize women's attendance. 
Sonubal gathered 12 women eager to attend one meeting, but they turned around once they reached the meeting doors. Disheartened, Sonubal later learned that women were fearful of neglecting their household chores in the presence of their spouses. 
It turned out that many of the development programs Sonubal worked on — such as mobilizing women participation at village committees, and introducing new ways for women to earn a decent livelihood — excluded the perspectives and the cultural context of the village, rendering them unsustainable and ineffective. 
Sonubal realized the real drivers of change were the villagers, not the programs. The development programs would only work when the villagers came together — regardless of gender — to decide for themselves about their challenges and the solutions. After hearing the thoughts and perspectives of the villagers, Sonubal adapted the programs to include input from both the women and men of the village.
Over the course of a year, 2,500 women started participating in different committee meetings and councils. Today, these women are considered a key part of the decision-making process in the village. Sonubal’s willingness to listen to the perspectives of these stakeholders allowed him to hear new ideas and redesign PRADAN’s programs to achieve the impact they intended. 

Why adaptive leadership matters

Acumen believes the future depends on a new evolution of leaders ready to tackle the world’s most challenging problems. However, we define leadership differently.
According to Acumen Academy’s Director of Leadership Bavidra Mohan, “Core to Acumen’s belief is that leadership is not reserved for those privileged few who hold a big title. It isn’t about being CEO or Executive Director. It’s about having the courage to do what’s right. That idea — this belief of ours — really echoes in the Adaptive Leadership framework.”

Leadership is an action and activity for anyone.

Bavidra Mohan
Acumen Academy
For Acumen Academy, the journey of adopting Adaptive Leadership started with it’s integration into the Acumen Fellowship, and eventually the Acumen Academy Adaptive Leadership course offered today. 
Esteban Reyes


The skills needed to become an adaptive leader are rarely learned by listening to a lecture or completing an online course. Leveling up your skills involves leaning into discomfort to identify one’s leadership gap or challenge

Acumen Fellows Program Manager, Laura Ruiz has spent the past four years equipping Colombia’s next generation of social entrepreneurs and organizational leaders with the knowledge, networks and tools to address Colombia’s most pressing social issues. This dynamic process involves adaptive leadership: pinpointing the problem, mapping the stakeholders implicit to the issue, and thinking politically about how to tackle it

During her years working with social innovators, Laura has admired the urgency by which these leaders act, but recognizes that unbridled urgency sometimes causes us to overlook the real problem at hand.

“Adaptive Leadership is a framework, or new pair of glasses to view the world in an alternative way. It’s an invitation to stop, reflect, discuss with others, and to imagine the perspective of others, to see how your own worldview is affecting how you see the issue,” says Laura.

This ability to see the world from another’s view is known as moral imagination. Exercising moral imagination is a crucial prerequisite for any leader who wants to ensure that their product, program, or solution, is inclusive and sustainable. Both successes and shortfalls have taught Laura that the best way to teach adaptive leadership is by not teaching it at all.

“You don’t learn these skills in a classroom, you learn by doing. In the Colombia Fellows program we bring together cohorts that mirror the reality of Colombia, so that the small cohort resembles the larger system we are trying to change. From there, the microcosm will start recreating the reality of the larger cosm,” explains Laura.

Together, the Fellows learn from one another, and in those interactions they begin to reimagine how to best affect change in their own communities. The cohort acts as an incubator for innovation, creativity, and exploration to unearth questions surrounding one’s sense of self, contributing stakeholders, and larger systems.

“The knowledge and wisdom are in the room, and our role as facilitators is to pull it out,” says Laura.

Laura reflects on one Fellow who has repeatedly practiced adaptive leadership outside of cohort meetings. Esteban Reyes is the CEO of Tiempo de Juego — an organization promoting community transformation through sports, arts, and technology, to unlock the capacities of children and youth. During a cohort workshop, Esteban identified his problem — his organization was scaling too quickly and he began to worry that they lacked the financial and human resources to meet this new demand.

“When he used the adaptive framework and listened to his own cohort, he acknowledged that he was actually part of the problem. His worry was that he wasn’t going to be able to lead the change the organization needed, and his reputation and confidence was at risk,” said Laura.

By expressing his fears, locating his leadership gap, and identifying involved stakeholders, his cohort turned a moment of urgency into a practical plan of action. He was joined by other Colombian Fellows including Rocío Arango and Felipe Orduz to tackle his talent resource concerns.

“Most importantly, he had a tribe supporting him that helped him realize that he did have in him what he needed to take the organization to a new level, and that is what he has been doing ever since,” said Laura.

You are the leader you’re waiting for

Adaptive leadership encourages anyone, anywhere, to engage with acts of leadership. It defies the need to wait for a higher authority, or the need to become an authority yourself, in order to lead change. 
“Adaptive leadership as a model holds this idea that there really are no leaders. There are acts of leadership. I think that allows for the inclusion of everybody. Anybody in the world can seize those moments where it requires a bit of courage, a bit of risk-taking, a bit of truth speaking. If you act from a place of authenticity and what is right, then you should speak up and exercise your own act of leadership,” Batool Hassan, Director of Fundraising at Acumen Academy. 

When adaptive leadership states there are no leaders, there’s acts of leadership — it’s saying there’s no single hero. There’s no one person that will magically wave a wand — no politician, religious leader, or community activist — who’s going to make something happen. It’s all of us as individuals.

Batool Hassan
Director, Acumen Academy
To become the leaders we’re waiting for, we have to find the courage within ourselves to enact leadership in our own contexts and communities. We step into leadership by just starting.

You are part of the system you want to change

When we think about the injustices or inequalities that exist around us, we must accept that we play a large part in forming or perpetuating that system. 
Adaptive leadership forces you to ask the questions: What role do I play in the system I want to change? And what act of leadership can I take to change it?
Vichi Jagannathan is the Co-Founder of Rural Opportunity Institute (ROI), a social innovation lab in Edgecombe County, North Carolina which strives to support people's healing from adversity by educating community, reshaping systemic practices, and fostering deep-rooted connections.
Looking to gain clarity on the systems that exist around trauma and punishment within the community, Vichi and her team enrolled in Acumen Academy’s Systems Practice course to speak with individuals from the area. After nine months, and with over 300 people engaged through interviews and workshops, the Edgecombe County community arrived at what Vichi and her team call a ‘shared truth’.
Individuals began seeing themselves as part of the system, and saying, “This is my story.” Realizing that punishment is often the reaction many people have towards those who experience trauma, the community members devised a strategy to shift their thoughts and actions away from punishment and closer towards healing. 
Vichi, her team, and the community have learned that meaningful change requires each of us to step into our role and confront the system that needs changing. 

Change takes all of us

You can’t change a system on your own — you still need the support of stakeholders and those in power. And they often don’t hold the same opinions or values. 
Adaptive leadership can provide a framework that encourages others to listen to you, even when their values aren’t aligned or you don’t sit in a chair of authority. Equally important, it challenges you to ask:
  • How well do you listen to others? 
  • Where can you listen better to those who have different values and bridge gaps to drive change? 
Creating change requires flexibility to adapt to evolving contexts, bridge diverse opinions, and find solutions in spite of uncertainty.
If you’re not seeing the outcomes you expect or your message isn’t resonating, adaptive leadership invites you to ask: 
  • What is it I’m missing? 
  • What can I do differently to communicate or influence more effectively?
  • How can I help others see my vision for change, speak up, and align with what I’m trying to accomplish? 

How to identify adaptive problems

In Acumen Academy’s Adaptive Leadership course, Eric discusses how to identify the kind of problem you’re facing so that you can employ the right strategy to tackle it.
“By doing this, you can focus on approaches that will make a real difference, sidestepping wasted time, squandered resources, and distractions,” he says.  
Eric makes an important distinction between two types of problems: 
1. Technical Problems: Generally get resolved quickly. The solution requires a clear, technical fix. 
“A housefire is a quintessential and easily identifiable technical problem. The problem is eminently clear: the house is ablaze. The solution, too, is well known, well accepted, and generally available: pour water on the fire,” says Eric.  
Addressing technical problems is an important part of our everyday lives. They are the common problems we face, the “fires we put out”— like keeping our customers happy, planning our budgets, or organizing our office desks. 
2. Adaptive Problems: Have no known easy answers, take more time to solve, and usually come up again even when you thought you solved it. 
“If firefighting largely involves technical work, what, if any, adaptive problems contribute to the onset of fires in the first place? Arson is one such example of an adaptive problem. Unlike fires resulting from furnace explosions or electrical problems, arson is due to a host of issues that community and society have failed to address,” adds Eric.  
The distinction between adaptive and technical problems is not always clear. Problems often come mixed with technical and adaptive elements and are not neatly packaged into either category. 

Seven signs that you’re facing a leadership moment

To help gain clarity, Eric offers seven flags to know whether you’re facing an adaptive problem: 
1. Emotions escalate: A fight-or-flight response occurs where you or someone else becomes defensive or goes on the attack. 
2. The problem keeps coming back: It could be a difficult conversation or a specific problem that keeps cropping up, even after you thought you had addressed it.
3. Nobody has the answer: There’s a gap between where you are and where you want to be, however, you don't have the information or partnerships needed to narrow the gap.
4. Logic and reason fail: Without clearly defined solutions, people reacting to challenges requiring adaptive leadership can often seem irrational or illogical.
5. It feels perilous: If this happens, consider whether you have strong partners or allies. If you're alone on the issue, give yourself time to reassess the situation.
6. Progress requires breaking ranks or crossing a divide: If, in order to make progress, you or somebody else needs to step outside of predetermined roles, consider who or what will be put at risk in doing so. 
7. It’s messy: There’s a cascade of effects that are hard to manage and don’t have a direct path toward success. 
“Being able to successfully diagnose the problem and then recast a working strategy so people can attend to adaptive problems is key to setting yourself up for success in a leadership moment,” says Eric. 
Recognizing adaptive problems with the help of these flags is the first step. To dive deeper into strategies for tackling adaptive problems, consider enrolling in our free Adaptive Leadership course.

3 steps for using adaptive leadership everyday

Adaptive leadership is an every-day action. Here are three steps to take to implement adaptive leadership in your work or life.


Eric offers a visual to illustrate how you can work on shifting your perspective: 
This is where the action is, and where traditional organizations and leadership structures want you to be. On the dance floor, you’re preoccupied with the dance of email, instant messages, meetings, cell phones, and to-do lists. 
This motion makes observation difficult and it’s nearly impossible for you to get a sense of what’s happening and why. As Vichi and her team at ROI experienced through systems practice, getting on the dance floor helps you see the system from afar and find unseen solutions that drive real change. 
When you feel caught on the dance floor, picture yourself consciously walking away to “get on the balcony” instead — above the frenzy of daily activity, things look different. 
Up on the balcony, you can examine patterns and reach a deeper understanding of the dance floor system. You see a larger structural and social system that can create new possibilities for you and your organization. This perspective can help you mobilize people around the right problems.
“It’s about seeing yourself in action, seeing others in action. And being more strategic about how you then intervene back on the dance floor. Demands on our time (such as email) are such that dance floor activity is what’s valued. It’s really important that if you’re going to lead change and mobilize people to tackle tough challenges, you have a moment getting on the balcony,” says Eric. 


One of the first things to discern from the balcony is the gap between your current reality and your aspiration for how things should be.
For example, you may believe in being more strategic across your organization (aspiration) but you don’t make time to think long-term or coordinate with colleagues (reality). 
This gap between your aspiration and reality is something you can discover by moving between the dance floor and the balcony. It presents a leadership opportunity, and is an adaptive problem that could have both adaptive and technical solutions. For example, an adaptive solution could mean exploring the problem creatively, by identifying ways to build long-term strategies and by encouraging colleagues to join you on the journey. A technical solution might mean setting time on your calendar to brainstorm ideas together with other team members. 

2. Frame your adaptive challenge

That gap between where you are and where you want to go is where your work lies. 
Eric suggests answering these questions to help you frame your challenge:
  • Who are you? What role do you play within your team, organization, or community?
  • What is your (or your team’s, your organization's, your community’s) aspiration?
  • Why does it matter?
  • What is the current reality?
Framing your intentions in this way can help you think more creatively about the change you want to make and the challenges you face to achieve them. 

3. Engage your stakeholders

People don’t generally get behind something if they didn’t come up with the idea themselves or  become deeply involved in the process. Adaptive leadership starts with you, but in order to drive action, you have to get others onboard. 
“When you walk into a room to present an idea for change, you have to have a good value proposition. But it’s not only about making the sales pitch. What happens when you leave the room? How do you create a strategy that gives everyone buy-in?” says Eric. 
To create a strategy that mobilizes your stakeholders, ask yourself:
  • What do your stakeholders value? 
  • How does your idea impact your stakeholders? 
  • How can you help reframe the solution to mitigate any feelings of loss?
Occupying the spaces where conversations lead to new possibilities is where the magic of adaptive leadership happens. It’s where you fill the gap and lead from any seat. 

Resources to further your understanding of adaptive leadership

As you continue exploring adaptive leadership, here is a list of resources and next steps to guide you along the way. 
To learn more about your leadership moment and other ideas for democratizing leadership, pick up Eric Martin’s book: Your Leadership Moment: Democratizing Leadership in an Age of Authoritarianism
If you’re seeking interactive ways to practice adaptive leadership, sign up for Acumen Academy’s course on Adaptive Leadership to access more tools and strategies. 
A good public speaker can encourage others to have an open mind about change and adopting new directions. Acumen Academy’s Guide on Public Speaking and Chris Anderson’s Master Class on Public Speaking teaches you how to move a room of people into action. 
If you’re looking for more ways to grow as a leader, then explore Acumen Academy’s Course offerings