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9 Essentials of Adaptive Leadership

For several years now we have seen an increasing demand for adaptive leadership within the life of the church. We’ve been challenged to adapt to ever-changing cultural, generational, environmental, economic and technological factors that have pressed the church to the edge of, and often beyond, places of familiarity and security. While we know to our core the nature of God, the mission of God and the family of God transcend time and place, and span across all generations, it takes adaptive leaders to contextualize the Gospel in each present time and place. 

Adaptation is hard work. It threatens the institutions and systems that we have built to sustain who we are and what we do. Adaptation happens in an uncomfortable space where our defining values and practices are called into question, and either relinquished as no longer supportive of our core mission or reaffirmed as mission critical. Adaptation causes conflict, but the truth is, adaptation is also predicated on conflict. When we sense dissonance inside the community or dislocation from the world outside, we are faced with a choice: ignore and dismiss to our peril or engage and adapt. It's not an easy process because there are no easy answers – it’s a process of exploration and transformation. 

Fortunately, as followers of Jesus, we can get behind transformation. That is the very heart of our message and our mission. As the church stands between the already and not-yet of the New Creation, we expect a good deal of transformation along the way, as we run with endurance the race that is set before us.  

If you are sensing an urgency to adapt and are ready to embrace the transformative process, here are 9 Essentials of adaptive leadership you will need for the journey. 


Before anything else, adaptive leaders have to show up and put in the work. They need to demonstrate that they are willing to work as hard and even harder than everyone else. If they’re not sure that they are ready to lead in effort, perhaps this is not the right time for the trip. 

Experience, Expertise and/or Effectiveness

Adaptive leaders should instill confidence that they have some idea what they are doing. This comes through demonstrating a combination of Experience (You’ve been doing this for some time), Expertise (You know/do this better than most others in your field), and/or Effectiveness (You have a track record of past success). While having all 3 is not essential, lacking all 3 of these will raise serious questions about the leader’s core competencies related to the work at hand.  


Adaptive leaders understand the hopes, needs, risks and goals others bring to the mission and what their motivations are. They are compassionate and honor the humanity, the stories, and the complexities of their fellow travelers. They take the time to consider the point of view of others and even allow others to reveal the leader’s blind spots and growth areas.  

Expect and Embrace Transformation

Adaptive leaders display an openness, even willingness to be transformed. They expect to be changed in the process and welcome that change for the sake of the mission. Likewise, they expect others to be changed as well. Except for the mission, everything else is on the table – people, processes, priorities, programs, products, properties, etc.


Success takes significant investment and failure carries real loss – there is a weight to this. Adaptive leaders have skin in the game.If the mission really matters, it should cost something. One can’t expect a high-value outcome from a low-value investment. What a leader puts in it, shows how they believe in it.  


Endurance is the combination of courage, fortitude and determination that doesn’t look for an easy solution but is willing to stick to it and stay at it for the long haul. 

Adaptive leadership is not for the faint of heart, which is why so many refuse to try even when they know it is necessary. It feels easier to keep doing what they’re doing and hope for the best. While this might bring the short-term gain of comfort and familiarity, it comes with a long-term loss that can be quite significant. However, for those who are emboldened to embody these essentials, the future is wide open as you align your ministries with the movement of the Spirit of God and are transformed!


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