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Adaptive Leadership in Public Health: Competencies and Examples

April 14, 2024

Distinct leadership styles can offer a roadmap when navigating the daily decision-making process. Leaders in public health in particular — from CEOs to middle managers and beyond — can benefit from applying a particular style of leadership to their role. This style can assist in reaching public health goals, reviewing the progress of disease prevention strategies, and inspiring multidisciplinary teams of practitioners in the sector. 

Adaptive leadership is a flexible model that seeks long-term, systematic organizational changes. Explore the key competencies of this leadership style, how it can benefit the public health sector, and the educational steps to become a more responsive, adaptive leader.

Defining Adaptive Leadership

The goal of adaptive leadership is to overcome complex challenges in an organization by mobilizing a team of individuals, rather than attempting to create solutions single-handedly. First designed by Harvard professors Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, this leadership model leverages the decision-making creativity of individuals throughout the organization to offer more flexible, adaptable strategies.

Adaptive vs. Technical Situations

The approach contrasts two distinct decision-making situations: technical and adaptive. A technical situation has a known answer that an expert in the field can provide. An adaptive decision does not have a clear-cut answer and can benefit from a team of individuals exploring solutions.

Steps to Adaptive Problem Solving

The adaptive leadership model is designed to be applied in any number of specific situations. Here is an example of how it was used in the public health sector during the COVID-19 pandemic. The basic steps included:

  • Diagnosing the challenges. When public health leaders were first confronted with the novel COVID-19 pandemic, they needed to not only determine the population groups most at risk but also a comprehensive plan for public safety and disease prevention.
  • Experimenting and collaborating to identify solutions. Solutions for disease prevention, from lockdowns to vaccinations, needed to be implemented throughout the pandemic to reflect current knowledge of the novel virus, its infection rates, and other factors.
  • Assessing the success of solutions. Solutions were then adapted on local, national, and global scales, with care taken to communicate empathetically throughout the crisis.

The adaptive leadership model was first developed as a response both to the rigidity of traditional leadership and in response to rapid advances in technology. Modern decision-makers must often respond in real time to crises, even long-term, multi-faceted ones, creating the need for a more dynamic leadership solution.

Applying Adaptive Leadership to the Public Health Sector

Leaders in public health are often called on to make decisions based on complex, multifaceted problems. Those decisions can have long-term implications, so it is essential for leaders to focus on decision-making processes that bring in a team of talented voices.

Adaptive leadership can help leaders utilize expertise and recent data in a multidisciplinary approach. For example, adaptive decision making can be leveraged by combining the community knowledge of local health agencies, the most recent research in disease prevention, and other expertise.

To apply an adaptive style of leadership to the public health sector, leaders must embody the following competencies. 

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Competencies of Adaptive Leaders

How do leaders successfully implement the adaptive leadership model? Below are some main competencies that help leaders, particularly in the public health sector, facilitate a more adaptive approach.


A leader with integrity can champion the truth and promote positive outcomes even in the face of adversity. The public health sector can include many complex, stressful situations with no clear solution. Leaders must avoid cutting corners and avoiding the hard road of developing solutions that positively impact communities.

A Development Mindset

Public health is a constantly changing field, so leaders naturally should be responsive to new technology, research, and health risks in communities. Development means committing to growth, both personal and organizational, to keep up with changes in the sector.

Organizational Justice

In traditional organizational structures, leaders can make decisions at a high level with little or no communication with colleagues who work in different areas. Adaptive leaders avoid this by not only providing lines of communication for various team members but also by fostering an environment of fairness and equality throughout the organization.

Emotional Intelligence

Another important competency for leaders embracing an adaptive style is emotional intelligence. Focusing on relationships and communicating with empathy can improve engagement and buy-in within an organization. Creating an environment of open, empathetic communication allows individuals to provide feedback and insight into complex problems.

Adaptive Leadership Examples

The aforementioned competencies apply to various situations faced by public health leaders. By reviewing adaptive leadership examples, leaders can gain valuable insight into adaptive strategies in their own organizations.

Health Equity Promotion

There are many inequities in the U.S. health system. Adaptive leaders can work closely with community members to uplift diverse voices offering solutions to complex, multifaceted challenges to health equity, including racism, economic marginalization, adverse childhood experiences, and other factors.

Emergency Response Team

An emergency response team (ERT) encounters many technical problems, but the leader of an ERT must also respond to adaptive problems. For example, when preparing an emergency plan for a facility, there are an almost infinite number of minor and major incidents that an ERT should try to prepare for. Adaptive leaders can work with team members to explore possibilities, experiment with emergency response steps, and assess the best option for a broad and unknown number of potential situations.

Disease Prevention Planning

The COVID-19 pandemic was a clear example of the many technical and adaptive situations that are part of a disease prevention plan. While there are many known features of disease and prevention planning, other elements cannot be known in advance. Unknown factors included features of the COVID-19 viruses, how they spread, how they mutated, and how the real-time situation impacted public behavior. All these variables required adaptive decision-making throughout the pandemic.

For example, public health leaders needed to adapt methods of communication to address community fears and concerns while ensuring proper disease prevention through quarantines, social distancing, respirator use, and vaccination.

Management Changes

From C-suite executives to shift leaders, new managers can drastically change the interpersonal dynamics and communication environment of a workplace. Instead of stepping into a role and making immediate, unilateral, top-down structural organizational changes, an adaptive leader first explores the ideas, initiatives, personalities, and strengths of team members before working together to improve a process.

Refine Your Leadership Competencies

These adaptive leadership examples highlight some of the benefits of this dynamic model. With Tulane University’s Online Doctor of Public Health in Leadership, Advocacy, and Equity (DrPH) program, you can learn more about how to become an effective public health leader. Consider how this program can help you: take the next step in your public health leadership journey, inspire your team, and give back to your community.

Advance Your Public Health Career with a DrPH in Leadership, Advocacy & Equity

Pursue Your Degree Online From Tulane University
Find Out More

Recommended Reading

The Role of Leadership in Public Health Advocacy

DrPH vs. PhD: What’s the Difference?

Effective Leadership in Public Health: Essential Skills


American Public Health Association, “Reimagining Public Health Leadership for Health Equity: Moving Toward Collective and Community-Centered Applied Practice”

Corporate Finance Institute, Adaptive Leadership

Changefirst, “4 Key Personal Competencies of Adaptive Change Leaders”

Indeed, “What Is Adaptive Leadership? (Plus Pros and Cons)”

Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, “Thoughts on Adaptive Leadership in a Challenging Time”

Medical Group Management Association, “Using Adaptive Leadership to Engage, Empower, and Energize”

PubMed Central, “Juneau, Alaska’s Successful Response to COVID-19: A Case Study of Adaptive Leadership in a Complex System”

Work Life, “Adaptive Leadership: Principles and a Framework for the Future”