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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

Meeting the moment: adapting our leadership to survive and thrive


Cranfield Trust chief executive Amanda Tincknell CBE on the right leadership for our times

Is there such a thing as one leadership style or do successful leaders instead take different approaches, particularly during challenging times?

Delegates at the Cranfield Trust’s Exploring Effective Leadership in Challenging Times workshop at the Gathering discussed the challenges they were currently facing and collectively drew their conclusions on how best to approach them.

Traditional leadership approaches tend to focus on having a clear vision for the organisation and work is focussed on targets and delivery dates. The vision is cascaded down to staff, with leaders focussed on engaging staff to commit to the strategy and coaching them using experience and authority to ensure work is done to the highest standards, with clear roles and responsibilities. Traditional leaders shield their staff from threat and maintain current norms in the workplace.

In contrast, adaptive leadership is often described as being collective, collaborative and generous. Adaptive leaders identify threat and find ways forward, encouraging novelty, experimentation and creative collective work, allowing direction to emerge as a challenge is clarified. They share concerns within a productive range of distress, allow ‘not knowing’ and encourage a culture of stepping up.

Workshop delegates gave examples of good leadership from their experience – both the role of the leader and the type of attributes they demonstrated. Most leaders mentioned were in traditional leadership roles – chief executives and other senior roles. Describing the qualities the leaders exhibited, delegates gave examples characteristic of both traditional and adaptive leaders, which included a sense of strategy and commitment to purpose, relationship building, empathy, listening and openness.

Delegates further reported the key challenges currently facing them as recruitment and retention of staff, funding/fundraising, and managing delivery with limited resources. Other challenges mentioned ranged from building effective teams, to meeting the terms of service level agreements with local authorities, and adapting services post-Covid.

So, should we take a traditional or adaptive approach to managing these challenges? Delegates felt that both adaptive and traditional approaches to leadership were needed to address all these issues effectively:

Staff recruitment and retention: both traditional and adaptive approaches were felt to be needed to address this challenge. They highlighted the need for traditional recruitment methods, but an adaptive approach to defining activities and developing roles.

Funding/fundraising: an adaptive approach was slightly preferred, although participants thought that both approaches were needed. Delegates felt that an adaptive approach is needed to build relationships with funders and donors, and more traditional approach to respond to formal income opportunities such as tenders and grant applications.

Managing delivery with limited resources: This was also a challenge which was seen as requiring both traditional and adaptive approaches, an adaptive approach to plan and optimise resources across a range of activities, but a more traditional approach to organise resources once plans were in place.

An adaptive approach to leadership is embedded in our sector: we value collaboration and co-development of our activities. In challenging times, we must not avoid a more traditional approach to leadership when circumstances demand, combining the two will give our organisations more resilience and enable us to adapt, survive and thrive.

Cranfield Trust provides free management support to welfare organisations working with 40 to 50 voluntary organisations a year in Scotland, offering pro bono consultancy and mentoring, delivered by skilled volunteers from the commercial sector. For more information please go to or email to be put in touch with the project manager in your area.  

If you would like slides from the Gathering Workshop on leadership please contact and watch our webinar The Hero Paradox for more on traditional and adaptive leadership from Professor Kim Turnbull-James of Cranfield School of Management



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