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Catalyzing capacity: absorptive, adaptive, and generative leadership

Elizabeth A. Castillo (Department of Leadership and Interdisciplinary Studies, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, USA)
Mai P. Trinh (Department of Leadership and Interdisciplinary Studies, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, USA)

Journal of Organizational Change Management

ISSN: 0953-4814

Article publication date: 31 July 2018




Organizations increasingly operate under volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) conditions. Traditional command-and-control leadership can be ineffective in such chaotic environments. The purpose of this paper is to outline an alternative model to help leaders and organizations navigate effectively through VUCA environments. By developing three fundamental capacities (absorptive, adaptive and generative), leaders can cultivate organizations capable of continuous synchronization with their fitness landscapes. Central tenets of the framework include diversity, slack, learning, humility, reflection in action and abductive logic.


This framework is designed based on literature insights, conceptual analysis and experts’ judgment. The paper integrates knowledge from a variety of disciplines and interprets them through the lens of complex adaptive systems.


This paper argues for a process centered, contemplative approach to organizational leadership and development. By providing the underlying rationale for the proposed interventions (e.g. Ashby’s law of requisite variety), the paper also reorients busy leaders’ mental models to show why these time investments are worth implementing.

Practical implications

This actionable framework can help leaders and organizations be more effective operating in a VUCA context.


This paper provides a historic context as to why prediction and certainty are favored leadership strategies, why these approaches are no longer suitable and specific steps leaders can take to develop absorptive, adaptive and generative capacities to transform their organizations. Its scholarly contribution is the synthesis of disparate bodies of literature, weaving those multiple academic perspectives into a practical roadmap to enhance organizational leadership.



The authors would like to thank David Wells, Bill Erwin, Ken Wilmott and Denise Bates for their suggestions, as well as Michael Pryzdia and Kelly Nelson who also provided helpful feedback on early drafts of this paper. The authors are also grateful for insightful comments and suggestions from the editor and two anonymous reviewers.


Castillo, E.A. and Trinh, M.P. (2019), "Catalyzing capacity: absorptive, adaptive, and generative leadership", Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 32 No. 3, pp. 356-376.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited

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