Academy of Adaptive Leadership

Leadership for our times

Businesswoman leading a training class for professionals

Who we are

The Academy of Adaptive Leadership at UNSW is a hub of adaptive leadership scholarship and practice serving the Indo-Pacific region.

We believe our part of the world needs new approaches to leadership now more than ever. We believe adaptive leadership can help our societies make progress in productive ways, to help us advance communities and opportunities within our jurisdictions but also between them. We aim to move leadership practices beyond domination and control towards collaboration and care. We believe in the strength of diverse approaches to adaptive leadership that respectfully harness the best of different cultures, genders and histories to forge new ways of making progress together.

Centred at the University of New South Wales (Canberra) and Australian Graduate School of Management (UNSW Sydney), the Academy of Adaptive Leadership at UNSW provides research, teaching, curriculum development, and bespoke training options associated with adaptive leadership that serve societies across our region.

Partnering with the global founders and leading experts of adaptive leadership at Harvard University, Professors Ron Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Farayi Chipungu, as well as the award-winning Kansas Leadership Center, and previous Harvard-KSG visiting faculty, Maxime Fern and Dr. Michael Johnstone, the Academy of Adaptive Leadership at UNSW provides an adaptive leadership one-stop shop to meet the needs of private, public and civil society sectors.

Our faculty, staff and coaches feature deep expertise and experience in adaptive leadership practice and scholarship. We build off the wisdom of long-standing adaptive leadership practitioners alongside newly emerging adaptive leadership innovators. We are proud to partner with founders and members of the Australian Adaptive Leadership Institute (AALI) and Adaptive Leadership Australia (ALA).

What makes us unique

The Academy of Adaptive Leadership at UNSW provides a wraparound service to adaptive leadership that integrates innovative research concerning adaptive leadership with training, coaching and education services.

We also offer unique impact and evaluation services associated with adaptive leadership that track the stories of difference that adaptive leadership can make to issues, organizations, systems, and communities.

We emphasise unique ways to apply adaptive leadership concepts into the histories, values, and cultures of our region, recognising the capacity of adaptive leadership to be stretched into new holding containers of progress that suit the peoples and places of our part of the world. 

We will work with you in a personalised manner to tailor our knowledge, skills and services to your needs. We offer engaging virtual, face-to-face and blended modes of interaction and cater to the needs of any size group.

We will honour your particular cultural and jurisdictional setting and our expertise is geared to place-based and inclusive adaptive leadership practice.

Contact Us:

If you have any questions or would like to learn more about The Academy of Adaptive Leadership at UNSW, please contact Anya Holzman.


"When Everyone Leads"

We’re very pleased to invite you to join us for a conversation with Julia Fabris McBride, co-author of Kansas Leadership Center’s new book “When Everyone Leads”.

The session will take place on Wednesday the 12th of April from 8 to 9.30am AEST.

Register Here

What is adaptive leadership?

Adaptive leadership is a practical framework to assist individuals and organizations confront and diagnose difficult situations and flourish in turbulent and challenging circumstances.

We live in a VUCA world – a contemporary environment characterised by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, where extremely compressed timeframes now define how long we have to strategically respond to flux, chaos, and shifting realities.

Having only a flexible mindset and being able to ‘pivot’ is not enough. 

Adaptive leadership is based on the collection and codifying of a range of leadership insights, competencies and practices developed by Harvard professors Ron Heifetz and Martin Linsky and cultivated further by protagonists such as Cambridge Leadership Associates and the Kansas Leadership Center, together with practitioners such as Dean Williams, and Maxime Fern & Michael Johnstone, over the last 20 years.

Adaptive leadership develops the capacity to identify and respond to adaptive, as opposed to technical, problems and to mobilise people to make progress on these challenges. It links learning and collective capacity building to leadership, promoting several key guiding adaptive leadership principles:  

  1. Observing and diagnosing situations and challenges – this involves slowing down and taking a systems lens and bird-eye view to determine the types of problems and challenges that are relevant to your situation, community or organization. Heifetz and Linsky talk about ‘getting up on the balcony’ to do such diagnostic work as well as ‘getting back down on the dance floor’ to ensure comprehensive attention is paid to strategic and operational dimensions of the adaptive problems that are at play;
  2. Temperature and disturbance regulation – we all know that when the interpersonal or organizational pressure is turned up or the temperature is too cool, we risk shutting down or not being engaged enough. Whether it be a reaction to environmental pressures, a shift in local practice or in learning or leadership, the regulation of triggers, vulnerabilities, strengths and comfort zones is key to ability to manage ourselves, mobilise others to contribute to leadership and to manage systemic disequilibrium;
  3. Building collective capacity – rather than solo heroes at the top advocating a singular solution or vision, adaptive leadership deliberately encourages ‘giving the work back’, promoting unusual alliances, and ‘protecting the voices of those below’. The practices of adaptive leadership demand a role for everyone’s contributions to be cultivated and celebrated. The promotion of leadership as a ‘practice, not a position’ means that adaptive leadership is experimental and requires careful attention to the development of a safe and positive leadership holding container wherein people can explore interpretations and interventions, and manage the tensions and heat created. Adaptive leadership is realistic in that it recognises that casualties often emerge from change, but it suggests we pay attention to this reality and make adjustments to see if innovation can occur and ensure a philosophy of care can undergird people as they take risks and boldly explore tough diagnoses in order to make productive progress.

Why adaptive leadership?

Adaptive leadership is a leadership tool for our times.

It meets the needs to respond dynamically, creatively and respectfully to intractable problems, as well as emerging crises and ambiguous system and worldview changes.  

Mainstream leadership frameworks often rely on a heroic, visionary individual at the top of an organization to chart a course and marshal people along a path towards achievement of pre-defined solutions. This can be an extremely effective technique when we are faced with technical challenges.

Yet we know our societies are facing much deeper and complex challenges that do not respond to such top-down approaches. Problems are messy, historical, and deep-seated. People are complex and hold contested views. Meaningful dialogue seems out of reach and solutions elusive. Structures are hard to shift and power dynamics often discourage the reallocation of control and resources. Geopolitical forces are in flux, natural and man-made disasters are becoming more frequent and more fatal. Economic, social and environmental crises require more rapid, dynamic and creative responses.

Mainstream command and control leadership frameworks also fail to harness alternative worldviews and practices springing from inclusive and diverse thinking. We need new leadership worldviews if we are to achieve the best of collective and partnership approaches to leadership that attempt to leverage the best from everyone across all communities.  

Adaptive leadership views leadership as a practice, not a position. It prioritises systems perspectives and understands adaptation as a contested process, requiring everyone to play a part in making progress on difficult challenges. Adaptive leadership doesn’t seek to dominate or replace available tools in our leadership repertoire but to add to them. It operates by privileging  contextual awareness, diagnosis and questions, not solutions. It encourages us all to be both strategic and operational by going ‘up on the balcony’ and ‘back on the dance floor’. It seeks out multiple interpretations and surfaces assumptions that can unlock new ways of framing and making progress on challenging issues. It gives us confidence and tools to confront the difficult problems that otherwise we don’t seem to be able to figure out or shift. It helps us sort through the messy complexities, volatility, and uncertainties as a collaborative endeavour with civility and respect.

Adaptive leadership provides a new rhythm and impetus to leadership. In the fast-paced world in which we live, it seems that we need to operate ever more frenetically. Yet we know that such rapidity can prove counter-productive to strategy and effectiveness, leading to burnout, fatigue and inefficiency. Adaptive leadership encourages us to slow down in order to hurry up. It provides deliberate thoughtful ways to reframe our routines and bring mindfulness to our actions and assumptions. By seeking out progress rather than solutions, it allows for innovation and emergent strategy and lifts the burden of impossibility from our problem definition and opportunity creation endeavours.

Talk to us if you face difficult challenges or messy problems that require different ways of thinking and action. Adaptive leadership is likely to offer something just right for you!

Who we are

Professor Deborah Blackman

Deborah, Head of School & a member of the Public Service Research Group, in the School of Business at UNSW, Canberra. Her research covers Public Sector Policy Implementation, Systems Level change, Employee Performance Management, Organisational Learning; Soft Knowledge Management, Organisational Effectiveness, Psychological Contract & Governance.

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Professor Ronald Heifetz

Ronald is among the world’s foremost authorities on the practice and teaching of leadership. He speaks extensively and advises heads of governments, businesses, and non-profit organisations across the globe. Heifetz founded the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School where he has taught for nearly four decades.

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Professor Farayi Chipungu

Farayi is Adjunct Lecturer, The Harvard Kennedy School of Government & teaches courses at Harvard Law School. Her focus is on leadership, change management & innovation. She is the faculty chair for the Adaptive Leadership: Lawyers Driving Change program at Harvard Law School & the Women & Power program at The Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

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Professor Catherine Althaus

Catherine is ANZSOG Deputy Dean (Teaching and Learning) and ANZSOG Professorial Chair of Public Service Leadership and Reform at UNSW Canberra. She gained her adaptive leadership facilitator and coaching training and certification from the Kansas Leadership Centre, a worldwide leader in adaptive leadership for the public and non-profit sector.

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Dr Shibaab Rahman

Shibaab is a lecturer at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Canberra. His research interests lie at the intersection of public administration and organisation theory. also has expertise in public sector leadership and leadership education in general.

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Max Rixe

Max is a leadership consultant based in Canberra. He gained his adaptive leadership training from the Kansas Leadership Centre, a worldwide leader in adaptive leadership for the public and non-profit sector. Max strongly believes that leadership is an act; not a position, and that it can be demonstrated by anyone.

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Dr Samantha Johnson

Samantha is a behavioural scientist with the School of Business, UNSW Canberra where she teaches leadership at the Australian Defence Force Academy. Her teaching focus is on guiding students to understand threshold concepts in leadership and to develop as leaders.

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Maxime Fern

Maxime Fern is known in the global adaptive community for her contribution to the original Harvard Kennedy School program, the Art and Practice of Leadership Development, commonly known as APL. She taught in this program with Marty Linsky and Ron Heifetz for over 15 years and is inaugural faculty of the Australian Adaptive Leadership Institute.

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Michael Johnstone

Michael Johnstone is known in the global adaptive community for his contribution to the original Harvard Kennedy School program, the Art and Practice of Leadership Development, commonly known as APL. He taught in this program with Marty Linsky & Ron Heifetz for over 15 years and is inaugural faculty of the Australian Adaptive Leadership Institute.

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Rosamund Christie

Rosamund is a leading practitioner of Adaptive Leadership in Australia and an experienced practitioner of Case-in-Point methodology, revealing in real time the play of dynamics in a system and providing participants with insight and skill to manage themselves and the organisational context they are leading.

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Saul Brown

Saul is a consultant & educator with expertise across strategy, organisation and leadership. His unique value lies in helping organisations achieve high performance in both business & human domains concurrently as a source of competitive advantage. Saul is a graduate of & adjunct faculty member at the Australian Graduate School of Management UNSW.

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Dr. Vindhya Weeratunga

Vindhya (Vindy) Weeratunga is a Lecturer in the School of Business at UNSW Canberra. She holds a PhD in Management from the University of New South Wales. Vindy is an HR practitioner / CEO turned academic. She is a mixed-methods researcher, and her research interests include employee engagement, employee well-being, and the future of work.

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Mark Madden

Mark aims to assist people and organisations to manage change and growth, for the better. The principles and competencies of adaptive leadership have informed his work in management, change management, strategic planning and communications, policy development and implementation and governance in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors.

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Andrew Williams

Andrew has worked in the adaptive leadership space for over 10 years. He started his journey at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and was then accredited as a Master Practitioner in the Case in Point at the Kansas Leadership Centre. He teaches the adaptive leadership framework and concepts in his work as an Adjunct Faculty at the AGSM.

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Denise Weinreis

Denise is an AGSM Fellow and Adjunct Associate Professor who specialises in coaching executives and teams to enhance their personal energy, leadership, and performance. Denise teaches on a number of programs in the UNSW Business School, including the AGSM MBA (full-time and executive) and AGSM Open and Custom Executive programs.

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Wendy Gould

Wendy is an experienced Program Director, Executive Coach, and human behavioural practitioner with success in the Defence industry. A Logistician by profession, Wendy is skilled in complex Operations Management, Operational Logistics Planning and Execution, Organisational Leadership, Leader and Team development and Organisational Culture Reform.

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Claire McKendrick

Claire has been applying adaptive leadership practices for a decade as a facilitator, coach, and consultant and from positional leadership working as an executive in the public sector. She trained in case-in-point facilitation with the Australian Adaptive Leadership Institute.

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Julia Fabris McBride

Julia Fabris McBride is chief leadership development officer at the Kansas Leadership Center, where more than 15,000 people around the world have attended programs since 2007. A certified coach, former actor and co-author of When Everyone Leads, Julia splits her time between Wichita and Matfield Green, Kansas.

Dr Alison Beamish

Dr Alison Beamish is a Post Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). Presently her research focuses on Adaptive Leadership, however, her expertise extends to Servant Leadership and Abusive Supervision. Alison's interests include how leadership behaviours have lasting effects on a leader's health and wellbeing.