Organisations need to adopt new ways of operating to navigate the complexities of today’s world of work.  A model that focuses on humanity, democratises leadership and builds capacity so people can adapt to disruption quickly.

In a world characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA), being able to pivot quickly is no longer enough. Leaders, organisations and systems need to respond dynamically, creatively and respectfully to challenges and changes and be equipped to respond to adaptive, rather than technical, problems.

“In our world, we have to continuously be conscious of, and deliberate in, how we confront opportunities, as well as problems we face and how we choose to respond,” said Professor Catherine Althaus, ANZSOG Professorial Chair Public Service Leadership and Reform at UNSW Canberra and Director of the UNSW Academy of Adaptive Leadership. “Adaptive Leadership helps you do that.”

Developed by Harvard Professors Ron Heifetz and Martin Linsky, adaptive leadership helps individuals and organisations assess difficult situations and flourish in turbulent and challenging circumstances.

Professor Althaus said it demands a different way of thinking. “Mainstream leadership has a technical approach with a heroic leader at the top – it’s about command and control. Leaders in this scenario have the vision or the solution, and their job is to bring everyone along.

“Whereas adaptive leadership starts from a very different premise, one that says we have no solution, and we don’t know where we’re supposed to go. Adaptive leadership is about a practice, not a person or position. It democratises leadership and leverages everyone playing a role,” said Professor Althaus, who will be presenting a masterclass on embedding adaptive leadership in organisations at the upcoming AGSM Professional Forum, which will be held in Canberra on Monday 3 July and Sydney (waitlist only) on 5 July.

“There’s a sense of urgency that we’ve got to be ready. Australia’s business community is maturing, it’s starting to forge its own possibilities and futures. And we cannot rely on routines carried on in the past. So, now’s the time to get in, get dirty and start doing some of this work.”

Adaptive leadership in practice

The Australian Department of Defence is using adaptive leadership practices to facilitate capability building to better support national interests and security, value local knowledge, confront outdated behaviour patterns, and identify what kind of leadership is needed in specific scenarios.

For example, adaptive leadership is helping Defence at all levels to better position personnel across military and non-military settings, and to move beyond standard routines and adopt an approach where leadership is cultivated by many people across the entire organisation.

Many other organisations, from financial institutions, agricultural operators and health providers through to the Australian Bureau of Statistics and large mining and resources companies are all adopting and deploying adaptive leadership initiatives.

In cybersecurity, for example, it is counterproductive to rely on a single technical, heroic leadership model. Local on-the-ground intelligence coupled with capturing perspectives that would otherwise be missed can be critical.

Logistics, procurement, recruitment and retention are other organisational functions that could benefit from adaptive leadership at a systems level. “We are seeing people make amazing movement on dealing with realities of learned helplessness that otherwise clog system change,” said Professor Althaus.

Adaptive leadership principles

The practice of adaptive leadership is based on three key principles.

1. Observing and diagnosing situations and challenges: stepping back to see the big picture and paying attention to the strategic and operational problems at play.

2. Temperature and disturbance regulation: assessing and managing interpersonal and organisational pressures that might impact the process of assessing or finding a solution.

3. Building collective capacity: creating the right environment for and promoting leadership as a ‘practice, not a position’ and building everyone’s capacity to contribute.

“The framework is not simply about individual skill development,” said Professor Althaus. “It’s about making systemic and organisational changes that will allow people to practice adaptive leadership in an effective and meaningful way.”

And rather than replacing existing approaches, adaptive leadership encourages people to assess problems and consider the kind of leadership that would be most effective in finding a solution. “We cannot simply just follow routines today,” she explained.

“We have to continuously question and be deliberate in how we confront the opportunities and problems we face – and that’s where adaptive leadership can help.”

Benefits of a more human-centric approach

New challenges require new ways of thinking and leading. Adaptive leadership helps people facilitate meaningful dialogue, respond more rapidly and creatively to messy, complicated problems and open up to worldviews and diverse practices. It also requires everyone to play a part in making progress.

With a more human-centric approach, Professor Althaus said adaptive leadership also makes us better humans. “Adaptive leadership is all about values, loyalties, and losses. It’s not just the intellectual stuff – you’re also dealing with the heartstrings and very primal things that drive us as human beings. It encourages us to become a more well-rounded human to be able to meet the challenges we face.”

Here are four ways adaptive leadership can help leaders and employees better navigate uncertainty:

1. Build confidence. Adaptive leadership starts with the premise that people have what they need to deal with the issues they confront. “It equips you with more confidence to be able to engage in courageous conversations, with contested viewpoints, disappointment and ambition,” said Professor Althaus.

“It encourages us to think more carefully about the differences between authority and leadership. And it invites us to move beyond technical know-how and technical problem-solving towards meeting, stepping into and embracing adaptive challenges.”

2. Democratising leadership. With a focus on adaptive tools and techniques, local knowledge and building individual capability to make decisions, the adaptive leadership framework encourages everyone across an organisation to practice leadership.

“We should never create dependency. People in their systems and in their local settings are best placed to make judgement calls. Adaptive leadership democratises leadership so everyone can contribute,” Professor Althaus said.

“It starts with the proposition that we’re worthwhile, and we all have something to offer. So we ask what’s our role in the mess? And what responsibilities can we step into to either get more involved or get out of the way. It encourages us to really take on our full humanity and make choices together.”

3. Leading with questions, not solutions. Questions help us open up conversations, invite diverse ideas and perspectives in and mobilise people. By seeking out progress rather than solutions, it replaces the notion of impossibility with a focus on innovation and creative strategy.

Rather than leading with a top-down, solution-focused mindset, being open to questions not only provides space for more creative solutions but will encourage more feedback and engagement from everyone. “Adaptive leadership is like a family unit. As people’s skills grow and mature, you give them more agency and authority allowing them to take ownership of their decisions,” Professor Althaus said.

4. Inviting equity, rather than equality. While equality is important in many aspects, it doesn’t necessarily consider the important fact that people are different and have different needs.

“Western bureaucracies are designed to prize equality. And that means a universal response. But we have to learn how to deal with diversity and focus on equity. Because sometimes the greatest good for the most amount of people may not be the best way,” said Professor Althaus.

Adaptive leadership applauds and leverages difference and divergence as much as consensus and what is held in common. “It celebrates differences which brings a richness that can open up perspectives,” explained Professor Althaus.

“It’s not just actually trying to get consensus all the time. We might want to have three different perspectives that will totally shift the narrative for what’s possible. Adaptive leadership invites that in quite deliberately.”


About the AGSM 2023 Professional Forum: Adaptive Leadership in an Accelerating World

Register for the AGSM 2023 Professional Forum: Adaptive Leadership in an Accelerating World on Monday, 3 July (Canberra) or Wednesday, 5 July in Sydney.

The Forum will open with a keynote delivered by Adjunct Professor Farayi Chipungu from Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Then, we’ll hear from a panel of industry experts on the ‘real world’ application of Adaptive Leadership practices. The final session of the day will be an interactive Masterclass designed and delivered by subject matter experts from the UNSW Academy of Adaptive Leadership.

Register here:

3 July – AGSM Professional Forum Canberra 

5 July - AGSM Professional Forum Sydney (Waitlist only)

6 July - Virtual Adaptive Leadership 2-hour Masterclass  

About the UNSW Academy of Adaptive Leadership

UNSW Canberra, in partnership with the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM), established the Academy of Adaptive Leadership to develop individual, organisational and systemic capability through research-based education and coaching as well as evaluating the impact of adopting adaptive leadership.

Find out more about the UNSW Academy of Adaptive Leadership here.

Find out more about AGSM @ UNSW Business School here.