Adaptive Leadership in Practice: Adaptive Leadership & Gender Equality at Australia Post

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Within the Australian business community, the need to take active steps towards greater representation of women in leadership is well accepted, with the majority of people agreeing that this is a critical strategic imperative for their organisations .

The absence of gender balanced leadership in Australia can be considered an ‘adaptive’ challenge – there is a gap between the outcome we say we want and the reality of not achieving this outcome in our current environment.  In this way, there is a growing need for leaders to create solutions that will discard entrenched ways, go beyond the current know how and learn new practices to increase the representation of women in leadership roles.

Some organisations are turning to the Adaptive Leadership framework as a way to mobilise people to rethink the way they tackle these challenges.

One such organisation is Australia Post, who is currently in the process of shifting their focus from CEO led to ‘diversity minded’ leadership. This involves challenging the deeply held beliefs of their leaders, including breaking the mould of solution oriented leadership to embedding individual accountability throughout the organisation by tapping into the collective skills, experiences and ideas of their diverse workforce.

At Australia Post, gender imbalance in leadership is not seen as a problem, but rather an opportunity to create a competitive edge with the benefits that come from a diverse and inclusive workplace. Over the past several years, the organisation has undergone significant change to ensure they adapt to meet the needs of customers in a rapidly evolving business climate in both the physical and the digital world.

Historically a male dominated operational business, part of this process was recognising that their continued success was reliant on creating a diverse and inclusive, high performing workforce. CEO led action was taken to attract, develop and promote the best talent from diverse backgrounds, with a particular spotlight on women.

This focus included investing significantly in building a strong pipeline of female talent from their award level right through to their executive. They implemented best practice initiatives such as mentoring, coaching, sponsorship, leadership development, networking and career management to specifically support the development, engagement and advancement of their female talent. These initiatives are running in addition to their core enterprise leadership offerings for both their male and female employees.

These changes are paying off, as two years ago, women represented just 21 per cent of all executive level positions and 32 per cent of all management positions. Today they represent 34 per cent of executives and 36 per cent of management roles.  Despite this progress, Australia Post recognises that there is still more work to be done.

As part of the next phase of their transformational journey, they looked to the Adaptive Leadership framework where individual accountability for change is embedded.

As a first step, Australia Post is supporting The 100% Project’s Leadership Symposium in November this year as a proactive and public commitment to driving change. Australia Post is also holding a leadership forum with the Symposium’s Leader Facilitator, Marty Linsky, to discuss how they can best apply the framework within their current environment.

“We believe that adaptive leadership can help us realise the benefits of a gender diverse and inclusive workforce, which includes a more agile, innovative, collaborative and engaged workforce that is able to better connect with and meet the needs of their diverse customer base.”  Sarah Fair, Head of Diversity & Inclusion.

Speaking with Sarah, she explained that Australia Post recognises there is no silver bullet to achieving their aspiration. They also know they will not achieve change through the efforts of a few well-intentioned individual leaders. She sees the adaptive leadership framework as a key enabler to driving ongoing, sustainable change in the next phase of their transformational journey.

An Interview with Marty Linsky on the Adaptive Challenge of Gender Equality

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of interviewing Marty Linsky about Adaptive Leadership and how it relates to the slow progress of gender equality in Australia.

As the author of a number of books on the topic, being a founding member of Cambridge Leadership Associates and having taught at Harvard’s Kennedy School for over 25 years, he provided me with some insights that I had never considered.  I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.

Cecelia, Beyond The Spin Editor.

Marty Linsky - lead facilitator

Linsky has worked on advancing gender equity as a coach, trainer, facilitator, and advocate in a variety of settings and co-authored the book Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life. He is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books and chapters. He is a co-author with Heifetz and Alexander Grashow of the book The Art and Practice of Adaptive Leadership and co-author with Heifetz of the best-selling Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading, both published by Harvard Business Press. 

Marty Linsky has been a faculty member of Harvard Kennedy School since 1982, except for 1992-1995 when he served as Chief Secretary and Counsellor to Massachusetts Governor William Weld. He has taught leadership, management, politics and media, and is currently faculty chair of several of the school’s executive programs on leadership. He has worked with a wide range of clients in the public, private and non-profit sectors in the US and abroad, including Fortune 500 companies and major federal government agencies.

What is Adaptive Leadership and how did this idea come about?

Adaptive Leadership is the activity of mobilizing people to address their most difficult challenges.   Adaptive Leadership is grounded in two core concepts:

First, leadership is a behaviour not a person.  The opportunity to exercise leadership comes before each of us every day, regardless of the position we hold or the role we play.

Second, the type of problems that require an exercise of leadership are adaptive in nature, not susceptible to the use of authority or the application of technical expertise, and lie more in people’s values and beliefs than in their reason and logic systems.

These ideas evolved from research exploring the barriers to communities addressing their most pressing issues, and the skills and techniques useful to making progress on them.

In Australia (and most other part of the world), female representation at leadership level remains very low and the gender pay gap is persistently high.  How can Adaptive Leadership behaviours help us move from our current reality towards an aspiration of greater balance?

First, I would say ‘female representation in senior authority roles’ not ‘at leadership levels’ since we make a distinction between a position and leadership activity.

Adaptive Leadership helps us understand that the current reality is not an accident. If it is going to change, if we are going to close the gap between that reality and our aspirations, we will have to use techniques that will stir up the community, feel risky, generate resistance, and probably make us uncomfortable as well. 

Adaptive Leadership provides tools and frameworks that are useful in maximizing the chances of success and minimizing the likelihood that people trying to close the gender gap will be themselves taken out, pushed aside, or marginalized.

I see many organisations and individuals concerned about how to lead the workforce of the future.  Given the rapid change and increasing uncertainty of today’s globalised workforce, how can being more adaptive help us face these challenges?

Being ‘more adaptive’ means tolerating more uncertainty, stepping into the unknown, running experiments, taking risks on behalf of purpose, and embracing difficult change, all of which will help organizations create the workforce of the future in a world where change is a constant and the future is unknown.

You have been at Harvard and working on Leadership topics for quite some time now.  How have Leadership models evolved over the past thirty years?  And in what ways do they remain the same?

I am not sure there any new ideas after Aristotle, but there are new ways of framing and packaging them that make a lot of difference. Best as I can tell, there are an endless number of leadership ‘models’ out there.

For me, the test is: what works? What is useful to people trying to do the right thing, trying to address difficult issues? We [Cambridge Leadership Associates] do not claim the whole turf for Adaptive Leadership. However, in the world we live in today, where change is constant and the future is more uncertain than we have ever experienced, people tell me that the skills around adaptation seem particularly timely and relevant.

I have heard you say in the past that Leadership is a risky behaviour.  Can you expand this thinking a little?

No one is authorized to exercise leadership. So leadership is a subversive activity. People are formally and/or informally authorized to do certain things, whatever their role – CEO, parent or activist – as long as they dutifully do what they are authorized and expected to do they will continue to be authorized in their role.

That is a prescription for the status quo, or at least for pandering to your authorizers, which is good and necessary work in any human organization, but has nothing to do with leadership.

Leadership is all about pushing the boundaries of your authorization on behalf of something you care deeply about, trying to close the gap between your aspiration for your community or organization and the current reality. When you push that boundary, you meet resistance. That’s what makes it dangerous. People get taken out or pushed aside for exercising leadership. Ask Anwar Sadat or Yitzhak Rabin or Ghandi….or folks in Australia who have been pushing for gender equity in their organizations.

It seems that Leaders often have to tell people what they need to hear, rather than what they want to hear.  I can’t help but think this is a particular challenge when we need to have the difficult conversations as to why the top level remain robustly male dominated….

I agree, although I’d prefer not to use the word ‘leader’.  Using that term seems to me to perpetuate the conflation of leadership with having a big job. I like to use the phrase ‘people trying to exercise leadership’ which suggests both that it is a behaviour and that no one does it 24/7.  This is a particular challenge in gender equity.

People at the top of organizations are reluctant to exercise leadership. After all, they have the most to lose. And, any organization which placed me at the top must be doing things right!

Making progress on gender equity in organizational life is not about “convincing people” in the traditional sense of presenting facts and making an argument. The people resisting change know all the facts and know all the arguments. They have to feel some pain, or at least some heat, before they will move.

People in authority often tread a fine line between doing what people expect of them and doing what needs to be done.  There is some great research out there that tells us this is a particular challenge for women in leadership roles who need to manage a very delicate balance to be perceived as either competent or liked.   Is developing Adaptive Leadership skills therefore particularly important for women?

Absolutely. It is important for anyone trying to lead change on difficult value-laden issues, particular from a minority position, particularly where the change will benefit those leading the charge so they can always be dismissed as self-interested.

One of the challenges for women on this issue is to get men as partners, if not out front. Women leading the struggle for gender equity inside of organizations often become marginalized as singing only one song.

It seems that being adaptive can be very difficult, but is accompanied by great opportunity.  What is it about adaptation that is so hard and why should direct our efforts towards being this way?

Adaptation is hard because it involves loss. It is like changing the DNA of an organization. Some of the wonderful DNA that got us to where we are has to be left behind. Leadership is about the distribution of loss. Adaptation is hard because the resistance comes from between the neck and the navel, not above the neck. So it is emotional. Facts are not compelling.

There appears to be a strong buy-in for the need to address the challenges of gender imbalance in leadership, especially given the strong business case for increasing female representation at senior levels.  Despite our best intentions however, we are getting very little traction towards real change.  How can the Adaptive Leadership framework provide us with a new solution to this old problem and help us gain momentum?

We hope that this framework will give people some new ways of looking at the challenge and some new tools for addressing it. Saying that, for the people who are there, making more progress on the issue than they have so far will very likely require them to do some things that make themselves and others uncomfortable.

What can people expect from an Adaptive Leadership Symposium?

Our aspiration is that people with leave re-energized and reinvigorated, with an expanded tool kit, with a clearer sense of how the world looks to the folks who are resisting change, with a new appreciation for what they themselves are doing or not doing that is getting in the way, and with a commitment to make some changes in their own behaviour, take more risks, and run some specific experiments, all of which will lead to more progress than we have seen.

Level the Playing Field: Can Adaptive Leadership help turn gender leadership rhetoric into action?

LTPF final small

By Chloe Kypuros, Fiona Page and Frances Feenstra

Despite some meaningful gains over the past decades, in 2013, women at the highest levels of organisations continue to be rare in comparison to male leaders. In addition, access to the same rewards, resources and opportunities regardless of sex remain a distant reality considering women continue to earn less than men, are less likely to advance their careers compared to men and are less likely to reach their full potential in leadership as opposed to men[1].

Clearly catching up with men particularly at the top is a significant problem that is taking much longer than expected to overcome[2]. Despite large numbers of women entering the Australian workforce, women only represent 12.3% of board directors, 9.7% senior executives and most disappointingly 3.5% of CEO’s within the top 200 organisations ranked by the Australian Stock Exchange (WGEA, 2013).

To deal with this issue, solutions such as gender targets, flexible working practices and maternity leave programs have been implemented by most Australian organisations with the aim of recruiting and retaining a larger portion of the female talent pool (WGEA, 2013). While such initiatives have had some impact, the slow progress of increasing the number of women at the top of organisations indicates that they are not nearly enough. Despite the fact that a majority of leaders recognise the impact of gender diversity on business performance, this belief does not translate into actions[3]. A new approach is needed. Adaptive Leadership may be such an approach, it may help us close the gap between gender leadership rhetoric and action.

What is Adaptive Leadership and why is it important for  today’s leaders? 

Adaptive Leadership is a theory that looks at how organisations can adapt and thrive in challenging environments through growth and capitalisation on change [4]. It embraces a polyarchic approach to leading and managing, with power dispersed to all levels of the organisation so that all individuals are engaged in the change process[5] [6].

Unlike other well-known theories of leadership such as Transformational Leadership, Adaptive Leadership theory doesn’t focus on the interaction between leaders and their followers – instead it asserts the benefits of employing the knowledge of the wider organisation, generating a larger vested interest and collective intelligence to diagnose challenges and implement solutions in the face of intensifying global competition, political and economic instability and increasing internal and external pressures[7].

Leaders are encouraged to not ‘hunker down’ and default to known or traditional problem solving strategies[8]. Rather it is recommended that leaders embrace uncertainty and seize the opportunities for changing the implicit organisational rules, structures and cultures that prevent organisations from shifting from one state to another.

Adaptive Leadership theory recognises that organisations do not function as simple systems, but are actually complex and evolutionary ecologies in which ready-made solutions are increasingly rare[9]. Organisations must encourage system wide learning of new habits and attitudes by abandoning and transforming traditional views of leadership into dynamic approaches where challenges they face can be successfully managed [10].

According to Heifetz and colleagues adaptive leadership framework, what distinguishes organisations that have more adaptive capacity from those with less are five key characteristics; elephants in the room are named, responsibility for the organisation’s future is shared, independent judgment is expected, leadership capacity is developed, and reflection and continuous learning are institutionalised. For example, how quickly crises are identified and discussed or how often disappointments are regarded as learning opportunities as opposed to personal failures are two of the hallmarks of adaptive organisations [11].

Randall and Coakley investigated the application of Heifetz and Linsky’s Adaptive Leadership framework to successful implementation of change initiatives in academia[12]. The authors examined case studies of two different universities and the challenges both faced in attracting more students. They demonstrated that the university which successfully implemented change and achieved an increased number of students was the one that embodied the key characteristics of the Adaptive Leadership framework. This result suggests that the application of Adaptive Leadership theory to complex problems such as gender leadership diversity needs to be considered.

How does Adaptive Leadership drive gender equality?

Overcoming gender based discrimination in senior organisational positions has proven to be an ongoing issue for Australian organisations. Attempts made by both government bodies and organisations to abolish gender-based disparity within the corporate world have not been as successful as initially hoped and have been unable to solve gender inequity in senior leadership roles.

To date, attempts to close the gender gap in leadership in Australia have largely focused on technical solutions – such as introducing anti-discrimination policies, flexible work arrangements or formal mentoring programs aimed at women[13].

These kinds of solutions work in “situation(s) where both the problem and the potential solution can be clearly defined”[14]. Gender imbalance in leadership is not such a simple problem. It is an issue Australia has grappled with for decades without much success. It is a challenge that requires recognition of the complex, systemic nature of the issue – and we therefore need to look for an approach such as Adaptive Leadership.

The fundamental shift in the business environment means that organisations are now faced with the reality of needing to evolve through uncertainty where there are no simple solutions. Organisations risk extinction if they are unable to deal with the many challenges facing them quickly enough. Developing qualities of adaptive leadership within organisations may well prove critical in solving ongoing challenges such as the gender imbalance in leadership and as a result reaping the business benefits of increased gender diversity at the highest levels in our Australian organisations.

Level the playing field: Turning gender leadership rhetoric into more effective action.

On Novermber 14, The 100% Project is hosting an Adaptive Leadership Symposium that will change the fundamental way organisations operate through change in the systems structure. “Level the playing field: Turning gender leadership rhetoric into more effective action” will be lead by Marty Linsky – one of the foremost thought leaders in Adaptive Leadership, all the way from Harvard Kennedy School.  As the co-author of ‘The Art and Practice of Adaptive Leadership’ and  ‘Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading’,  it is a special opportunity to have Linksy here is Australia.  If you are interested in finding out more, visit

[1] Workplace Gender Equality Agency. (2013). About workplace gender equality. Retrieved from equality

[2] Beck, B. (2011, November 26). Closing the Gap. The Economist. Retrieved from

[3] McKinsey and Company (2010). Women Matter. Women at the top of corporations: Making it happen.

[4]Heifetz, Grashow & Linsky (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools  and tactics for changing your organisation and the world. USA: Harvard Business  Review Press.

[5]Heifetz& Laurie (2003). The leader as teacher: creating the learning organisation.  Ivey Business Journal: Improving the practice of management, p. 1-9.

[6] Obolensky (2009). Complex adaptive leadership: embracing paradox and uncertainty.  Gower Publication Company.

[7] Heifetz et al (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organisation and the world. USA: Harvard Business Review Press.

[8] Heifetz, Grashow & Linsky (2009). Leadership in a (permanent) crisis. Harvard Business Review, p1-6.

[9] Lichtenstein, Uhl-Bien, Marion, Seers, & Orton (2006). Complexity leadership theory: an interactive perspective on leading in complex adaptive systems. Emergence: Complexity & Organisations, 8(4), p 2-12.

[10]Heifetz et al (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organisation and the world. USA: Harvard Business Review Press.

[11]Heifetz et al (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organisation and the world. USA: Harvard Business Review Press.

[12] Randall & Coakley (2007). Applying adaptive leadership to successful change initiatives in academia. Leadership & Organizational Development Journal, 28(4), p. 325-335.

[13] Broderick (2013). The face of gender based discrimination in Australian workplaces.Retrievedfrom face-gender-based-discrimination-australian-workplaces.

[14] Thygeson, Morrissey, L & Ulstad (2010; p.1010). Adaptive leadership and the practice of medicine: a complexity-based approach to reframing the doctor- patient relationship. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 16, p 1009- 1015.

Female writers, no matter how good, are still discriminated against

Underlying gender bias is so prevalent that we don’t even notice it! This article explores some of the challenges female writers face.

Another reason to engage in the Level the Playing Field Symposium!

What leading male executives think about gender diversity

ey-women-in-leadership-in-his-own-words-rhfErnst and Young has released a report called Women in Leadership – in his own words. It is based on interviews with nine leading Australian business leaders in the public and private sectors. It found that, while gender equity is a national imperative, our progress is still hamstrung by bias and ingrained cultural and organisational beliefs.

The issues raised in this report are the issues that we hope to make progress on during the Level the Playing Field Symposium.

Congratulations to Tanya Plibersek

On behalf of team at The 100% Project we would like to congratulate Tanya Plibersek on her appointment as the Deputy Opposition Leader.

Chris Blake, Larke Riemer, Minister Plibersek and Frances FeenstraIn the pursuit of fairness and equity, Tanya has worked tirelessly to represent women’s rights on issues such as paid parental leave and fairer rights at work. It was through this work that we at The 100% Project had the fortune of working with Tanya who then, as the Federal Minister for Status of Women, launched our organisation back in 2009.

We welcome Tanya’s election to the role of Deputy Leader as well as the announcement of 11 women to Labor’s frontbench. This is a win for women’s representation and look forward to working with her on future strategy to strengthen the position of women in organisations to improve financial and economic outcomes for Australia.

World Economic Forum: The Global Gender Gap Report 2013

One of the main findings from the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report is that Australia ranks number 1 for educating women yet ranks 52nd in the world for female workforce participation! There is still much work to be done!

If you are interested in taking action, getting involved in the debate about this discrepancy in Australia, then consider attending the level the Playing Field Symposium.

Don’t fail your daughters

In this article, Jeff Jones, EVP and Chief marketing Officer at Target, shares his hopes for his daughters and their careers:

It is a powerful reminder of the aspirations of The 100 Percent Project.

If you are interested in this debate, consider attending the Symposium.

The Myth of Merit and Unconscious Bias

An interesting discussion about merit in Australia:

This article is a thought provoking commentary on women in leadership in the both politics and large corporates. Why are we not yet converting this discussion into real action? Is this just an Australian problem?

More women are now breadwinners

An article from the BBC about how in the US more women are becoming the sole or major breadwinner and the impact that has on families, business and politics.

Will Australia also have these changes? This is another area that will be explored in the upcoming Symposium: Level the Playing Field.