Human-induced climate change is probably the ultimate adaptive challenge facing our species. There are the technical facets and there are the adaptive (cultural and behavioural) facets that need fresh thinking and an experimental mindset. They require the tough work of interrogating values and refashioning priorities. JCU scientists are engaging with both sides of this immense challenge simultaneously — they invited Polykala to help them with some of the adaptive elements.  


We’re not sure how many adaptive leadership practitioners show up to rooms populated entirely by evolutionary biologists and scientists. We had the wonderful privilege of doing so in late 2022 when we travelled to Townsville, Bindal & Wulgurukaba Country. 

After two years of partnering with James Cook University using our approach to diversity and inclusion, the team at James Cook University wanted to take things a little deeper and more systemic. We were invited to spend two days introducing adaptive leadership and applying the ideas to the context of the staff at the Coral Reef Centre of Excellence.

We spent two days working with a team of 15 biological and social scientists to develop their adaptive leadership capacity to work together more collaboratively, to manage their staff more sensitively and to approach complex social challenges with greater dexterity. 


The two-day intensive revealed how subject matter expertise doesn’t always equate to skill in managing organisational complexity or practising leadership, where leadership makes a difference to the status quo. Why? Because academia, rightly, values expertise and expertise are accumulated over time and therefore builds, maybe inadvertently, steep hierarchies that are immune to change. 

Our outsider/non-expert status helped build a supportive holding environment. This enabled the team of researchers and centre directors be vulnerable, interpret playfully and put aside their knowledge to try new ways of thinking and relating to each other and the collective challenges they face. 

Looming, like a whale shark in the room (if you don’t mind the mixed metaphor) was climate change. Every one of these academics’ work grappled with the social and ecological effects of a changing climate and the multi-front effect it has on social, economic, ecological and cultural systems. The adaptive leadership framework was the perfect complement as it is inherently tuned to systemic factors that confound linear, conventional approaches to making change. 


It was an honour to help leading researchers gain a better handle on how they might practise leadership to enable centres of higher learning and research to better respond to the big challenges facing us all. A few months later we heard from Professor Tiffany Morrison sharing her reflections on her time with us:

“The shift for me regarding leadership has really been about thinking through change and changing leadership in a more comprehensive and systematic way. I had to make some big decisions towards the end of last year, and the tools you introduced helped me to think these through more carefully.”

Tiffany Morrison – Professor, Environmental Policy & Governance, James Cook University


James Cook University



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Townsville (QLD)