Leadership Victoria in association with Polykala and Diana Renner helped 40 of the University of Sydney’s brightest early and mid-career academics lead with purpose to make a difference in their research and organisational life.


The University of Sydney reached out to Leadership Victoria (LV) in search of an immersive training to ground high-potential researchers in the practice of adaptive leadership. LV is one of Australia’s foremost for-purpose leadership development organisations with a storied history in community and NFP learning and development. Over the past five years, LV has partnered with the Kansas Leadership Centre (KLC) to develop an Australian version of for-purpose leadership development training. Dr Miriam-Rose Ash, Manager, Researcher Development, and her colleagues Alison Ward and Dr Aisha Malik, sought LV’s expertise to pilot an experiential approach to equipping scholars with leadership insights and skills they could apply to their work. They wanted to go beyond powerpoint models and neat lists. Researchers, like many technically skilled experts, do not often get the input and investment into their growth as people leaders or as change agents. Most of that is left to chance.

LVs ‘Leading with Purpose’ 3-day intensive was designed to spark deep reflection and explore the core adaptive leadership framework through challenges and ambitions the group of forty scholars held dear. The program was an invitation to experiment and, itself, an experiment in terms of how leadership is learned and taught in higher education settings. The learning context for the delivery team, Diana Renner and Ananth Gopal, was a room full of the country’s leading thinkers and experts on fields as varied as public health, climate change governance, virology and computational social science. In other words, very smart people. The context for the participants was: ‘How can I learn to lead beyond my expertise and disciplinary focus?’ It was a challenging and deeply stimulating experience.


LV takes a very similar approach to Polykala when it comes to conceptualising leadership; we both believe it is an activity, not a position. It’s also risky business to upset the status quo no matter how noble the cause. LV uses the wonderful, compact book ‘Your Leadership Edge’ by Ed O’Malley and Amanda Cebula as the curricular basis for their Leading with Purpose short course. Polykala and Diana Renner brought their principles to life through a range of carefully facilitated conversations, energising activities and high-heat case-in-point learning moments. To be clear, there was no need to manufacture tension, factions or competing perspectives. The course took place immediately before and after the referendum on the Voice to Parliament and, as such formed, an important part of the socio-political and emotional backdrop of the program. The learning environment was effectively living within an attempt at reshaping Australia’s relationship to its First Peoples. There is no clearer example of the risk and polarisation that leadership, when attempted, invariably causes in this country. 

Universities exist in some regards as semi-autonomous provinces of a loosely regulated federation. Each research lead or centre director, in effect, functions as a local chief, CEO or president. Understanding formal authority is paramount and therefore trying to enact leadership within a context of multiple styles of command is tricky, to say the least. We therefore focussed on distinguishing leadership and authority to help participants see what kind of clout they wield and how they may affect change without authority. The sessions were a wonderful microcosm of the ‘real world’. Impassioned voices hotly contested the nature of the challenges they deemed important while others grew quieter. We gently asked the group to make observations and then interpretations to ton this imbalance. The group began its reflective work heading up to the ‘balcony’ and recognising the value of protecting dissenting voices, not getting swept up with dominant viewpoints and the need to build coalitions across factions. 

Like many other adaptive leadership practitioners, we didn’t teach people about leadership via lists or case-studies. Instead we trusted the wisdom of the participants to begin noticing the key distinctions the adaptive leadership frame sets out. Day two culminated in participants applying the key ideas via the Harvard peer consultation process. It was here the ‘penny’ dropped. Participants shared their leadership aspirations with precision and candour inviting their peers to diagnose the situation, offer multiple novel perspectives and point towards experiments they might try in their context. 

When we met for the third and final day a month later, we were able to hit the ground running. We focused on ‘regulating the heat’ and storytelling as key techniques in practising leadership. We coupled these skills with a framework for leadership ‘prototyping’; encouraging participants to ‘fail’ better and find weaknesses in their leadership actions with a view to correcting them and then rolling out their agenda at scale. The subsequent activity was a personal joy for Ananth. He used his background in improvisational theatre to help participants not only tell their stories with heart but also invite their audience to collaborate with them in the meaning making process. They offered alternate narratives, powerful metaphors and ways of articulating their agenda in a way that resonated with people. In this way, participants demonstrated that the meanings of stories don’t just sit with the teller the are, maybe more importantly, made in the mind and hearts of the audience.


We’re proud of the experimental, collaborative and rigorous work LV, Polykala and Diana Renner did with the University of Sydney to help its next generations of scholars become agents for change. Being a pilot, we know there’s a lot to learn from the data our multi-pronged approach generated. We commend the researcher development unit for their trust and openness to working adaptively. Though the process wasn’t always smooth, it held true to the principles of leadership development as we espouse them: it takes courage, an appetite for discomfort and an adherence to purpose. Day three’s final session closed with every scholar sharing their leadership purpose. Diana and Ananth were touched by the depth of feeling and ambition in the room. The data on the program’s effectiveness will be partially measured by the evaluation survey and mostly by the efforts made by the exceptional group of scholars as they seek to lead their fields and live their purpose. One participant reached out to Ananth after the program to share his reflections:

The new concepts of the course were quite revelatory for me, but I think more importantly the (very) patient facilitation of these concepts so that I could learn to practise them, contextualise them to my work/life and prove to myself that they work was an amazingly effective learning mode for me.”

Matthew Griffith – Associate Professor, ARC Future Fellow


University of Sydney



Number of participants


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Sydney (NSW)