P20 Leveraging systems for success: adaptive leadership in a hybrid world

Corresponding and review group chair

Associate Professor Jim Rooney (Co-Director, Public Service Research Group, University of New South Wales, email: james.rooney@adfa.edu.au

Panel chair(s) 

Professor Deborah Blackman (Head, School of Business, UNSW Canberra and member of the Public Service Research Group)

Professor Catherine Althaus (ANZSOG Chair of Public Service Leadership and Reform, UNSW and member of the Public Service Research Group)

Panel co-organiser 

Dr. Shibaab Rahman (UNSW Canberra and member of the Public Service Research Group)


Hybrid futures highlight the complexity of the problems, the solutions and how to navigate from one to the other. Much has been discussed about the nature of complex or “wicked” problems, and the need to adopt more systems focussed approaches to solve them (Head, 2019). However, how to implement a systems approach in public management is an ongoing challenge.

A system is an organized, purposeful structure containing regularly interacting or interdependent elements forming a unified whole (Arnold and Wade, 2015). The more interrelated and interdependent elements there are, the more complex, difficult to predict, and harder to manage a system becomes (Haynes,2018). The interdependencies in hybrid systems are accentuated by the numbers of stakeholders, who often hold competing interests such that, at times, it becomes hard to make progress, even where there is an appetite for collaboration.

It has been suggested that this is because many of the problems to be addressed are what are described as “adaptive challenges” (Heifetz, Linsky, and Grashow, 2009; McCarthy, 2021). In such a case the problem is often unknown or hard to identify. The solution is also unknown and the ongoing challenge is to find ways to learn about the deeper patterns or system dynamics that will enable sustainable changes in system behaviours.

Potentially, in such cases public leadership will be less about how those leading any collaboration or change behave, and more about adopting an adaptive leadership approach to developing a way forward. The first of the four stages outlined by Heifetz et al. (2009) is to Get on the Balcony. In this initial phase leaders need to step back and observe the system dynamics surrounding a challenge. The advice is to observe, pause for reflection, interpret, and then intervene in the next step in the process.

The concept of intervening in a system leads the identification of leverage points and which ones work better than others (Meadows, 1999). One approach for leaders in hybrid complex scenarios is to consider why, where and how to leverage the system.

This panel seeks contributions that focus on new ways of thinking/models to support system intervention based on the concept of adaptive leadership. Topics may include but are not limited to:

  • What are the adaptive challenges emerging in hybrid contexts and what are the implications of this?
  • Examples of adopting a leverage approach and what can be learnt from success and/or failures
  • When does the approach of public leadership as creating system leverage add value and why?
  • What does the manifestation of adaptive leadership look like in hybrid contexts within public management systems?
  • How can we achieve construct clarity and paradigmatic precision around the use of the term ‘adaptive leadership’?


Abstracts are due by date announced on the IRSPM 2024 Conference Call for Abstract webpage and must be submitted through the ExOrdo system. Email submissions will not be accepted.

Abstracts should be 300-500 words. In addition to the abstract text, please:

  • Explain how the proposed presentation relates to the panel topic description above. It will also need to engage with the 2024 IRSPM Conference invitation to examine the question on “Hybrid futures for public governance and management” in a manner that is relevant to IRSPM participants.
  • Provide a list of key references.
  • Advise whether you will submit a full paper (preferred) or if this is a work in progress seeking feedback, or other form of presentation.