Exploratory Leadership – the frontier work.

by Mar 1, 2020

  • Exploratory leadership is a new style of leadership suited to unknown futures.
  • It differs from adaptive leadership and agile leadership through the intent to persevere rather than pivot or improve.
  • Prudent independence characterises the exploratory leader.

I’m delighted to have Jillian Reilly of Antacara join me in co-writing this post about exploratory leadership – it’s been something emerging from our work with leaders, and we’re keen to explore it further (pardon the pun!).

Adaptive Leadership. Servant Leadership. Agile Leadership. 

Is it time for Exploratory Leadership? It’s worth considering, we think. 

Here’s why – every time our external circumstances change and embed as a sustainable change (eg. not just a blip or a spike, or something fleeting) we need to adapt as an evolutionary response. We need to step into unknown circumstances and navigate novelty as a way of doing business.  We need to adopt an Explorer’s mindset. 

We think that now, more than ever, we need explorers in our leadership cohorts.  And it will be interesting to see where they take us.

A rose by any other name? 

How does exploratory leadership differ from adaptive, servant, or agile leadership?

It’s a good question. Jillian and I are working through this now and we welcome your feedback. It’s a nuanced, but important shift and, as so many have struggled to make the transition to agile or adaptive, it may be that exploratory resonates more with some.  

For us the difference between exploratory leadership and the other styles is the willingness to accept that the future is both unknown and full of possibility. 

An explorer takes a sanguine view that deep uncertainty carries with it boundless possibility … if someone is willing to do the frontier work. Rather than regarding future change as a threat to be managed – which brings with it the uncomfortable neurobiology of ‘fight, flight or freeze’ – the Explorer treats change as an opportunity to ‘learn, adapt and create’.

For the exploratory leader, maps that sketch out the business terrain are as, if not more, important than plans detailing future actions.  In this way, the the skillsets and approaches of an exploratory leader are different to those who believe they are shepherding towards a largely defined future. 

Navigational skills come to the fore:  reading the contours of the business landscape, recognizing landmarks, and being able to zoom into immediate details and zoom out to the horizon.  By necessity, explorers toggle between presence and foresight – what’s beneath their feet and what they cannot see. 

Explorers know it’s not a race.

In contrast to the high-velocity changes of many of our contemporary leadership models, exploratory leaders persist in the face of discomfort and even failure.  They tap into embodied wisdom and compare that to the available objective data. They persevere rather than pivot. They understand that curation and creation are more valuable than control.  

Objective  Mindset  Qualities to highlight  Independence v collaboration  Speed of change 
Adaptive Leadership  To survive changes external to the organisation  Evolutionary  Emotional intelligence


Lifelong learner 

Facilitation of people  Adapt or die – improvises relentlessly 
Servant Leadership  To steer changes internal to the organisation Other focused – in service  Empathy, Humility


Collaborative – serving others needs  Dependent on those you serve 
Agile Leadership  To get faster as an organisation – competitive advantage  Faster means success  Curiosity, courage, empathy  Teamwork is the dreamwork  Pivot or perish (#failfast) 
Exploratory Leadership  To find a different way forward  I wonder what’s next?   Curiosity, courage, creativity  I lead first to explore, then we go  Persist with prudence

“Go further than you would, no further than you should” 

Daryl Conner (Leading at the Edge of Chaos, and Managing at the Speed of Change). 

The notion of persisting with prudence is a really important one  – exploratory leaders are really good at risk mitigation and establishing boundaries. They balance independence with collaboration. Explorers rely heavily on experts and supporters to establish psychological and organisational safety boundaries. There’s no climbing rock faces without harnesses. No treks without water and compasses. 

Think more intrepid than rogue. 

You have a precedent:  you have probably explored once before (your Inner Explorer).

If talk of Explorers conjures images of high-seas adventurers, think again.  Because we all come into this world as explorers: feeling our way through our environments, picking up tiny treasures in our path, our senses on high alert.  

So much of our early play is exploratory.  I grew up in a beachside suburb with my home backing on to a melaleuca swampland and sand dunes. As a kid, I used to go exploring. To be honest, I’m not sure parents would let their kids do what we used to do. We had snakes, sand cave-ins, the real potential of getting lost, and the occasional wild pig with very long tusks that could gore you. 

But, every time we went on an exploratory trip we would take the dog, pack a rudimentary first aid kit, pack poppers (which I have since found out is an exclusive Queensland term for fruit drink in a box), a vegemite sandwich, and some fruit.

And our mates. We never went alone. 

Jillian concurs  – exploring as kids meant looking at the terrain and making assessments. We were curious, we were playful, we were persistent. And we maintained a sunny belief in the pleasures of the unknown, rather than its risks.  Fear shaped neither our sense of capability or possibility; it merely sat amidst our myriad explorer’s emotions.

I wonder what it would be like to tap into that embodied wisdom of childhood. I also wonder if this is a luxury afforded to kids of the ’70s. Later generations were not allowed the freedom of taking off into the sand-dunes as parenting practices changed. It is perhaps helpful that Jillian and I share a birth year. 

It’s an operating system, not an interface 

Exemplars are difficult to find as much of this is evidenced in ‘inner world’ characteristics, known only to the individual. Certainly there’s interviews, public talks, and biographies of people like Brene Brown, Julia Gillard,  Michelle Obama, Prince Harry, and Elon Musk that show evidence of exploratory leadership. We don’t have to necessarily like them, but it is instructive to look at the ways they have forged ahead with creating change at the frontier of industry, political systems, knowledge domains, and institutions. 

Signs you’re an exploratory leader

  • You have invested time in understanding the mind-body connections and are attuned to your physical state and the feedback it provides you – breathing, tension.
  • You are a continuous learner, curious and protective of time to develop.
  • You deliberately curate ideas, insights, data, and self-discoveries. You’re actively shaping and applying your learning.  
  • You are a boundary keeper  – you exercise prudence in your personal boundaries and your organisational boundaries.  
  • You are courageous and this informs your independence, you don’t need others to make a stand, and it also backs your likelihood to persist in a course of action. 
  • You are creative and expressive – in some aspect of your life there is an aptitude to creative expression, and this is the place you exercise playful exploration. 
  • You’re comfortable with conflict – you’d prefer it to be creative and constructive though! 
Over to you

What say you? Will you explore with us? Is this a construct that holds weight with you? Something that’s worth unpacking? Can you see room for explorers on your leadership teams, or embracing an explorers mindset?  

We would love to hear your thoughts. Either by comments to this post or drop us a line or message on Linkedin at Dr Jen Frahm or Jillian Reilly. We have some thoughts on ways to progress this, but let us know if it is of interest to you. 

Or will we be perservering alone at the frontier a little longer?

Bio: Jillian Reilly is a facilitator, coach, author and founder of Antacara, an experiential learning firm enabling individuals and groups to navigate change and optimize growth. For the past 25 years, she’s worked globally on deep social, organizational and individual change. She’s been published in major US newspapers, authored a memoir, Shame: Confessions of an Aid Worker in Africa, and presented at TedX Cape Town. Jillian is passionate about supporting the growth of a global community of 21st Century Explorers. 


  1. Lisa Ford

    Thanks Jen and Jillian. I wasn’t too clear how exploratory leadership differs from previous types, until I read the Signs You’re an Exploratory Leader. Bingo!

  2. Denise Harkins

    Wow. This is my leadership style both professionally and personally. I never felt like I fit into any other the other styles you mentioned and this make total sense to me.

    As a change practitioner, I’ve always found it important to problem solve with keeping “practical/this is where the org is right now” with the “altruistic/this is where I want to force them to go”. And a lot of that is exploring the landscape where change is occurring and sometimes digging deep to find where resistance or apprehension is really living.

    In any case, great article.

  3. John Granholm

    Concur with above praise, strongly. I’d like to add that although I do not possess all of the above listed signs (I’m only now getting to grips with the idea that conflict is NOT something to be avoided at all costs, it’s true) I’d like to submit a meta-sign of exploratory leaders…something like: the desire to be an exploratory leader

    One, ’cause certainly supports my candidacy, sure, but also…
    Two, part of the character (of anything, I suppose, but it seems especially vital here) of explorer is the desire for/joy found in the exploring, yes?

    Maybe recursive rabbit-holing, maybe brilliance, maybe liminally both…

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