What is it?

Ruku Ao is a ground-breaking collaborative leadership initiative.

Ruku Ao enables leaders to deliver on the complex challenges of our time. It is a learning-by-doing programme that leverages across sectors and across paradigms. Participants ‘window in’ on the Arts and Marae-based practices of Toi Whakaari (Wellington) and Manutuke Marae (Gisborne). These approaches have a proven capacity to build the emotional intelligence of groups. Participants are then guided in testing these approaches in their own contexts.

Ruku Ao builds capacity by leveraging difference and diversity. It is a unique New Zealand response to our cultural context.


Why Ruku Ao?

The solutions to many of today’s and future leadership challenges lie in creating and achieving collaboration.

Leadership thinking is beginning to focus more strongly on:

The importance of teams of leaders – ‘great leaders who exist in a fertile relationship with a great group’ (LDC 2015)

A recent Korn Ferry study confirms the theory that tomorrow’s organizations will be managed by teams of leaders: asked who will have the most influence on their global organizations in the next ten years, 61 per cent responded ‘teams of leaders’; 14 per cent said ‘one leader’.

Leading effectively across boundaries — a recognition that new approaches are needed, that may require “changes in identity, not just changes in operational systems and structures, but what we do and also who we are” (LDC 2015).

Creative alliances that build the emotional intelligence of groups.

Research identifies the importance of group emotional intelligence for collaboration (box 1) and is supported by a growing call for a more human approach to leadership. Kevin Murry, 2014 ‘Communicate to Inspire: a guide for leaders’ and Peter Cammock, 2003, ‘The Dance of Leadership: The call for soul in 21st century leadership’

Study after study has shown that teams are more creative and productive when they can achieve high levels of participation, coöperation and collaboration among members. Group emotional intelligence… is about bringing emotions deliberately to the surface and understanding how they affect the team’s work. It’s also about behaving in ways that build relationships both inside and outside the team and that strengthen the team’s ability to face challenges. Emotional intelligence means exploring, embracing, and ultimately relying on emotion in work that is, at the end of the day, deeply human.“ (HBR 2001)

Ruku Ao is working to combine these factors into a uniquely New Zealand response to New Zealand’s own particular environment and challenges. This response centres around creating learning experiences that focus less on theory and more on fostering curiosity, courage, adaptiveness and the concrete application of better ways to work with groups.



Ruku Ao is deeply experiential and collaborative. Participants learn from observing, leading each other and designing changes in their own environments.

It emerges out of a collaboration between leaders from Treasury and other public sector agencies, along with Toi and Manutuke Marae.

Participants enter into a learning process between February and November each year. The process blends three main elements:

  • Windowing in: Participants look into the process used to build a highly engaged collaborative culture. This is done by visiting Toi and Manutuke, the source of these frames. This phase is enquiry based. There is no homework or preparation. Participants learn how these frames drive increased connection, meaning and commitment; to task, purpose and role.
  • Heat Experiences: Giving participants opportunities to practice their leadership in live moments. This happens in large and small group settings. Participants learn to see and leverage their context in new ways.
  • Reflection and application: Through feedback, self-directed learning and application in the workplace.

Marae frames are used throughout, harnessing the power of New Zealand’s unique cultural context, and building stronger connectivity between participants and their intrinsic motivations.



I’m learning to hold a person, a group and myself better.”


Participants say:

Ruku Ao is without doubt the most valuable ‘training’ experience that I have had through any workplace, ever, hands down.”
— Senior Policy Analyst

Ruku Ao is developing something truly new and revolutionary.”
— Manager

Humbling, deeply challenging and energising.” “It has opened my eyes.”
— Policy Manager (since promoted to General Manager)

It is the most engaged and passionate I have felt about development in my professional career.”
— Programme Director

For organisations

Ruku Ao builds small networks of high-trust relationships that support more effective distributed leadership. It creates a strong sense of community and identity in leaders, exposing them to the challenges of what it means to create meaningful and authentic changes in their settings. This increases their capacity as leaders — less than a year after completing Ruku Ao, 70% of the 2014 participants were holding positions of greater responsibility.

For individuals, skills are deepened in four key areas

Improved confidence in complexity

  • Comfort with ambiguity and situations that are outside the comfort zone
  • Less attached to perfection
  • Deeper understanding of co-leadership
  • More personal courage More trusting of intuition
  • Skills to design small innovative experiments

More astute in group settings

  • Able to plan and lead more purposeful group activity
  • Improved ability to ‘read the room’
  • Improved listening skills
  • Greater responsibility for health of group
  • Bring whole selves to further the work of the group
  • Less reliant on paper— more present

Raised cultural intelligence

  • Ability to translate across very different contexts
  • Seeing potential to build bridges between cultures and people
  • Building inclusive cultures to improve productivity
  • Greater understanding of the functions of marae frames and more appropriate application

Greater personal enterprise

  • See new possibilities for personal impact
  • Re-connect to intrinsic motivators
  • Warm up to taking on bigger challenges
  • Initiating creative solutions for teams
  • Being ‘real’ and connected to self
  • More prepared to have courageous conversations



The 2018 programme begins in mid-February and ends in mid-November. The programme is open to all leaders and aspiring leaders.

Ruku Ao suits people who:

  • Understand the challenges of leading across boundaries
  • Are curious about finding new ways to solve complex challenges
  • Are prepared to be vulnerable and work in the unknown
  • Are willing to reassess some previously held ideas about leadership
  • Want to create tangible differences in their settings
  • Are prepared to position themselves not as experts, but as learners
  • Are wanting to find better ways of approaching regional or place-based development

In 2018 we are particularly keen to work with people who are facing challenges involving:

  • The intersection of very diverse communities or settings
  • Regional or place-based development
  • Health policy, particularly how it relates to indigenous communities
  • Environmental initiatives – particularly water quality
  • Education and the changing nature of learning and work

Time investment

Participants should allow an average of 3–6 hours per month for the duration of the programme. Workshops are held at Toi Whakaari as well as in participating organisations. In addition, there are two 2-day immersive workshops in Gisborne in April and October 2018.

Financial investment

Single participant $11,900
– private/public sector

Group of three $35,000

Group of five $57,000

This investment covers:

  • At least 6 learning sessions at Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School
  • At least 8 group learning sessions held in participant agencies
  • Active coaching of applied changes
  • Two immersive multi-day workshops in a marae setting, including transport and meals
  • Access to Ruku Ao alumni to support learning experiences and application of learning

If you have questions or would like to talk about how Ruku Ao might support your goals, feel free to contact Christian Penny on 021 124 1902 or christian.penny@toiwhakaari.ac.nz.