Time for Adaptive Leadership
Given the current storm of debate and uncertainty surrounding back-to-school best practice in the midst of a pandemic, thriving likely seems unforeseeable. The new threshold may be merely surviving and adapting in such perplexing times.
A lot of us feel a sense of urgency to exercise leadership and accelerate change. Others may feel disillusioned and thus discouraged through change. Whatever the demands, there’s a call for innovative leadership practices, such as adaptive leadership. Adaptive leadership speaks to individual and collective steps toward meaningful progress. A model of adaptive leadership was developed by Ronald A. Heifetz, M.D. Co-Founder of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
The work of adaptive leadership calls for school leaders to lead adaptively and collaboratively, relying on all stakeholders with or without formal positions of authority to learn and adapt new ways of delivering online/hybrid/in-person instruction, while responding to the community’s and school personnel’s concerns, and meeting students’ academic and social-emotional needs. New habits and ways of thinking must be challenged, along with the acknowledgment of an already complex social system everyone is part of. Heifetz contends that “educational leadership often entails finding ways to enable people to face up to frustrating realities” (Heifetz & Linsky, 2004, p. 33), quoted prior to any notion of the added stressors of global pandemics.
When we encounter moments of crisis or friction, there is a tendency to expect leaders with authority to provide the decisions, strength, and answers we want and need. But instead of looking to leaders as saviors, Heifetz recommends challenging each member of the group (the stakeholders) to face complex problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions (until formal authority is required). That is the real work of leadership. These complex problems with no easy answers are the challenges facing today's education community (2004).
When such challenges, known as adaptive challenges exist, Heifetz’s Adaptive Leadership model can be used to guide the process of problem solving. The process is outlined as follows:
1. Identify the problem. The process of adaptive work relies on directing attention to the tough issues, not people, so focus on the problem at hand.
2. Access key information. Gather data to investigate problems and issues that can then be used to provide support for or against a proposed initiative.
3. Frame the problem. Heifetz speaks of “ripening an issue”, which involves creating a sense of urgency around an issue to obtain buy-in so that people will pay attention and respond by engaging in adaptive problem solving. Heifetz’s view of leadership involves making a distinction between adaptive and technical problems or challenges. These problems demand different types of action. Technical problems require routine resolutions, while adaptive problems require learning, innovation and a shift in mindset. Identify the problem and the indications it requires.
4. Create conflict. With so many diverse stakeholders and voices present, conflict is inevitable. Heifetz reminds us that discomfort that is at the very root of adaptive change (2009). This is where true dialogue begins.
5. Create a psychologically safe space. Once you’ve invited voices to the table, they should be encouraged. It is expected that disagreements will surface and tensions will rise. This is opportune for learning and growth. Different personalities and ideologies will likely create unease and arguments, and identified leaders may need to work to ease the friction if the discourse gets too heated or creates too much discomfort. A leader with formal authority may need to intervene only if a heated situation requires intervention.
These steps, while practical, require collaboration and collective input. Meaningful change will not transpire overnight, but the process outlined above will help when navigating times of uncertainty, change. The steps can help foster the change that is needed as well to successfully adapt. As Bob Dylan sings, “The times they are a-changing” so we must heed the call. Our students and learning communities depend on it.