Winter 2023

Transformative and Adaptive Leaders: The school leaders we need today

Over the past few years, in the midst of an evolving pandemic, school leaders have been put to the test in terms of leadership responses to a threatening situation as they became ‘emergency managers’ along with handling all the other tasks expected of them. Staff and student, physical and mental well-being concerns are now clearly front and center for school leaders. As we begin 2023, with lingering pockets of the pandemic still clearly evident, societal, community, school and student inequities have been highlighted with an even more glaring light.  In response, we ask what approach(es) will propel us towards improving our schools as well as growing the resilience to thrive again.

The time of the heroic transformational leader has had an impact – inspiring and motivating, focusing efforts and shouldering much of the responsibility. Much leadership training has had transformational goals in mind.  Transactional leadership is primarily the underpinning of the day to day life of school leaders – the doing of the day to day work – the transactions of the role – which are a constant.  This article will consider two constructs which I believe must underpin the “doing” – a long term and transformative goal of increasing our ability to develop a socially just education system and the adaptive approaches to solve what might be called “wicked problems” – adaptive challenges, which are often roadblocks to sustainable growth and thriving in educational settings.   The goals of racial equity, true decolonization, and the development of diverse and socially just learning communities must see us acknowledging and tackling the elephant of problems – the need to employ a transformative lens as well as an adaptive approach.  

Our understanding of transformative leadership has been furthered by the work of Carolyn Shields (2010) who shared that transformative leadership begins with questions of social justice and democracy.  As she explains, “Transformative leadership…links education and educational leadership with the wider social context within which it is embedded”.  A transformative leader is concerned with critiquing long-standing inequities through their collaborative and at times courageous actions to build more promising futures for all of their students. Certainly, the goal to develop schools where all students can be successful requires that we consider the quality of community relationships, how our decisions impact student diversity, inclusion and belonging and how our pedagogy develops strong cultures of learning. School plans for continuous improvement now include essential equity drivers with a critical look at student data, reflections on the impact of professional learning such as collaborative inquiry as well as the cultural relevance and alignment of programming across grades and subjects.  Going deep in disaggregating student data, we see the impact of racial bias, prejudice and inequality that may be generational within a community. Transformative leaders look inward as well as outward. There is no doubt we all have sincere intentions in our educational equity goals. The question becomes what kind of leadership will make an impact in righting wrongs that are linked to long standing systemic structures such as organizational timetables and contracts, political realities and how decisions are made about resources as examples of inherent complexities. Transformative leaders know there is no quick fix to longstanding societal issues but they persevere and begin with what they can influence. As Shields highlights, transformative leaders talk about what they can do and how decision making at the school level can make a difference. Ultimately, being a transformative leader driven by a social justice lens takes moral courage.   

A transformative leadership approach marries well with the concept of adaptive leadership which has been evident in many of the immediate responses to pandemic challenges. For example, many students did not have access to good, reliable technology as school buildings were closed and adaptive leaders addressed this challenge by assessing who needed help in their communities and augmenting deficits with school equipment that parents could borrow. It was an immediate adaptive response to a clear adaptive challenge.  As Jack Bagwell (2020) points out, “School leaders were forced to rethink the nature and degree of change necessary to support teachers and students in adopting new technologies and technical skills to navigate teaching and learning in a virtual environment”.  More than the focus on leader traits, adaptive leadership is focused on leadership actions and the behaviour of the leader.  As Heifetz and his co-authors (2009) offer: “Adaptive leadership is the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive” (p. 14).  In schools, what thriving means involves a discussion that leaders need to have with their staff considering their own context and school culture. Thriving has both an objective and subjective aspect to it. 

Adaptive changes do not throw out past efforts but build on them.  We would begin where we are and consider what we have learned over the past few years. There are some parallels between transformative and adaptive leadership approaches such as welcoming and valuing diverse views and being open to experimentation in solving adaptive challenges which could also be called “wicked ones” as there are often no simple solutions to difficult issues.  Sometimes a challenge will have aspects that can be solved with technical solutions.  Tweaking am existing timetable to sort out a specific programming issue is a first order change that might offer a temporary solution.   Reimagining the way staff is being assigned and how the timetable is developed is a second order change that becomes adaptive because of the complexity of the task, including issues as how the most vulnerable students are supported or disadvantaged by its structure and design.  

Diagnosing an adaptive challenge would involve identifying certain markers such as a persistent gap between what is aspired and reality.  It would acknowledge that present responses may be inadequate and that difficult learning is involved.  It would acknowledge that more time and learning is needed and that the work may not be comfortable as a leader and their team works through the issues.  Adaptive leaders know that resistance to change may be involved as significant changes always involve some degree of loss.  Adaptive leaders persevere despite the difficulties and model how to be resilient. 

Persistence and a growth mindset are important aspects of both transformative and adaptive leadership. As Northouse (2019) points out, “Adaptive leaders engage in activities that mobilize, motivate, organize and orient and focus the attention of others” (p. 258). When people’s beliefs or values are involved, the work is definitely adaptive. Leaders have the authority to begin the conversation but they need strong relational skills to move from topic to concerted collective effort. The following are some strategies that are worth considering as a starting point for how transformative and adaptive leadership skills can work together: 

1. Encourage connectedness and strong relationships in your working environment – Model the importance of cohesion in your day to day dealings with all stakeholders: 

The capacity of staff to adapt or transform their practices will be hinged on social cohesion as well as clear learning focus. To decrease inequities, the status quo may need to be challenged. Schools where relationships are nurtured and prioritized will be better positioned to tackle adaptive challenges and where creative thinking can be encouraged. Adaptive work requires challenging discussions and strong working relationships can help to build trust and mobilize efforts.   Think about whose voices are needed at the table to understand the impact of the school’s culture including those connected to students with social, emotional and academic vulnerabilities.  How might these conversations include parents and community members, as well?

2. Get on the balcony and keep an eye on the dance floor:  

This is a metaphor used for leaders stepping out of the fray at times to gain perspective in the midst of leadership challenges such as focusing a staff on school improvement.  What the leader is charged to consider is the big picture – what are the belief and power conflicts between participants, in what ways are people avoiding the work and why?   Adaptive leaders step into the work and out of the work at times to gain and keep a fresh perspective.   School leaders would share observations with their leadership team and get their perspectives as well. What does the dance look like through the eyes of other influential school colleagues?

3. Decide on a clear area for collective work that has a social justice connection: 

A social justice connection will involve an area where student vulnerabilities are a part of the mix.  Will this be the effectiveness of the school’s literacy program or the development of greater staff efficacy to deal with challenging student behaviours? Will it be the achievement results of a marginalized group in the school? Every school will have distinct areas of strength and areas that need improvement and an assessment of the school’s formal and informal data helps to shine a light on what should be tackled. We can’t do everything at once so prioritizing decisions are needed as well.  

4. Articulate the adaptive challenge under review, listen to the perspectives of others and follow up with good questions:

Once a clear area for a staff focus is articulated, leaders will want to generate new or refreshed approaches to issues of disparity or inequity. This requires fresh thinking and new ideas.   Encourage a diversity of ideas. Share the thinking of others without judgement. Engage others in frequent conversation.  Build consensus on a particular direction. Ask: What have we tried before? How well did it work? What shall we try now? What supports would you need? Keep the focus on the articulation of the challenge without blame or judgement. 

5. Give the work back to those who will lead it – follow up with support and resources:

School leaders can set direction but will have more impact if they engage others in creating a collaborative goal with an articulated vision of an improved future state and in distributing the leadership involved.  Who are the influential members of staff who would also help to engage others?  How can the leadership work be shared or distributed?  Be at the table when goal setting is determined but let the voices of others also ring through as a part of the process of decision making.  Encourage accountable but realistic goal setting so that progress may be monitored. 

6. Manage the tension, build resilience and model your belief in a positive outcome: 

A leader’s ability to keep the focus on a shared responsibility is important and leadership actions such as extra time for collaborators to work together will be appreciated. As Bagwell (2020) offered – deepening social connections also helps to build resilience. Tensions rise when people work together. Insecurities and doubts need to be navigated. Modelling a positive stance as a leader helps to temper apprehensions. 

7. Keep a focus on the desired outcome:  

How progress is monitored is important and a plan to do so is an important part of implementation decisions. Transformative progress is a learning process. Adaptive leadership actions involve both risk and reward. Keeping the status quo is certainly easier but not ethically sustainable if you know changes are needed.  Involve all stakeholders in determining what the improvement markers should look like and make this a shared responsibility in terms of intention and outcome. Celebrate successes along the way but see the work as unfinished. Equity and social justice goals involve long term change with long term commitment. 

Finally, one might ask how leaders can develop adaptive ways of thinking and working and this too involves a process of learning through practice. Adaptability is a skillset that is here to stay. Flexibility is a part of it as well as continuous learning, reflecting on the efficacy of the work as well as maintaining an optimistic view. Creating emotionally safe workplaces is key as well as fostering a belief in each other as colleagues. There will be disappointments along the way but the goal of a better future for all students will not fade. Acknowledging that society’s institutions have not created even pathways is a beginning stance for the transformative and adaptive leader. As Kari Grain (2022) says so well, “Hope is necessary, but hope is not enough” (p. 35). We need transformative goals and adaptive actions to move forward. 

Bagwell, J. (2020). Leading Through a Pandemic: Adaptive Leadership and Purposeful Action. Open Journals in Education. 5(l) pp. 30-34.
Grain, K. (2022). Critical Hope: How to Grapple with Complexity, Lead with Purpose, and Cultivate Transformative Social Change. North Atlantic Books.
Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., & Linksky, M. (2009). The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing your Organization and the World. Harvard Business School Press.
Northouse, P. G. (2019). Leadership: Theory and Practice (8th ed). Sage Publishing.
hields, C.M. (2010). Transformative Leadership: Working for Equity in Diverse Contexts. Education Administration Quarterly. 46(4). pp. 558-589.

Dr. Beate Planche is a former principal and superintendent for the York Region District School Board in Ontario. She is presently an instructor with Western University, working with doctoral students in Graduate Education.  

AdBlocker Message

Our website is made possible by displaying online advertisements to our visitors. Please consider supporting us by disabling your ad blocker.