If we’ve ever doubted the place of great leadership, the current global crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic have demonstrated its importance. This is no different for educational institutions. Whether school based or not, the need for educational leadership has been a painful lack for many across the world. As schools have fumbled to reopen after many months of remote learning (for a privileged few), it is clear that we need education leaders who are adequately equipped, skilled and supported.
There are many different leadership theories and styles, and if you had asked me which was most important before 2020, I might have said transformational leadership or particularly in the context of education, instructional leadership.
“The modern idea of Transformational Leadership is based around 4 elements described by Bernard A. Bass in 1985: Idealized Influence, Intellectual Stimulation, Individualized Consideration and Inspirational Motivation.”
However, as 2020 and all its crises have unfolded, it has become clear that to thrive in such uncertainty, Adaptive Leadership might be the most relevant and powerful leadership style.
“Adaptive Leadership is a practical leadership framework that helps individuals and organizations adapt and thrive in challenging environments. It is being able, both individually and collectively, to take on the gradual but meaningful process of change. … Adaptive Leadership is purposeful evolution in real time.”
As we look across the education sector, whether to school leaders, nonprofit leaders, leaders of edtech companies, or leaders in government, it is clear to see that the leaders who have thrived are those who have been able to pivot, manage complex change well, and respond to the evolving needs of their constituents. These are the leaders whose communities have in turn thrived through crisis.
What is Adaptive Leadership in the context of education?
The article referenced above lists the four characteristics of adaptive leadership as character (strong, trusted leaders), organizational justice (honest listening to team member’s concerns, questions and critiques), development (continuously learning new practices) and emotional intelligence. If I was asked to define the characteristics of adaptive leadership, I would highlight the four following principles:
- Compassion/Empathy – Leaders need to be attuned to the needs, challenges and assets of their communities.
- Justice – leadership in the time of crisis is about the ‘bigger picture’ of social justice. What is right for my community in the midst of this crisis? How do I do right, and lead my organization or school to do right, by my community in the midst of chaos and uncertainty?
- Generosity – What do we, individually, and as an organization or school, have to offer? In a time of crisis, how can we ethically and impactfully share our resources as wide as possible?
- Resilience – how can we build the character and strength of our team, so that they can persist through continuing uncertainty and ongoing chaos? What skills and competencies do they need to thrive both personally and professionally?
Reflecting on the work of education sector leaders, organizations and schools amidst the chaos of 2020, it is clear that there are some outstanding practices of education leaders who have applied these principles of adaptive leadership in order to thrive:
- Leaders who have embraced changes in program delivery, evaluation, and resourcing have leveraged strong, pre-existing networks with other actors and stakeholders including parents and governments.
- Organizations who have led the way in this season of uncertainty are those who are strongly and intentionally rooted in local communities with an excellent understanding of context that sets them apart from other actors. These deep, local roots have enabled them to respond in meaningful and impactful ways whilst maintaining the relevance of their organisations.
- Finally, leaders who have truly led in the midst of chaos are those who have been willing to address complexity rather than ignore it, or wait for it to end. Leaders of education organisations who have found their work disrupted have addressed that disruption directly, with a laser focus on the core of their organisational vision and mission, and sought ways to navigate the disruption.
School Leadership for 2020 and Beyond
How do we equip School Leaders to apply the principles of adaptive leadership? How do we nurture their competencies aligned to the practices highlighted above? For Dignitas, our focus continues to be learners furthest behind, children in chronically under-served and marginalized communities. Our unrelenting focus since schools closed in March 2020 has been how to equip their school and education leaders so that the children furthest behind, don’t get left further behind.
- We’ve implemented our Leaders of Learning program to equip and support school leaders with new competencies, so that they can keep children’s learning and well-being on track during school closures. To date, we’ve trained 560 School Leaders who are supporting the learning and well-being of 10,773 children.
- As learning is no longer tied to classrooms and school buildings, we’ve realized that education leadership shouldn’t be either. Our new training and coaching curriculum, developed in response to COVID-19 school closures has been focused on taking leadership out of the classroom and into the community. It embraces parents as key stakeholders, nurtures every learner, develops agile leaders of learning, and focuses on the resources at hand.
A short while ago, I was asked if 2020 would leave teachers and the teaching profession redundant. My answer was, “Absolutely Not!” School buildings? Maybe. Traditional classrooms? Maybe. Teachers? School Leaders? No! As a parent to three children, I can confidently say that we need teachers more than ever. Do teachers and school leaders need to adjust and adapt? Yes! As education stakeholders, we have a responsibility to equip them to lead learning beyond the classroom. We need to equip school leaders to lead their teaching teams in new ways, and for new scenarios so that every child will have the opportunity to thrive and succeed.