What is Adaptive Leadership in Education?

Written by Scott Wilson

What is adaptive leadership in education? Adaptive leadership is a model that focuses on the capability for dealing with change and uncertainty. Adaptive school leaders stress flexibility, active listening, constant learning, and continual evolution to help their organizations weather changes both internally and in the overall educational environment.

adaptive leadership

If there was one thing that most school districts learned quickly during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the value of adaptability.

With changes coming in fast and furious as rules changed and scientists learned more about the virus, it took principals and superintendents who could roll with the punches to keep their organizations on track.

The pandemic showed everyone in education what adaptive leadership in action looks like.

With the value of flexibility and anticipation shown down to the classroom level, more educational leaders today are interested in understanding the theory behind adaptive leadership. Although COVID-19 may be in the rear-view mirror for most schools, there are plenty of other big changes on the horizon. Everything from politics to artificial intelligence is going to change how teachers and educational leaders do their work every day.

That means the role of adaptive leadership in education isn’t finished yet.

What Makes Adaptive Leadership Unique in Educational Administration?

principal in the hallway

Adaptive leadership is a theoretical model used in leadership studies in general. It’s not a concept that’s specific only to the world of education, but in recent years it’s become a standard part of leadership strategies in American educational systems.

The concept itself is straightforward: adaptive leadership approaches all leadership processes with a mindset that embraces change.

Of course, adaptation is hardly new for educational leaders. In many ways, the story of leadership is the story of adaptability. Change is the only constant in learning and in life. You don’t stay a leader for very long if you aren’t routinely adjusting to that reality.

Adaptive leadership goes a step further, however. Rather than reacting to change, adaptive leaders anticipate it. They take a proactive approach. Instead of waiting for a crisis, they shift their team to get ahead of it.

But adaptability is easier to talk about than to adopt. There’s a real inertia in most organizations that resists change. And leaders themselves often have a vested interest in the systems they have built and the culture they have established. Turning that over to embrace a new set of ideas is an innate struggle.

Why Adaptive Leadership Is an Ideal Strategy in Schools Today

crazy day in class

Adaptive leaders are well-aligned with educational principles. They stress learning and experimentation, keeping an open mind to new evidence and ideas. Since it’s the same mindset that teachers are trying to build in their students, it resonates with staff.

Moreover, they build their teams to incorporate the same values. They work to influence school culture such that the school community is prepared to embrace change. An adaptive leader knows they can’t always be the person on the scene to come up with the answer to a new challenge. So, they train their staff to be up for the daily challenges.

The result of this sort of leadership approach is a flexible, fast-moving organization capable of handling many challenges at once.

You can tell when you are dealing with a school staff headed by an adaptive leader, because they are quick to adjust and deal with new issues themselves. They don’t need to wait for the principal to make a decision. Through a culture of adaptability and empowerment, they’re ready to take the bull by the horns themselves.

Adaptive Leaders Face Obstacles in the Educational System

kid with forehead on chalkboard

Although adaptive leadership seems well-suited to the kind of constantly evolving challenges that educational leaders face today, there are some unique obstacles to embracing it.

First, schools are bastions of bureaucracy. There are many constraints on how things are done in the typical school. They can include:

The adaptive mindset can run aground on any of these factors. Your decisions may be channeled in directions that don’t fit your style.

Next, you give up some control by building a fast-moving organization. The structure will be loose, and decisions may be made too quickly or by staff who are too junior. The mindset can encourage staff to disregard your directions. There’s a thin line between an adaptive organization and a free-for-all.

On the other hand, administrative and community constraints are the same as any other kind of challenge: an adaptability mindset can help you handle them.

Learning How to Be an Adaptive Leader Through a Degree in Educational Leadership

administrators loving their job

Adaptive leadership isn’t just a neat trick you can try once you land in the district superintendent’s office. It’s a set of skills and ideas that must be learned to be practiced.

That’s where a degree in educational leadership comes in. Although these graduate-level studies don’t restrict themselves to a single leadership style or approach, they do come with all the skills and knowledge needed to build your own. Many of those classes are a perfect fit for adaptive leadership.

Adaptability means learning to work creatively within your capabilities and resources. A program like a PhD in Educational Leadership, or an Educational Specialist (EdS) Degree in Educational Administration lays out the educational landscape for you. That comes through coursework like:

These offer you the essential knowledge foundation for how education works today. They also open the possibilities in your thought process. By sparking an understanding of how the system works, your own creativity can be cultivated to develop original solutions.

Those solutions can be further explored through the dissertation, thesis, or capstone project components of these advanced degrees. By giving you the space to do original research and lay out your own unique thoughts on a subject of your selection, you can engage your adaptability before you even graduate. You’ll be doing it with the feedback and support of accomplished professionals, who will help you hone those thoughts and avoid the obvious mistakes.

Those research and data analysis skills will also come in handy for anticipating changes coming your way and developing plans to deal with them.

And studies in communications and psychology will be a plus when you’re working closely inside and outside your team to shift everyone quickly to the same page.

Adaptability could be the most important quality an educational leader can have today. Choosing the right educational leadership degree program will help you develop it.

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