Learning to Lead in the Midst of Complex Times: A Window into the Nature of School Leaders’ Work Challenges

Learning to Lead in the Midst of Complex Times: A Window into the Nature of School Leaders’ Work Challenges

Patricia Maslin-Ostrowski (Florida Atlantic University, USA) and Eleanor Drago-Severson (Columbia University, USA)
Copyright: © 2013 |Pages: 17
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-4249-2.ch003
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The authors interviewed and surveyed principals from Bermuda and four regions of the US about what they name as their more pressing challenges and how they manage them. The challenges they named are composed of both adaptive and technical work (Heifetz, 1994), which required leaders, teachers, and community members to change. More specifically, regardless of how principals interpreted their challenges, i.e., technical, adaptive, or mixed, a common part of their response was to foster professional growth and development—or learning—as part of the solution. Leaders typically focused on caring for the learning of others, yet at times they needed to stretch their own learning curves. Leaders supported faculty and staff by developing informational, transformational, and mixed learning experiences as tools to help faculty and staff work through their part of these complex challenges. Leadership preparation programs are encouraged to address managing phases of adaptive, technical, and mixed challenges.
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It’s a great job, you can make an impact on many kids and many teachers…it’s a wonderful job, it’s becoming more complex…so is everything in education, it’s becoming more and more complex (US Middle School Principal).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Experiential Learning: This kind of learning relates to learning-in-action (e.g., learning on the job). This is an opportunity for leaders to bridge theory to practice.

Informational Learning: This type of learning relates to increases in leaders’ skills and knowledge bases. It enables leaders to manage better the technical challenges they confront in their work.

Collaborative Leadership: Leaders who work in partnership with school stakeholders to meet the technical, adaptive, and mixed challenges of leading contemporary schools.

Technical Challenges: The pressing problems that school leaders encounter that can be defined and for which solutions exist, even if not known to the leader. In other words, there are experts who possess the skills and knowledge base for resolving the problem. Individual roles and norms remain stable.

Adaptive Challenges: The pressing problems that school leaders encounter that are difficult to define and for which there is no known solution. Thus, leaders need to identify the challenge and key questions/issues in order to determine an action plan. As a result, roles and/or norms may change.

Buy-In: Leaders stress the importance of the adaptive work of “buy-in;” by this they mean engaging adults to be invested in meeting the challenges.

Transformational Learning: We use this term interchangeably with growth and internal capacity building. It relates to increases in leaders’ cognitive, affective (emotional), interpersonal and intrapersonal capacities that enable them to better manage the complexities of leading, learning, teaching, and living. Transformational learning enables leaders to better manage adaptive challenges.

Mixed Challenges: These are work situations that are composed of both technical and adaptive components.

Phasic Approach: Leaders sometimes need to approach their work toward meeting challenges in different phases. This means the work may shift from technical to adaptive or vice versa.

Leadership Challenges: The pressing problems school leaders name as crucial in their work and difficult to resolve.

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