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Applying Adaptive Leadership to Sustain K-12 District Initiatives and Challenges

Module by: Louis Safer, Robert Wilhite, Susan Mann. E-mail the authors

Summary: The demand for leadership which enhances school improvement requires attention to the development and implementation of innovative leadership models. For every child to achieve to their full potential and for educators to participate in meaningful professional learning requires leadership approaches engaging and supporting the school community in difficult change while challenging their daily habits, loyalties, and ways of thinking. The challenge is to implement adaptive shared leadership and strategies in contrast to the use of authority to initiate change. One such model, the Heifetz Model of Adaptive Leadership asks each stakeholder in the school community to face complex educational issues by learning new ways of engaging in shared leadership opportunities and recognizing leadership as an “activity” which mobilizes individuals to tackle these tough problems.



This manuscript has been peer-reviewed, accepted, and endorsed by the National Council of Professors of Educational Administration (NCPEA) as a significant contribution to the scholarship and practice of education administration. In addition to publication in the Connexions Content Commons, this manuscript is published in the International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, Volume 5, Number 3 (July - August 2010), Formatted and edited in Connexions by Theodore Creighton, Virginia Tech and Janet Tareilo, Stephen F. Austin State University. This publication is also cataloged in the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC).


The demands for school improvement reform require attention to innovative leadership models. Our focus will be upon the Heifetz Model of Adaptive Leadership which challenges each stakeholder in the school community to face complex educational demands. These challenges require board members, administrators, teachers, staff, students, community members and organizations to learn and adapt new ways of engaging in shared leadership opportunities. For every child to achieve to their full potential and for educators to engage in meaningful professional learning requires leadership approaches involving the school community in change that challenges their daily habits, loyalties, and ways of thinking.

Leadership in education means mobilizing schools, families, and communities to deal with some difficult issues—issues that people often prefer to sweep under the rug. The challenges of student achievement, health, and civic development generate real but thorny opportunities for each of us to demonstrate leadership every day in our roles as parents, teachers, administrators, or citizens in the community. (Heifetz & Linsky, 2004, p. 33).

A model of adaptive leadership has been developed by Ronald A. Heifetz, M.D. Co-Founder of the Center for Public Leadership and the King Hussein Talal Senior Lecturer at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. We propose that this model offers an insightful approach for engaging leaders-- and their followers-- in the initiation and implementation of meaningful, long-term change within our K-12 educational organizations.

The Problem

Higgins (2009) notes in her examination of the effectiveness of senior leadership teams from large urban school districts that a focus should be on encouraging educational administrators to establish environments that are “psychologically safe” for creativity, experimentation, and risk taking”… “a significant challenge for school leaders is to cultivate an atmosphere where testing-and sometimes invalidating-innovative ideas is an accepted part of the creative process”. A similar theme is sounded by David Perkins (2009) when he acknowledges that leadership strategies in industries external to K-12 education are being explored by school leaders. He further notes that the present context of leadership is simplistic since it “errs in conceiving of leadership as a property of a few, select individuals rather than as an input into a variety of situations. Effective leadership development does not happen in a vacuum, or in a classroom, but rather in the flow of engaging work. It is a process, not an event.” Richard Elmore (2004) advocates that if students are to achieve at higher levels then there needs to be significant changes in the structure of school leadership whereby creative leaders come to terms with an understanding of a common school culture which eventually holds those in the system accountable for their contributions to the whole. Perhaps, one of the more current pieces of research on educational leadership is a working paper by Dean Williams (2004) of Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership in cooperation with the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund which explores some of the significant issues and challenges confronting superintendents of education. Williams’ (2004) working paper enumerates his research with twelve urban superintendents on how to lead in complex political environments by facilitating adaptive problem solving. The essence of the program is the acknowledgement that in order to effectively institute change then superintendents’ must come to terms with the complexity of the social systems that they are a part of and accept the challenge that there are no easy fixes or solutions.

Introduction to the Heifetz Model of Adaptive Leadership

The authors of this paper propose that one model of leadership, developed by Heifetz (1994), can serve as a guide to enhancing K-12 educational leadership.

The Heifetz model of leadership originally developed to educate leaders in government, corporate, and policy making arenas, can initially be understood as a process for observing social stresses and identifying within these stresses the clues that work must be done. Rather than trying to remove these stresses, adaptive work must begin by coming to terms with clarifying value conflicts; narrowing the gap between our current value beliefs and those created by the current operating environment. (Flower, 1995). For example, in the K-12 arena this disconnect is apparent in the local community’s value perceptions of why we should or should not supplement the educational opportunities of homeless children with the initiation of after school tutoring programs. Often the situation requires responses that come from outside the current capacities of those involved at the local level, such as the AmeriCorps VISTA Chicago HOPES project begun in 2006. HOPES (Heightening Opportunity and Potential for Educational Success) has successfully implemented year-round after school tutoring and enrichment programs for Chicago Public School children living in Chicago’s homeless shelters.

Heifetz (1994) contends that by acknowledging that there are moments of crisis or discord, we have the tendency to expect leadership (authority) that will give us answers, decisions, strength, and a map of the future, someone who knows where we ought to be going, someone who can make hard problems simple. But instead of looking for this traditional kind of leader-as-savior, he recommends that the real work of leadership is challenging each member of the group to face complex problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions--problems that require us to learn new ways of engaging in shared leadership activities. These complex problems with no easy answers are the challenges facing today's K-12 educational leaders as Heifetz and Linsky assert “Educational leadership often entails finding ways to enable people to face up to frustrating realities, such as budget cuts, low achievement scores, high dropout rates, or the gap between the revolutionary aspiration of leaving no child behind and the programmatic design and funding of NCLB.” (Heifetz & Linsky, 2004, p. 33).

The Principles of Adaptive Leadership

Heifetz’s view of leadership is organized around two key distinctions: (1) the distinction between technical and adaptive problems and (2) the distinction between leadership and authority. The first distinction focuses on the different modes of action required to deal with routine problems in contrast with those that demand innovation and learning. The second distinction provides a framework for assessing resources and developing a leadership strategy depending upon whether one has or does not have authority. Technical challenges and solutions reside in the head, solving them requires an appeal to the mind, to logic, and to the intellect (authority). Adaptive challenges and solutions, employing leadership as an activity, reside in the heart. To solve them, we must change people's values, beliefs, habits, or ways of working. K-12 teachers face such challenges when they encounter a gap between the demands for higher academic standards and their current classroom practices whereby they must learn a new set of competencies for increasing student performance. Developing these competencies will require the school community to make adaptive changes as well as adopting new norms of supervision, experimentation, and collaboration. (Heifetz & Linsky, 2004)

The Work of Adaptive Leadership

Heifetz (1994) develops a framework for accomplishing adaptive work through a series of principles which provide the foundation for adaptive leadership. To frame these principles within the K-12 domain, the authors will highlight an on-going intervention program, Chicago HOPES, as an application to the Heifetz model. Chicago HOPES is an initiative within the Homeless Education Department of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Chicago HOPES was established in 2006 through a grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service which funded AmeriCorps VISTA members to create after school tutoring programs for children living in Chicago’s, twenty-three homeless shelters.

  1. The process of adaptive work relies on directing attention to the tough issues. Adaptive leadership demands that the focus of attention be centered on the issues not on the person(s) in leadership roles. For example, the tough issue was Chicago’s homeless youth, specifically the lack of educational services for homeless K-12 students in the Chicago Public Schools. Through a compilation of significant data and assessments, the process of grant funding, and the external organizational pressure from a variety of Chicago’s prominent coalitions for the homeless (Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, City of Chicago Family and Support Services, Chicago Department of Human Service, The Inner Voice, Inc.) attention was directed to much needed funding for services for homeless students. Chicago HOPES became the vehicle to provide the staff and leadership in setting up the after school tutoring programs and drawing attention to the broader societal issues of the homeless.
  2. Authorities must have access to information and therefore must use this ability to investigate problems more vigorously than those without information. Over time, the program manager for the homeless education department amassed significant data and reports which drew attention to the limited after school educational services being provided for homeless children in Chicago. The result of this knowledge base afforded the department the evidence to seek external funding to create Chicago HOPES. Support for this grant initiative came from social service organizations, coalitions, and agencies (identified above) who now had access to the assessment data and information.
  3. Managing information and framing issues are major leadership tasks. Heifetz speaks of “ripening an issue”, which entails creating urgency around an issue so that people will pay attention to it and begin adaptive work. Because of the growing numbers of homeless youth in Chicago and the dearth of quality educational services the issue became “ripened” for attention and corrective action. Through several lawsuits filed against the Chicago Public Schools by the Chicago Coalition of the Homeless, media exposure, and heightened public awareness, these deficiencies became more public and urgent; the result being an adaptive challenge and opportunity to move this issue beyond just a technical fix.
  4. To engage in adaptive work the leadership must create and orchestrate conflict.The urgency of a needed intervention coupled with the federal (McKinney Vento Act), state (Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act), and Chicago Public School policy (CPS Policy and Procedures on the Education of the Homeless Children and Youth) and with lawsuits favoring the position of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless dialogue was begun. There were and still are uncomfortable moments in forging and maintaining viable and important stakeholders from different arenas who are voices for the homeless. It remains imperative that CPS through Chicago HOPES continues to be inclusive in this endeavor or the problem of educating homeless youth will result in an incomplete or limited solution. As Heifetz and others (2009 p. 14) remind us, “inviting such a diverse attendance is sure to create a much less comfortable and polite discourse, yet it is this discomfort that is at the very root of adaptive change”.
  5. Developing a holding environment is central to the work of leadership. The point of the holding environment is to regulate, but not eliminate stress so that people can learn new ways of wrestling with issues. Through the after school shelter tutoring program under the leadership of Chicago HOPES, a range of technical fixes are ever present but the more adaptive process of challenging the shelter administration, CPS leadership, and the VISTA members themselves, places stress on all parties. It becomes the responsibility of the VISTA leader, in coordination with the homeless education department manager, to gauge and control the pressure in working with all interested participants. Tensions tend to run high at moments in the process, especially during the assessment of how effective the after school tutoring programs are in light of available staff, program coordinators, and funding, and most importantly, are there academic and social gains being made because of the Chicago HOPES presence. At times the pressure cooker explodes due to the various personalities and ideologies involved and it has become necessary to step back and lower the heat. The greatest pressure as of this writing is to be able to continue to do adaptive work with the knowledge that funding for Chicago HOPES may not continue beyond 2011-12.

The Roles of Authority and Leadership in Adaptive Work

There is a difference between authority and leadership although we usually think of them analogously. In fact, leadership without authority carries certain benefits, just as leadership with authority can have constraints. Leadership without authority enables one to raise tough questions, exact creative thinking, focus on a single issue, and operate from the front lines. Authority requires one to take the position of managing the holding environment, directing attention, influencing the flow of information, distributing responsibility, framing the debate, and structuring the decision-making process. While such inherent power has its benefits, there are corresponding constraints, ones that diminish latitude and flexibility.

As Heifetz (1994) points out, often members of the group have been conditioned to defer to authority thus becoming one source of the authority’s power. In most groups, only a few people realize that the source of power lies within them. This is a key factor in relation to adaptive work. People, who recognize that power lies within them, question more easily the commonly accepted system and are more likely to take on the work of implementing change. Those who become skilled in this activity of assuming power deal with authority figures on a more equal level and become capable of sharing in the work of leadership. A case in point stems from a decision on July 10, 2002 by three Pittsburgh foundations, the Heinz Endowment, the Grable Foundation, and The Pittsburgh Foundation to discontinue indefinitely all financial support ($11.7MM over the previous five years) to the Pittsburgh public school system because of its flawed and dysfunctional management and governance. The result of this unique and difficult decision catapulted the Pittsburgh government and community to establish a Mayor’s Commission on Public Education whose mission it was to independently analyze the conditions of the Pittsburgh Public Schools and recommend effective changes. The Commission’s report in 2003 called for drastic systemic changes which eventually resulted in the majority of the school board including its president being voted out of office and a new, vibrant board being sworn in. In February 2004, all three foundations resumed their financial support to the school system. (Heifetz, Kania, & Kramer, 2009)

Authority can take shape and form in two arenas, formal and informal. Each form enjoys advantages and suffers constraints. Those in positions of formal authority, school leaders and school board members, have the benefits of managing the holding environments, the flow of information, and the structure of the decision-making process but with the caveat that while these benefits can be enabling, they are also restricting. Simply stated, leaders with informal authority have more flexibility. They can deviate from the norm, focus on single issues, and operate close to the stakeholders as exemplified by the leadership of the three Pittsburgh foundations. At times, within the K-12 school structure, individual faculty members, staff, or students can assume these flexible positions of informal authority through personal relationships and partnering to work spontaneously and employ creativity almost without limit. Though traditionally perceived to have the “real power”, the leader with formal authority can have reduced creativity given the tasks of directing attention from debates, distributing responsibility, regulating conflict and structuring the decision-making process. Formal leaders will certainly benefit from looking for and supporting the leaders with informal authority as evidence with the collaboration between the Pittsburgh mayor’s office and the foundation directors and executives. Since these informal leaders work on the front line, they are critical to the success or failure of the adaptation process. Learning how to capture and direct the informal authority of others is perhaps the most critical component of leadership training for effective K-12 educational leaders committed to the concept of adaptive work.

Technical and Adaptive Work

An important premise of Heifetz’s work is distinguishing between technical and adaptive work and knowing when to employ each. Heifetz delineates these types of situations and identifies the type of work needed to bring about desirable outcomes.

Type 1, Technical - the problem and solutions are clear, the primary responsibility for the work falls to the leader. Examples within a K-12 school district may include the important, although routine tasks of annual faculty evaluations, resolving students' academic grievances, course scheduling.

Type II, Technical and Adaptive - the problem is clear, the solution requires learning and the locus of responsibility falls to the leader with authority and the people. For K-12 educational leaders this may include the development of an action plan to guide the activities of the district, instituting new models for student advisement or discipline, proposing new teacher professional development guidelines and activities.

Type III, Adaptive - the problem requires learning, the solution requires learning and the locus of responsibility falls to the people and the leader with authority. These Type III examples are by definition more idiosyncratic as was the scenario with the reconstituting and reframing of the public school system in Pittsburgh; itself a complex adaptive challenge which did not have a readily available solution or an entity that had the legitimate positional power to impose the change on all the constituent groups involved. (Heifetz, Kania, & Kramer 2009)

Technical challenges and solutions tend to be straightforward such as the funding of academic scholarships or constructing school buildings. Adaptive issues and solutions are more complex, calling for moving beyond the established authority for solutions, for example, providing funding for homeless children or instituting merit pay for teachers. For those tied to traditional models of leadership, this adaptive work requires what may be a shift in role orientation. The group and leaders who are facing an adaptive challenge must commit to engaging in the discussion of real problems and the search for often unknown and untested solutions.

The personal challenge this creates for individuals and the collective group is great. In such a situation, traditional leaders may not know what they are doing because they may be in over their heads such as the Missouri superintendent who was under pressure from teachers in one of his primary schools to remove their hard-driving and sometimes abrasive principal. The superintendent promoted the principal out of her job. For the superintendent, this was an action perceived as leadership because he had eliminated the teacher complaints and restored equilibrium to the building. But he had also removed a principal with a 20-year track record of dramatically improving student achievement and retention in the poorest neighborhood in the district, a feat she accomplished in part by pushing the teachers to operate beyond their current norms and expertise. (Heifetz & Linsky, 2004).

“The adaptive challenges facing education communities today are as sacred in their importance as they are difficult. At times they may seem intractable. Policymakers are demanding performance accountability measures for students and educators that bring into question deeply held notions of good teaching, good learning, and success in the classroom; these accountability measures also force us to face our long-standing acceptance of the wide gaps in achievement between rich and poor students and between white and minority students. The kind of leadership that can fashion new and better responses to those local realities needs to come from many places within classrooms, districts, and communities. In this complex environment, it is more important than ever that educator at all levels exercise adaptive leadership.” (Heifetz & Linsky, 2004, p. 37).


We propose that Heifetz's model of adaptive leadership is one that can be employed to lead K-12 school districts in the difficult tasks of engaging in self-study and reform. Adaptive leadership is a shared activity engaged in by leaders who hold formal and informal authority and by members of the group who must meet the challenge of technical and adaptive dilemmas. The distribution of power across all members of the school district optimizes the potential to change. In addition, the shared responsibility for change and the alignment of those assigned formal authority (e.g., central office and building leaders) with those holding informal authority (e.g., faculty; unions leaders, active student organizations) may work to diminish the inertia within the hierarchy of the traditional K-12 organizational structure. The implementation of adaptive leadership is not easy-- in fact, Heifetz (1994) calls it “leadership without easy answers”-- but this model developed for government and corporate organizations appears ready-made for K-12 configurations. The emphasis on leadership as a shared activity and the notion of shared authority reflect an excellent fit with the individualistic expert-driven, loosely connected power structure of most school districts. Our attention must now be focused on identifying effective adaptive leadership models that will enable creative, responsible, and effective reform to occur.


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