Adaptive Leadership, Part 3: Surviving the Messy Middle of Adaptive Change

Editor’s Note: This is a three-part series on adaptive leadership by NAIS President Donna Orem. View the first and second posts.

In a recent survey, independent school heads described their jobs as interesting, intellectually stimulating, and rewarding, but a growing number also stated that the job is becoming intense, exhausting, and difficult. Certainly, the pandemic challenged us all, but the heightened pace of change today is creating stress and conflict in school communities, taking its toll on leaders at all levels.  

Although the past few years have created a unique set of difficult circumstances, the reality is that stress has always accompanied the job of leadership. In a 2002 Harvard Business Review article, “A Survival Guide for Leaders,” authors Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky argue that “to lead is to live dangerously.” And the most dangerous situations are those that “demand that people give up things they hold dear: daily habits, loyalties, ways of thinking.” These are the adaptive challenges that are growing in number and complexity today. 

In this adaptive leadership series, I have explored the nature of adaptive challenges and outlined practical steps leaders could take to create adaptive school cultures. In this final post, I will explore the personal toll adaptive challenges take and how leaders can ensure they and their communities survive and thrive through complicated change. 

The Danger Zone for Leaders  

Let’s first examine how people react to leaders who introduce change initiatives, particularly those that push them out of their comfort zones. In schools today, there are many change initiatives, ranging from new or expanded diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives to different school calendar structures to the use of technology in teaching and learning. Since all of these may impact long-standing programs or processes, people may experience the proposed change differently. Some will welcome a new way of doing things as they see existing structures as lacking, while others will experience it as a loss of something they value, with the initial reaction being to push back on the person they perceive as causing it. This can take many forms, according to Heifetz and Linsky.  

  • People may attack a leader directly to shift the debate to the person’s character and away from the change initiative itself. 
  • Some may attempt to marginalize leaders so that authority overall is undermined. 
  • Or the change itself can bring forth so many questions or calls for specific detail that the leader is overwhelmed and finds it too difficult to move forward.  

Although these challenges are not always meant as attacks, the end goal of each is to maintain what is familiar and move away from the pain of adaptive change.  

How do leaders maintain the strength to move forward in these situations while also keeping their jobs and ensuring that the community does not implode? There are both outward- and inward-facing behaviors to weather the storm of adaptive change. In my previous blog post, I covered some outward-facing behaviors leaders can adopt to effectively lead change. One more that can be particularly effective in a divided community is to use polarity management techniques. 

When change moves people out of status quo into unknown territory, they most often devolve into either/or thinking, creating the false dilemma that a move in one direction is abandonment of another. This is because the change has provoked our flight or fight instinct. With polarity thinking, a leader can help the community see that two seemingly opposing ideas are actually interdependent. For example, we can value long-standing school traditions while also welcoming new practices to better prepare students for the future. We can adopt programs that protect children while also introducing new ones that prepare them for the world they will inherit. We can meet individual needs and address the common good. By engaging the community in identifying the interdependent polarities at work and mapping out how we can stay on the upside of each polarity, we can move people from either/or to both/and thinking. Polarity Partnerships offers many resources for introducing polarity management techniques in your school. 

For leaders, turning inward is also important when leading adaptive change. Heifetz and Linsky point out that leaders need to make time for self-examination and be aware of the “two hungers” that can derail them. The first hunger is the desire for control. That need can unwittingly make us more apt to avoid contentious situations. And when working through an adaptive challenge, leaders must make room for conflict and perhaps a little bit of chaos. As management guru Rosabeth Moss Kanter identified in her research, this is the messy middle of change—the gap between your current state and your desired purpose.  

The second hunger is a need for importance. We want to make our mark as leaders, to leave a legacy. However, the downside is that it can encourage people to become too dependent on the leader for solutions. If a change initiative is causing distress in your community, people may pin all their hopes and expectations on the leader to move them out of that distress. Unfortunately, this relieves them of any responsibility for moving forward, and when addressing adaptive challenges, people themselves must be part of the change if it is to be sustained over the long run. Also, Heifetz and Linsky point out that, “Dependence can quickly turn to contempt as your constituents discover your human shortcomings.” 

Finding Help Through Sanctuary and Community 

It is a lot to ask of any leader to lead through this messy middle of change, but in fact, that is the essence of leadership. As Heifetz and Linsky state so wisely, “The essence of leadership lies in the capacity to deliver disturbing news and raise difficult questions in a way that moves people to take up the message rather than kill the messenger.” There are ways you can sustain yourself through the process though. A daily routine that allows you space or delivers you peace is essential. This can be a daily walk, a workout, or a meditation—whatever calms and centers you. It is important during times of adaptive change to see this kind of respite as a necessity, not a luxury. 

Also, we need to talk to leaders outside of our own community who are on a similar journey. Joining a cohort of school leaders who meet regularly to give support and share strategies can make all the difference. You may already be part of such a group locally, but you also may want to consider joining a national group. NAIS is currently testing a number of these cohorts. Contact Morva McDonald at [email protected] about NAIS Peer Circles—small groups of school leaders supporting one another on today’s pressing issues.

I want to end this series with the words of Heifetz and Linsky on why leadership is such a worthwhile endeavor even at the most difficult of times. Hopefully these words will provide comfort for those who are in that messy middle of change when everything feels like failure.

The hard truth is that it is not possible to know the rewards and joys of leadership without experiencing the pain as well. But staying in the game and bearing that pain is worth it, not only for the positive changes you can make in the lives of others but also for the meaning it gives your own.

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Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.