“We turned big school systems on a dime during the pandemic—school systems that pundits said were impossible to turn,” observes Cami Anderson. Anderson, a New Leaders alum and former superintendent for Newark Public Schools and the alternative high school district in New York City, is no stranger to leading change. “It wasn’t perfect, but it happened. We need to learn from that.”
Adaptive leadership—the ability to lead and manage change amid great uncertainty—is what our schools and school systems need, especially in the advent of a new school year that holds new challenges in a post-pandemic reality. Adaptive leaders drive real change by committing time, people, and resources to build toward collective solutions for problems that do not have an easy or singular answer.
Think about the most complex problems you face as a school leader, and those are likely the adaptive challenges. Upending inequitable systems in schools is an adaptive challenge. Reopening schools for in-person learning is an adaptive challenge. Mapping out bus schedules is not.
An adaptive approach focuses on people and their capacity to grow and change. Central to our four leadership shifts—Partner, Believe, Adapt, Simplify—embracing an adaptive mindset enables you to “do school” differently and co-create a new normal that builds on your school vision and deepens partnerships.
In the absence of any one-size-fits-all approaches, our evidence-based Transformational Leadership Framework™ (TLF) guides leaders in optimizing five evidence-based leadership categories (below) that are central to sustained school improvement. These school practices can anchor your adaptive leadership this summer and throughout the next school year.
At New Leaders, we train leaders who are not afraid to do things differently. We designed the TLF after examining more than 100 of the highest-performing schools in the country. Finding common practices across schools—regardless of size, location, or student demographics—we pinpointed how top leaders consistently contribute to student success. Now you can too.
An adaptive solution takes time to emerge, but it has a lasting impact on students, families, staff, and community. More traditional approaches, by contrast, focus on technical solutions. Leaders invest in tools, initiatives, or programming without fully considering how they will be received, leading to poor implementation and growing distrust among the school community.
It’s important to remember that building toward an adaptive solution doesn’t mean throwing out evidence of what works. The challenges we face in our schools are often intertwined, and the heart of adaptive leadership is figuring out how to keep the essence of what has been successful while shedding what has not.
Anderson’s advice to leaders: “If we don’t resist the urge to go back to what was, if we don’t forge the adaptive courage to build a new normal, we will fail our children.”