One more item for the list of unexpected things that happened during the pandemic: Some of the best-performing principals were those who struggled the most to adapt. How did that happen? In his latest Research Matters column for ASCD’s Educational Leadership, McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin says conversations with superintendents have convinced him leadership style was a factor. Citing the work of Ronald Heifetz and Donald Laurie, Bryan says many principals are adept with technical problems, which can be solved with existing knowledge, but wrestle with adaptive challenges—novel situations that require entirely new solutions. And the pandemic was “arguably the Mt. Everest of adaptive challenges.”
Leaders fare best in times of uncertainty and rapid change by adopting a bottom-up style that inspires workers to solve problems creatively. Yet for many, the impulse is to respond exactly the opposite, resorting to a top-down, directive style. Trying to solve new problems with old solutions works for a while, but then it becomes hard to make progress. According to one study Bryan cites, leadership behaviors contribute significantly to the variance in school performance during uncertain times.