Adaptive Leadership: Reducing Drag Without Losing Forward Progress

by Ross Peters, Managing Partner

It has been a busy time at EXPLO Elevate as we, like schools, strive to embody the ability to change as we navigate strategic initiatives and as we respond daily to the world around us that is undergoing dramatic and often painful stresses.

We aspire to add strength to your strengths and add support to those areas where your school’s, or associations, or district’s evolution is requisite to stay steady in unsteady times. In so doing, we aim to reduce the forces that slow us down.

With that in mind, Donna’ Orem’s new series of blogs will be required reading for all of us. Donna is retiring from her role as President of NAIS this summer after a tenure that has left a humane and deeply thoughtful impact on the schools the organization serves. She also leaves a model of an almost impossible work ethic. (Question for the parking lot: how might our schools graduate more people like Donna).

Her latest piece, “Adaptive Leadership, Part 1: Technical or Adaptive Challenge?”, finds Donna putting her finger on the pulse at the core of not just the leadership challenges of NAIS schools, but of the leadership challenges of any educational institution and indeed any institution or business or non-profit.

After providing some relatively stark context, Donna asserts this (bold added):

The result is that change is occurring faster than our ability to deal with it, and that is really turning up the heat for leaders because leading through change is a complicated mix of reconfiguring people, tasks, institutions, and culture. It often requires upsetting the status quo, which can lead to people feeling a profound sense of loss. And, when people feel loss, their instincts are to halt progress.

Hard to argue with. Her statement reminds me of the physics of drag–a force that resists or opposes an object’s motion, slowing acceleration as it strains to gain speed. The “loss” Donna names is like the force of drag, as is our inability to successfully handle change that is “occurring faster than our ability to deal with it.”

Much if not most of our work at EXPLO Elevate, and in great schools (and in teaching practice itself) is to reduce the sort of drag that Donna names without losing forward progress. And I believe she is correct in focusing on Adaptive Leadership. Adaptive Leadership is what allows us to overcome the forces of drag, to break the bounds of the atmosphere/context that holds us, and to put a person on the moon. Even if the next “moonshot” is Mars. Even if the next moonshot is schools that can not only survive but dependably graduate generations of students ready to resist and overcome the forces that will create drag for them.

Learn more about Ross’s summer workshops for school leaders:

  1. Leadership Proximity: Creating the Context for Leadership Success in the School Year to Come (Aug 1-2, 9:00-11:30am)
  2. Moving from Strategic Planning to Strategic Action (Aug 10-11, 1:00-3:30pm EST) 
  3. Leveraging the Nine Virtues for Exceptional Leadership (Aug 3-4, 1:00-3:30pm EST)