Leveraging Covid: Adapting to Thrive

Maury Grebenau

Back when the word “corona” evoked an image of an ice-cold beer, the concept of adaptive leadership was not on the front burner for most schools. Adaptive leadership enables organizations to identify changes needed to move forward guided by agreed-upon values. Thanks to its focus on leading in dynamic systems, however, it is especially applicable to this uncertain time of ongoing change.

In the midst of the coronavirus, the speed of change in our schools has accelerated to an unhealthy hurtle, and adaptive leadership is more important than ever. The challenge before us as school leaders is being able to turn leading through Covid-19 into an opportunity to learn new leadership skills that will help us to better administer our schools regardless of the specific challenges and contexts that are down the road.


Adaptive leadership distinguishes two types of challenges: adaptive and technical. A technical challenge can be very complex, but has a clear solution. A playbook can be used to react to the challenge successfully, and there is a known goal where we want to end up. Replacing a faulty heart valve during cardiac surgery is a complex technical challenge. There is significant room for error, and it is tough work, but the technique needed, and the goal, are both quite clear.

An adaptive challenge, on the other hand, is an enigma of conflicting values where the direction and the path to achieve the goal are unclear. Adaptive challenges pit some of our deepest-held convictions against one another and require a specific type of leadership to move forward. This category has captured much of our work for the past months, as our most cherished values of pedagogy, safety and community have been in constant conflict and required painful concessions.


Adaptive leadership asks leaders to distribute not just work but authority. It requires leaders to engage their staff in the work of examining and debating conflicting values on the way to changing hearts and minds. The goal of adaptive leadership is to identify the changes, however painful, that are needed for the future health of the organization. This requires an experimental mindframe and cycles of observation, interpretation and intervention. When diagnosing a problem, it is critical to stay low on the ladder of inference and hold numerous potential interpretations at once, rather than quickly identifying the cause of an issue.

Over the summer, we experienced a series of teachers resigning in quick succession. There was clearly an element of this trend that was related to anxiety over Covid. Although some quickly wrote it off as just “Covid makes people crazy,” others on the leadership team cautioned that we need to make sure there isn’t anything else going that needs to be understood. We stayed low on the ladder of inference and focused on the rate of faculty turnover, even given the unusual context. The fact that more than one or two teachers were actively looking for other opportunities was something we needed to understand, and we needed to be open to multiple possible explanations. Having our human resource professional perform exit interviews with the exiting staff allowed us some insight into how other changes in our schedule and pay structure might have played a role. Being open to other interpretations allowed us to continue to search for this feedback, which might otherwise have been overlooked.


One of the central ideas of adaptive leadership is calibrating discomfort. When there are conflicting values and adaptive challenges, people will feel a sense of disequilibrium. The goal is to remain in the zone of disequilibrium long enough to harness the conflict and discomfort in order to truly unearth what values may be in conflict and the best direction for the future. However, the leader must make sure that they do not remain in disequilibrium so long that the level of anxiety and discomfort is too much for the teachers to tolerate. If we leave the zone of disequilibrium too early, the organization has avoided the tough work that will result in discovering solutions to adaptive problems. Staying too long in this zone may cause the leader to damage trust and relationships with staff.

Recently, in a meeting with teachers as we planned programming for this challenging year, I harnessed discomfort when I did not allow us to go to the quick solution of using our same recipe for programming and just subdividing the student body into pods. I had to repeatedly bring us back

to the idea that we were thinking out of the box to come up with an idea that we would feel good about continuing even after Covid. It would have been far more comfortable to move on and solve this issue with some of the initial suggestions, but digging into the disequilibrium netted a more creative and satisfying solution.


Another important aspect of adaptive leadership is the concept of “getting on the balcony.” In my own research on new principals in Jewish day schools, one participant referred to this as “time in the shade.” This meant taking the time to get out of the hustle and bustle of the school day and reflecting on the general picture of the school as well as on your own part in the system.

This work can’t only be relegated to the summer, but summer is a good time to intentionally begin this process with other administrators and set aside time during the year to continue the process.

I have seen a number of schools have offsite meetings for strategic planning, including for staffing decisions or creating the schedule. This same approach can be used for having regular balcony meetings or balcony moments to reflect on the overall picture of the school.


The benefits of successful adaptive leadership are a culture aligned with the goals and values of the institution and the agility to continue to make changes as needed. I’d like to conclude this article by discussing one area of challenge to this type of leadership: discomfort—one’s own discomfort and the discomfort of others. Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky speak about the fact that adaptive leadership means intentionally disappointing people who confer power on you. In our schools, both our teachers and our lay leadership frequently want us to focus on fixing what is currently not working well. Taking time away from the present concerns to deal with the culture and values conflicts is frequently not applauded and must be continually justified to these constituencies.

This reality is paralleled by our own discomfort in dealing with adaptive challenges. During the past months, I have found myself drawn to some of the more mundane tasks of administration even when there were other important priorities for the school. As I reflected on my preoccupation with more technical challenges, I realized that school leadership had for many months been a steady stream of adaptive challenges. Adaptive leadership means that we can’t really control (or even predict) the outcome of how a challenge will be dealt with, and that is scary. The more comfortable, technical challenges of school administration were oases of control for me, and I reveled in them.

When we embark on our own pursuit of adaptive leadership, we must be mindful that we too may be uncomfortable in this space and would also like to spend more time just putting out fires and making things better. To deal with adaptive challenges, we must allow ourselves the space to get up on the balcony and spend the time diagnosing and strategizing in a way that is future-looking, fighting the all-consuming needs of the present on behalf of the uncertain but nonetheless inevitable road ahead.

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HaYidion Remodeling Fall 2020
Fall 2020