Transforming culture in uncertain times

Transformational Leadership

When in doubt, reach out! Positional power is dead.  Fear, lack of trust, and chaos call for new leadership: collaborative, adaptive, transformational.

Guard, Guide, and Grow

Borrowing heavily from Bridges (Transitions), Deal (Corporate Cultures), and Heifetz (Leadership on the Line), three words seem to embody the need for transformative leadership in our times:

  • Guard the pace of change; manage the pace of disappointment.
  • Guide through the turmoil by creating a neutral zone: a safe place to talk.
  • Grow capacity; grow the future by nurturing and seed planting.

In so doing, we secure a future we cannot yet see.  Loonshots is a wonderful read outlining all the ways the crucible of WWII generated decades of growth and prosperity.  Our work today plants the seeds for future success.

Leading in uncertainty

For decades leadership theory has noticed we have two kinds of leaders:

  • Transactional leaders who try to find the right answers and deliver outstanding results.
  • Transformational leaders who sense change and enlist teams in creating a new future.

Now, in the cauldron of COVID, we often retreat to what we know best.  Indeed uncertainty causes everyone to clamor for certainty.  Somebody DO something.  And yet, doing something too soon simply unleashes the power of protest – often from all sides.

A Better Way

Heifetz has written on adaptive leadership, Senge on balancing inquiry and advocacy. More recently, Kotter, Collins, and others claim that change is our new normal.  So how, exactly, does one lead in times of great uncertainty? 

A District Example

Let me share a story of district change and growth in times of COVID, one in which a district launched Inclusionary Practices as an imperative in dealing with equity and student growth.  The impetus came from many places:  unsustainable reliance on Special Education, a desire to better meet student needs in general education classrooms, and a desire to close racial equity gaps.

Guard the pace of change

Lots of work was done in preparing the system.  District committees and professional development.  Board discussions.  Alignment of goals.  Grants.  Schools were given the option of moving at their own pace.  Inclusionary Practices were not mandated.  Some schools were already out front.  Others embraced the new direction and went all in.  And a few waited to see whether the change would be supported and sustained. 

Bridges calls this phase Endings.  He suggests celebrations to mark the passages of past leaders or programs, and to give space to grieve a bit.

Heifetz says,  “Leadership is about disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.

Bolsinger says disappointing is a core competency.

Here, the district:

  • Managed the pace of change to give people space to make the adjustment and learn new skills.
  • Diagnosed the adaptive challenge by noticing how changes (losses) were impacting each role.

Guide the conversations

These changes were significant – more than a tweak or a transition.  In a word, transformation – a major shift in roles, values, and processes.  Instead of starting with a referral to Special Education, the process was now intended to start with a review of student needs at the school level.  That called for the development of an MTSS:  a multi-tiered system of support for students before recommending a move to SpEd.  Schools needed to develop systems – the how – in order to move toward the important why of the proposed change.  While some schools made the shift readily, others continued to rely on Special Education to either solve placement issues or shoulder the responsibility for “disappointment.”

Bridges calls this the Neutral Zone, where parties are caught between old and new and trying to find their way.

Heifetz calls it a holding environment where adaptive leaders:

  • Surface concerns with empathy, but without resolving the conflict
  • Manage tensions by creating a safe place to talk about competing values
  • Give time for decisions to mature and begin to grow into new learning
  • Continue working on the adaptive challenge

In this case, schools were encouraged to keep working on MTSS systems that would provide more placement options to meet student needs.  While support was needed, too much support, or giving in by accepting a premature SpEd placement, could reinforce the old system of relying only on SpEd.

Guiding the conversation occurred simultaneously on multiple levels.  The old tapestry was tightly woven together from district to schools to classrooms.  Now it needed to be rewoven in transformative ways:

  • Unlearning takes place alongside the new learning.
  • Disappointment and work avoidance over what is being lost is normal.
  • It takes time to navigate this neutral zone.

Grow Capacity

One of the supports for learning this new system was a grant that provided PD for classroom teachers.  This was an important part of giving classroom teachers additional tools to use in classroom interventions.  And quite problematic in times of COVID and severe staff shortages.  Yet the success of the transformation depended on learning new skills.  What to do?

This was not the right time to mandate participation.  Guiding conversations focused again on the important why, how the PD would help grow capacity and a safe space to acknowledge the realities of managing buildings during high absences. As a result buildings stepped up.  PD sessions were well attended.  Some even asked to send more teachers.

Additional efforts to grow capacity included citing positive examples in many ways:  improved data on least restrictive environment; individual placement stories that illustrated the creative problem solving process; meta-stories about schools that had made major steps forward in inclusion.  And, somewhat ironically, a moratorium on placement changes due to staff shortages, gave new urgency to creating school based capacity.  Ongoing support came from SpEd staff working with principals to help them figure out school-based solutions.

Bridges calls this phase New Beginnings.

Heifetz suggests several adaptive leadership strategies:

  • Get on the balcony to see the big picture so you can address adaptive concerns.
  • Call the meeting; get all stakeholders in the room.
  • Give the work back to the group; we can only learn by the doing.
  • Learn from diverse voices about what is working and what is not.
  • Reach outside the box to find break through creative solutions.


It is tempting in the middle of chaos to hunker down and ride out the storm.  Meanwhile, time is passing and kids are losing out.  Sometimes our biggest breakthroughs come in the midst of crisis – more so than in times of calm.  Yes, there are many technical problems to be solved in times of COVID.  The new normal, however, is constant change and work on adaptive problems.

Grow Adaptive Learning

Now is the time to grow adaptive learning and adaptive leadership – for you, your team, and your district.  The day of the leader having all the answers is over.  In times of rapid change no one person can have all the answers.  Uncertain times, as a colleague puts it, call for shared leadership and leaning into the collective.  Our kids are counting on us.  Now is the time to find a better way.



Posted in
Larry Nyland speaking

Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

To talk about growing extraordinary "high capacity" leadership for your team …
Contact: | 425-418-4398 |