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In Translation: School Leaders Learning in and From Leadership Practice While Confronting Pressing Policy Challenges

by Eleanor Drago-Severson & Patricia Maslin-Ostrowski - 2018

Background/Context: Worldwide, principals face enormous challenges while translating policies and mandates for which they are accountable into their mission and practice. While some of these school-level challenges are technical, many are adaptive (Heifetz), requiring leaders and those in their care to grow their cognitive and affective (emotional) capacities so that they can manage change. Principals are under pressure to decipher problems quickly and create conditions to build capacity at ground level.

Purpose/Research Question: This research examined how principals framed pressing challenges they confronted in leadership practice (technical, adaptive, or mixed), and in what ways, if any, learning was part of their response. A pressing challenge is defined as a difficult problem named by leaders that they—themselves—identified as one they are currently facing or have recently faced. We explored how they helped other adults (e.g., teachers and staff) and themselves to manage change associated with meeting these challenges. Additionally, we queried how prior and new learning helped them lead while overcoming pressing challenges.

Setting: We recruited principals working in urban K–12 public schools in the U.S. Eastern Seaboard and Bermuda, sites focused on educational reform.

Participants: A purposeful sample of 13 principals (eight male, five female) representing primary, middle, and secondary levels was used. State department leaders and educational leadership faculty recommended principals who they perceived were “effective”—in other words, based on their knowledge and by reputation, these were successful school leaders.

Research Design: This qualitative study used in-depth interviews to explore the experience and perceptions of principals leading through challenges.

Data Collection and Analysis: Principals participated in in-depth semistructured interviews. After member checking, interview transcripts were coded and categories developed to capture themes and patterns.

Findings: Leaders’ pressing challenges have elements of what Heifetz calls adaptive, technical, and mixed. There was a recurring theme of leading to support change. Regardless of how these principals conceptualized challenges, they responded by creating customized professional learning experiences—informational (aimed at increasing skills and knowledge) and transformational learning (aimed at internal growth and capacity building)—for teachers, staff, and for themselves. While appreciating formal leadership preparation, they emphasized learning from informal experiences and focused on job-embedded learning in their schools.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Understanding technical and adaptive work, the ways that adults learn and grow, and how strategically to create space and spaces for continuous, customized experiential learning in schools (informational and transformational) offers a potential pathway for principals to build capacity and surmount pressing challenges.


The role of the translator in mediating source ideas across cultural and national boundaries places him or her in a unique position in particular for understanding a range of development issues. (Bernacka, 2012, p. 110) (Retrieved from <http://www.developmenteducationreview.com/issue14-perspectives4>)

School leaders, and especially principals, face enormous challenges today as they respond to and translate a relentless barrage of policies and mandates for which they are accountable (Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, & LeMahahieu, 2015; English, 2008; Firestone & Shipps, 2005; Kegan & Lahey, 2016). As West, Peck, and Reitzug (2010) emphasize, “Such public accountability systems have created significant new pressures for the principal, who is often the only individual whose name is directly linked to a school's academic performance” (p. 251). Leaders currently search for effective ways to support their teachers and themselves, especially given new teacher and principal evaluation assessments and new curricula (e.g., the Common Core in the US). There are, for sure, demands on principals around the globe. Regardless of context, scholars agree that it is the principal who must translate policies and external mandates into practice and it is the principal who keenly understands ensuing issues at the ground level of schools. How can we best support principals, given such complex challenges? How might we create conditions for authentic and meaningful professional learning within and across schools, districts, and university leadership preparation programs? Our exploratory research contributes to these vital questions.

To meet pressing challenges and lead change, scholars now stress the need to help aspiring and practicing principals learn how to support their own and other adults’ learning and growth by attending to the developmental and social-emotional dimensions of leadership in schools (Ackerman & Maslin-Ostrowski, 2004;; Drago-Severson, 2009, 2012, 2016; Drago-Severson, Maslin-Ostrowski, & Blum-DeStefano (In Press);Kegan & Lahey, 2009, 2016; Kensler, Caskie, Barber, & White, 2009; Lugg & Shoho, 2006; Mizell, 2007). Understanding how to build one’s own and other adults’ internal capacities can, in turn, assist leaders and the adults they care for in schools to accept and manage better the inherent complexity of challenges. Doing so will enable them to produce “desirable organizational outcomes” (Cosner, 2010, p. 121). This is true whether their purpose is to improve student achievement, strengthen teaching practices, enhance principals’ instructional leadership performance, promote collaboration, build community partnerships, or address gender and racial inequity and other important issues in our schools. Despite these urgent needs, researchers (Byrne-Jiménez & Orr, 2007; Donaldson, 2008; Elmore, 2007; Kegan & Lahey, 2016; Shoho, Barnett, & Tooms, 2010) have identified a longstanding gap in leaders’ preparation and knowledge about how to support authentic adult learning and development. Our study focused on understanding the contours of principals’ experiences when facing challenges and how, if at all, their responses incorporated supporting learning for the adults who work in their schools.

When facing a challenge, we have learned that leaders can benefit from having a framework to help them analyze the situation, such as adaptive leadership. Leadership scholar Ronald Heifetz (1994; Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009) makes a critical distinction between what he and his colleagues refer to as technical and adaptive challenges. Technical challenges are issues for which we can identify what the problem is and what solutions exist, even if leaders cannot solve these problems themselves (i.e., they can find experts to help resolve them). It is important to note that these kinds of problems may be quite complex; yet the problem and solution are clear. “Adaptive challenges” (Heifetz, 1994, p. 8) differ from technical ones in that these are situations for which neither problem nor solution are known. There are no available experts, and therefore, solutions are created as one works on them. In effect, these kinds of problems require new approaches and demand that leaders have the internal capacity to manage tremendous ambiguity and complexity (a developmental capacity). These challenges most often require leaders to grow their internal cognitive and affective (emotional) capacities so that they can manage the challenges (Drago-Severson, Roy, & Von Frank, 2015; Kegan & Lahey, 2016; Lori, McClelland, & Stewart, 2010; Maslin-Ostrowski & Drago-Severson, 2013; Wagner, 2007). Importantly, Heifetz et al. (2009) describe a third classification of challenges composed of elements of both technical and adaptive challenges and refer to these as mixed challenges.

One problem, then, is that school leaders need more support—for example, in preparation programs and on-the-ground professional development—to manage the complex challenges that they encounter every day. In addition, they need to know how to support adults in their care to manage change and to help them grow. Our investigations1 address these two issues in education today. To do this, we have looked closely at how Heifetz’s model applies to and can inform the work of school leaders. This has led to key insights that underpin this article (Drago-Severson, Maslin-Ostrowski, & Hoffman, 2012, 2013; Maslin-Ostrowski & Drago-Severson, 2014). Research reported here represents the next phase of our mixed-methods longitudinal study. In previous research phases (with principals, assistant principals, and district leaders from the United States and small samples from Bermuda and the Near East, along with educational leadership faculty) we learned that (1) compliance and accountability issues were prevalent; (2) a thread running through challenges was how to motivate educators to produce more with inadequate resources; (3) both the technical and adaptive (Heifetz, 1994) aspects of leadership are important, especially when considering phases and components of how leaders respond to challenges; and (4) faculty in educational leadership preparation programs must understand the nature of school leaders’ challenges to help them be prepared for what is ahead even when solutions are unknown. It is noteworthy that not a single leader in any phase of our study was unable to identify a pressing challenge. Many identified multiple challenges.


Although research indicates that leaders around the world have common challenges (Goddard, 2005; Kegan & Lahey, 2016), the particularities of individual school contexts are critical to crafting responses that meet those challenges (Finnigan & Stewart, 2009; Kragler, Martin, & Kroeger, 2008). To assist with context, we share a little background about education in Bermuda and the United States at the time of our research.

Context for Bermuda

We, authors of this paper, were visiting scholars in Bermuda and part of a research team. The team was invited to assist local scholars and practitioners with a research project entitled Tapestry: Education for All (Maslin-Ostrowski, Drago-Severson, Ferguson, Marsick, & Hallett, 2017). This project aimed to improve the Pre-K–12 educational system in Bermuda and rectify disparities. It was through our connections with local leaders engaged in this project that we learned about the major school reform efforts in Bermuda. The Commissioner of Education helped us with contacting principals in local schools who met our purposeful selection criteria (please see Methods section).

Bermuda is a British Overseas Territory, previously a colony of Great Britain. At the time we conducted research, the population was 65,000 people. The Bermuda Ministry of Education oversees 35 public schools located on the island, which includes 10 preschools, 18 primary schools, 5 middle schools, and 2 high schools. There are also 2 special needs schools (“Bermuda’s Education,” 2017).

One of the major educational reforms began in 2009, when Bermuda introduced the Cambridge International Curriculum. This new curriculum was selected by the Bermuda Ministry of Education mainly because of its interest in better preparing students for success on the O levels and A levels of international exams, since these are crucial for students who apply to universities abroad (“Bermuda’s Education,” 2017). This is especially important since in Bermuda there is only one institution of higher education (Bermuda College), and it offers an associate’s degree. There are no 4-year colleges, so it is vital that students qualify for entry into colleges and universities abroad. Aspiring and practicing school leaders in Bermuda typically need to travel overseas to further their learning as they pursue baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral degrees. In fact, as we learned from a former head of school (principal of an elementary school) and leader in the Bermuda community, school leaders in Bermuda typically travel to Canada, Great Britain, and the US to attend professional development and leadership development programs (personal communication, 2016).

Context for United States

For this phase of our research, we interviewed principals in the US serving in urban schools in Florida and Massachusetts. Like Bermuda, these—and states throughout our country—are undergoing substantial education reforms. In addition, as was the case in Bermuda, education policy in the United States has undergone significant and rapid changes in the past 10 years. For instance, the central government has extended its role in education and moved from a system that had been dominated by local control to a stronger federal presence (Elmore, 2004). New principal and teacher evaluation frameworks, standardized testing, and the Common Core Standards are examples of educational reforms that are sweeping the country. While we know that context is critical in any study, we selected principals in these states for a variety of reasons including their reputation as effective and their accessibility (please see Methods section). We believed that these principals in Florida and Massachusetts would be facing challenges that would resemble challenges faced by school principals in like metropolitan areas. Our goal was not to generalize findings and so we were not seeking a representative sample in the truest sense of the word; however, our up-close study yielded lessons learned that may be applied to other settings.


In this research phase our purpose was to explore further how school leaders—specifically principals perceived as effective—frame the pressing challenges they confront in their leadership practice, and in what ways, if any, learning was part of their response to the challenges. A pressing challenge is defined as a difficult problem named by leaders that they—themselves—identified as one that they are currently facing or have recently faced at work. We wanted to interview principals who were identified as “effective”—that is, they earned a reputation of being either “successful” or “effective”—because we assumed that if they were known to be effective in their work, they would be able to help us learn more about the challenges that were hard for them to manage and that understanding what challenges they faced would be a contribution to the field and to leadership preparation programs. We also assumed that what would be challenging to principals identified as being effective would also be challenging to principals who were not identified in this way and/or who were struggling. (We describe criteria for “effective” more fully below.) Three questions guided our inquiry:


How do leaders describe and frame the most pressing challenges they are currently encountering (or recently encountered) in their schools?


How, if at all, do they help other adults (e.g., teachers and staff) and themselves to address change associated with meeting these challenges?


What prior and new learning do they identify as helpful for understanding and overcoming pressing challenges?


What people resist is not change per se, but loss. (Heifetz, 2009, p. 11)

Adaptive challenges are on the rise today (Drago-Severson et al., 2002; Drago-Severson, 2009, 2016; Kegan & Lahey, 2016). In fact, scholars and practitioners agree that managing adaptive challenges and their inherent tensions are crucial tasks of leadership in our contemporary world (Drago-Severson & Blum-DeStefano, 2016; Kegan & Lahey, 2016). These include both “internal and external challenges and expectations” (Normore, 2008, p. 378), which place enormous stress on principals. When leading change, principals must support teachers and other stakeholders, as well as themselves, in coping with the ramifications of change—the gains and the losses, as Heifetz cautions—if change is to be internalized and sustained.

We begin with a brief review of Heifetz’s (1994) model and criteria for distinguishing between technical, adaptive, and mixed challenges. Next, we introduce key principles of experiential learning as support to leaders’ management of challenges. As we discuss, the leaders in this study emphasized the critical importance of learning from experience. In particular, we highlight an important distinction between two types of learning experiences—informational learning and transformational learning. Last, we discuss adult learning principles that promise to assist leaders in confronting challenges. These theories underpin our research.


As mentioned, technical challenges are issues for which we can identify both the problem and solution. And, even if we cannot solve these problems, we can find experts who can help with addressing them. Adaptive challenges are circumstances where neither problem nor solution is known and neither can be pinpointed. These are challenges that no experts can solve. Solutions must be created while working on the problem (Heifetz, 1994).

Scholars Heifetz et al. (2009) offer helpful criteria for assessing whether problems are technical or adaptive challenges. Important indicators are: role of the leader, clarity of the problem (i.e., can it be identified or not), availability of a solution, and the impact of the challenge/response. Whether people’s roles and the norms of the organization remain stable or change also differentiate these types of challenges. The nature of the challenge—technical or adaptive—calls for different leadership approaches both when first facing the challenge and in the aftermath. We employed these criteria in our research.


I am still learning. (Michelangelo)

While many scholars discuss the importance of learning from experience or experiential learning, they refer to it using a variety of terminology. For example, some employ terms such as learning on the job, learning from experience (Kolb, 1984), incidental learning (Marsick & Watkins, 1990), informal and formal learning (Dewey, 1933; Knowles, 1968), self-directed learning (Knowles, 1984), and learning in informal and formal settings (Brookfield, 1986). Regardless of terminology, these theorists stress the prevalence and importance of learning while engaging in and reflecting on work.3

We summarize the conceptualization of one prominent theorist, namely, David Kolb (1984). Our intention is to highlight key principles and later to connect findings to his theory. As noted, we recognize that other theorists discuss this concept. In this section, however, we focus on Kolb’s conception since his theory is employed in the field of education. We offer this because experiential (by extension often informal) learning is recognized in the educational field and its literature as an essential component in the learning of adults (Mezirow, 2000).

In our study, learning from experience emerged as an important way in which these principals managed challenges and helped others to do so as well. For instance, one of the interview questions we asked these principals was, “What prior and new learning do you, as leader, identify as helpful for understanding and overcoming pressing challenges?” We learned that while they mentioned formal leadership preparation programs, the role of mentors, and role models, experiential learning was a dominant theme. In fact, the majority emphasized that they continually “learn from experience” and draw on their learnings to manage the variety of challenges they face, especially those they named as most pressing. Therefore, we focus on the nature of learning from experience, rather than formal preparation, as context for understanding better what we learned from these leaders.

Kolb’s framework: Experiential Learning

Renowned adult learning scholar David Kolb is celebrated for his experiential learning model, which centers on the premise that our life experience can be—and often is—a source of deep learning.

Kolb’s (2005) experiential learning theory offers a universal framework that summarizes experiential learning as a cycle composed of four phases, namely, “concrete experience,” “reflective observation,” “abstract conceptualization,” and “active experimentation” (p. 3). He discusses the first phase, concrete experience, as learning through hands-on experience and distinguishes it from reflective observation, which he considers to be the second phase, where an individual is reflecting on experience. In the third phase, abstract conceptualization, a person can envision his or her own thinking and feelings about his or her reflection on experience. Active experimentation, the final phase in the learning cycle, is when an individual tests out his or her conceptualization. Thus, “learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 1984, p. 38).

Kolb (1984) maintains that experiential learning is “a program for profoundly re-creating our personal lives and social systems” (p. 18). Experiential learning, as Kolb emphasizes, addresses “the critical linkages among education, work, and personal development” (p. 4) as a pathway for learning and development—what we refer to as capacity building. Principals in our research emphasized the importance of this in managing challenges.


Many stress the fundamental need for a richer understanding of the internal experience of leadership, and a deeper understanding of how leaders manage adaptive challenges and the developmental capacities needed to meet challenges (Drago-Severson, 2009, 2016; Kegan & Lahey, 2009, 2016). This is especially important in light of the adaptive challenges leaders face and the need to help themselves and other adults to develop and work through them (Drago-Severson, 2004a, 2009, 2016). Yet, as Bajunid (2008) emphasizes, “the paradox remains, that while schools are learning organizations for students, schools are not learning organizations for professional peers, and not maximally exploited for teacher learning” (p. 280). While attention is given to building organizational capacity, we must also help principals and teachers grow their capacities for the relational, reflective, cognitive, and emotional dimensions of leadership development.

Scholars maintain that school leaders can build their internal capacity and the capacity of the adults in their care by creating conditions that support adult growth. This can be accomplished by a) creating developmentally-oriented cultures (Donaldson, 2008; Drago-Severson, 2004a, 2009; Evans, 1996); b) building relationships and paying attention to people’s well-being, including interpersonal and intrapersonal aspects (Ackerman & Maslin-Ostrowski, 2004; Barth, 2006; Drago-Severson, 2004a; Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002; Leithwood & Beatty, 2007; Riley, 2015); and c) emphasizing adult learning (Johnson et al., 2004; Moller & Pankake, 2006). Principals in our study were leading change and for them, the learning and growth of teachers was paramount to the process.

Informational and Transformational Learning

Leaders support their own and others’ growth and learning in diverse ways. Here, we introduce a distinction between informational learning (acquiring facts, knowledge, and skills), which is certainly important in our educational world, and transformational learning, which increases our cognitive, emotional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal capacities to manage the complexities of life (Drago-Severson, 2004a, 2009, 2012, 2016; Kegan, 2000; Kegan & Lahey, 2016). Transformational approaches involve engaging in collegial inquiry, learning from multiple perspectives, giving and receiving feedback, and understanding one’s own guiding assumptions (Drago-Severson, 2004a, 2009, 2012, 2016). Supporting adults’ informational and transformational learning can help us to strengthen professional learning so that it is intentionally aimed at helping adults to grow. Both informational and transformational learning are needed today. In fact, germane to our discussion, informational learning helps us to address the technical problems and transformational learning helps us to grow to be better equipped to manage the adaptive challenges. Our research identified the kinds of learning experiences that school leaders reported as helping them work through challenges: many used a blend of informational and transformational learning experiences.  


This qualitative study was part of a larger mixed-methods longitudinal study (2008–present). Here we focus exclusively on in-depth interviews with principals to obtain a detailed understanding of the challenges they experienced.


As discussed (see Background and Context section), we selected two locations, one national (the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S.) and one international (Bermuda), from which we invited principals to participate voluntarily in our research. Education systems and schools in both countries were focused on reform, and in each we had contacts that assisted us with identifying potential participants that met our selection criteria. We selected Bermuda as a site because we were visiting scholars there and during our work we learned about the K–12 educational reforms Bermudians were implementing and how these placed new demands on principals. Importantly, as globalization advances, the educational policy environments of countries are increasingly similar (MacBeath & Cheng, 2008), as we saw with principals in Bermuda and the US who were experiencing tensions in translating externally created policy agendas into the mission and practice at their schools.


A purposeful sample of 13 school principals was used for interviews in this phase of our research. Participants were principals or directors in primarily urban K–12 settings. We approached state department leaders and educational leadership faculty to recommend principals who they perceived were “effective”—in other words, based on their knowledge and by reputation, these were successful school leaders. More specifically, we employed three criteria. First, principals had to have been practicing as a school principal for a minimum of at least 1 year. Second, each had to have had advanced study into the practice of leadership. For example, principals in the US had all earned graduate degrees in educational leadership and those from Bermuda, where there is a single institution of higher education (a community college), had all participated in advanced professional learning, institutes, and/or seminars in Canada, Great Britain, and the US, and some had advanced degrees. And third, each principal was put forth as having earned a reputation of being either “successful” or “effective.”

We aimed for diversity in terms of gender, position, and school level. Interviews were conducted with 13 principals (five female, eight male). A variety of configurations of elementary, middle, and/or high school levels were represented (i.e., K–5, K–8, K–12, 6–8, 6–9, 9–12, along with a center for students with special needs). Two were charter schools. Nine came from urban regions in the US. Four were from Bermuda (urban and quasi-urban—meaning that some schools have the characteristics of urban schools—for example, high poverty—while not inner city). We invited seven of the 25 primary-secondary public school principals in Bermuda and interviewed four who voluntarily agreed to participate. Three did not respond.

Our research team consisted of university faculty who teach in education leadership preparation programs. Careful attention was taken to ensure we did not interview a leader who was a student enrolled in our courses. In fact, we invited a graduate student to conduct several interviews to avoid validity threats associated with reactivity and research bias (Maxwell, 2013).


In-depth interviews were conducted to understand thoroughly the challenges experienced by leaders, and were the sole data source for the research reported herein. We designed a semi-structured interview guide with five primary open-ended questions to learn how leaders frame challenges and how, if at all, they support their own learning and that of teachers and staff (Appendix A). The core interview questions were: “As the school leader, I recognize that you face challenges every day. What is one of the more pressing challenges you’re facing today? What are the demands placed on you in your role as the leader when addressing this challenge? How do you work with your teachers and staff to help them manage change associated with this challenge? How did you learn to do what you’re doing to manage this challenge?” As shown in Appendix A, each main interview question was followed by a series of probes to understand specifics and meaning-making more deeply. These probes enabled us to unearth participants’ perceptions and insights during the 45- to 60-minute interviews, which took place using Skype or telephone. Interviews were audio recorded verbatim with participants’ permission and generated 231 pages of transcripts.


Data analyses were intertwined with data collection—that is, we engaged in an iterative analytic process throughout interviewing. This entailed writing analytic memos, keeping journals, and discussing what we were learning. All interviews were digitally recorded and transcribed verbatim to address descriptive validity. Transcripts were reviewed against the recordings to ensure accuracy. All leaders were invited to review transcripts and offer comments (member checks) (Maxwell, 2013). Participants wholly offered minor modifications (i.e., grammar edits, filling in voids missed on recordings, and clarification of meaning).

Once all transcripts were checked for descriptive validity, three cycles of coding ensued. We began with open coding and making margin notes. We independently coded transcripts for central concepts (Saldana, 2013) using theoretical and emic codes (Geertz, 1974). We used descriptive codes (e.g., multiple challenges, approach to change), attribute codes (e.g., grade level, school type), in vivo codes (e.g., “heartburn,” “with fidelity”) and process codes (e.g., helping others learn, motivating people to change) (Saldana, 2013). After reading transcripts multiple times and listening to the audio recordings, we came together and developed an initial code list that generated more than 60 codes combined (Appendix B). We reviewed this list to refine earlier codes. We were in agreement over the vast majority of coding (i.e., our coding was consistent, but in a few places we used different codes to capture the same meaning). For example, in a few cases we learned early on that we had applied the codes “understanding challenges” and “defining challenges” in different ways. In cross-checking codes, we learned this and refined how we would employ these codes.

After this, during the first round of open and theoretical coding, we began to cluster codes based on commonalities, while looking for patterns (Saldana, 2013). After discussion, we decided how to group codes. For instance, “learning” was divided into three codes: how learned (experiential or other), learning about self, and helping others learn. Some examples of our codes were: background, context, challenges, policy, accountability, compliance, time, tensions, learning, experience, response, and professional development. In the first round of coding, we independently applied codes to denote particulars of challenges such as teacher evaluation, new standardized testing, new science curriculum, and veteran and novice teachers. However, we agreed to discontinue coding in this manner due to our focus on leadership approaches and processes, rather than the specific case problem. It was less important how we characterized their problems than how they saw, responded to and described their problems. This helped to collapse the code list to 45 codes moving into the second analytic cycle.

Data were scrutinized for confirming and disconfirming evidence (Miles, Huberman, & Saldana, 2014) during the second and third coding cycles. Recoding data allowed for “a more attuned perspective” (Saldana, 2013, p. 10). Every code was linked to a principal’s experience: we wanted to understand each person’s leadership experience rather than fragment the data.

Following the second round of coding, we developed our final code list (see Appendix B), 22 codes and 43 subcodes. We used pattern coding to develop the “meta-code” (Saldana, 2013, p. 209)—that is, the development of major themes. Two meta-codes, for example, were created for learning: learning and learning from experience. Learning incorporated seven subcodes: learned from challenge; informational and transformational; helping others learn; learning about self; formal learning; how learned to do this (leadership); and mentoring, coaches and models. Learning from experience included two subcodes: prior experience and learning on the job. We used this code list for the third and final cycle of coding. Appendix C offers an example.

In our analytic processes after coding was completed, we grouped codes into five categories—35 codes and 23 subcodes. Categories included understanding challenges, response to challenges: external, response to challenges: internal, and learning for and from challenges. The fifth category was for background and context. After these analytic steps we employed a constant comparative approach to compare codes, categories, and interpretations (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). First we examined each category, looking within it to consider all coded data, then looking across categories for any patterns or themes to discover what was important. We provide examples of coding for the categories in Appendix D.

We coded for differences in Bermuda and US contexts; however, no clear differences emerged when closely examining data, given our focus on principals’ challenges and how they managed them. In other words, when data were sorted by site, codes aligned regardless of location. When looking within and across categories, aspects of principals’ pressing challenges (e.g., approaching challenges, use of learning) could not be distinguished by national context. Given these analyses, findings are not separated by site; however, when principal voices are quoted, we identify their home country. We discuss study limitations at the end of the article.


Two preliminary findings emerged from analyses. First, we present how these leaders described and understood the nature of their more pressing challenges in leading their schools. More specifically, we explain how principals framed their challenges (i.e., adaptive, technical, or mixed). In our discussion we explore how leadership requires both kinds of responses, technical and adaptive. Second, we discuss how these principals described their efforts and actions to help teachers and staff become better equipped to change and work through the challenge by creating customized learning opportunities. As the findings support, we found it important how alike these principals appeared in terms of how they made sense of and managed their most pressing challenges, notwithstanding living and leading in different countries—and contexts, with varying school and district sizes, and different pressures related to reforms.


What is most personal is most general. (Carl Rogers, 1961, p. 26)

Confronting challenges is the work of a school leader, and these leaders all readily had stories to tell about problems they were facing. Here we discuss the ways in which they describe and understand the nature of important and taxing challenges in their day-to-day work. We offer stories of several school leaders selected because their challenges represented the kinds of challenges that fit the essence of each category: adaptive, technical, and mixed. Regardless of location, there was a recurring theme of leading to support change. Challenges were directly or indirectly traced to external forces, such as policy and mandates. Nonetheless, most principals genuinely cared deeply about their challenge. As psychoanalyst Rogers posited, what feels most “personal” is “most general,” and may help explain why much about the pressing challenges that principals discussed were similar despite context.

After these leaders named their challenges, we examined how they made sense of them by using Heifetz’s (1994) framework as an analytic lens. The interview was designed, in part, to identify how these school leaders frame problems in the field. We offer what follows to address important gaps in understanding how principals approach challenges.

Our classifications of leaders’ named challenges were based on criteria developed in the literature (Heifetz, 1994; Heifetz et al., 2009). As noted, these include the leader’s role, clarity of the work, clarity of the solution, need for learning, locus of discretion in the work, changing/stable roles, and changing/stable norms. We applied these criteria to leaders’ perceptions of the work of their challenges. Below, we use hashtags to represent “trending” themes and expand on representative examples of learning framed by these leaders as adaptive (n=3), technical (n=1), and mixed (n=9).

#Heartburn: Challenges Framed as Adaptive

Three principals (U.S. Principals Jed, Darcy, and, Raigan) framed the work of their challenges as adaptive. As mentioned, when a leader addresses a challenge where the problem and the solution are not well defined, where there is ambiguity, and when roles and norms may change, the work is considered adaptive. “It’s figuring out how to do something that rarely or is never done.” Principal Raigan’s insight about his challenge to turn around and restructure a failing school encapsulates the work of addressing adaptive challenges. Below we explore what adaptive work means to school leaders in our study.

Jed, leader of a K–12 urban charter school, for example, identified a critical tension of having to meet accountability mandates while remaining true to what he believed was best for students and teachers, a tension shared by some colleagues. When we asked Jed to name his challenge, he was compelled to merge three challenges into one, beginning with policy. He reflected,

It might sound strange that I’m starting with something at a policy level. But I feel like it’s where my moral compass is steering me right now. And you know I’ll say it this way, I say that I’m having increasing angina around the extent through which policy mandates at both the state and federal levels are driving local decisions about what’s best for children. And I’ll flesh that out a little bit further. But the long and the short of it is I feel like our country right now is fixated with pretty monolithic measures of what matters in schools and what matters for kids, and therefore what matters for adults. And I don’t want to come across as an anti-standards person because I really do believe in high standards for all children. But I think that the way that this has translated has created these schools that are not doing right by kids and in turn not doing right by adults.

It appears that a lot can be lost in translation when policy and leaders collide.

Also contending with accountability measures and framing his challenge as adaptive, Principal Darcy was starting his 3rd year as principal of an inner-city, high-poverty elementary school and revealed, “The most pressing challenge I have is I have a lot of students who are in the primary grades and by the time they get to third grade, we still have a lot of kids that don’t know how to read. The state’s goal is for students to be reading on grade level by third grade.” Avoiding this problem was no longer acceptable for Principal Darcy since all students, including English language learners (a high percentage of his students), needed to be proficient in reading. He elaborated, “Even if the school is making progress it’s hard to see it because of how you’re being measured by your state.”

Principal Darcy indicated that one way he responds to the challenge is to spend a lot of time offering professional development opportunities that utilize research-based approaches to improve instruction. Yet he knew the change demanded more than learning different teaching strategies. As he explained, some teachers would actually need to adopt new beliefs:

It was tough because there were some teachers that I had to start having some difficult conversations with about what they were doing in their own classrooms that was not up to par…It has come down to this: I do have some teachers that don’t believe that all kids can learn. And I actually have teachers that I feel aren’t doing things that are advantageous for kids; that’s to be very honest.

As the leader, Principal Darcy was disrupting the teachers’ equilibrium by having these difficult conversations. He told us that together, he and his teachers entered a process of challenging assumptions and collectively seeking better ways to teach reading, making this adaptive work. Darcy, like Jed (and Principal Raigan, as we will see next), did not turn to outside experts to solve their problems because there were no such experts. Instead they grappled with problems stemming from policies made by external experts. They were trying to make sense of what was happening and invent their response (i.e., an adaptive approach). They were learning their way through the challenge, as we discuss later.

In a similar vein, Raigan, principal of a newly re-formed 6–9 urban school that was adding a high school grade each year until it reached 6–12, was experiencing the daunting challenge of turning around a failing school, yet he worried that the district and state had unrealistic expectations about timing and that their measure of success would come down to standardized test scores. “The problem that I find is constantly the timing game…. How long does it take for pure, sustained, systemic change?... How long is it supposed to take to fully redefine a school that’s been open since 1968?” He elaborated on the tension he was feeling:

You know it takes a year to train for a marathon. A simple marathon takes a year but yet the expectation sometimes to change culture in a school is nine weeks, eighteen weeks, twenty-seven weeks, one year… We want it faster, we want the silver bullet, we want the magical fix. We want to get a school to move four letter grades within a year. As opposed to saying, “Let’s do it the right way, systemically four years from now we’ll be okay….” It’s that patience game, can you be patient to wait for the true system change to kick in, that’s the golden question.

Principal Raigan discussed the complexity of change and how he believes “that you can make sustainable change in area A, area B, area C, area D and all these other areas so that the last of the change kind of goes hand in hand with it…the school grade will take care of itself.” Yet he was keenly aware that successes along the way to raising test scores only elicit the response: “I’m only interested in what the school grade is.” He remarked, “Ultimately, we live in a day and age that we’re graded here in [state].”

Like several other principals, Raigan talked about the dilemma of knowing how to raise test scores fast in order to please district officials and policymakers, even though this would be at the expense of authentic change. Moving a low-performing school from a low to high pass rate on state exams in one year, for example, would earn positive headlines and the principal would be showered with accolades, but at what price? Raigan recognized,

That’s a tempting thing, that’s what some leaders do. They say if I can just pull up from an F to a C regardless of all the other data and all the other indicators I move my needle two grades, I’m a success. Well on the other side of it, your business community, your stakeholders have fallen, your partnerships may have fallen…but you’ve improved your needle two grades. So I think you have to find a balance as to how to make the school as a whole better and that takes time. And getting people to fully embrace that change takes time.

Principal Jed echoed experiencing this dilemma in his leadership practice and talked about the unintended consequences of “that way of governing school reform—one being teaching to the test. And it’s the notion that all that matters is how well kids can perform” on the state standardized test. He continued,

It’s really forcing teachers to be fairly rote and regimented in the way they think about teaching and learning. And not in ways that I think allow for the natural curiosities of children to be honored and to play out effectively in schools… There’s just so much angst around these test scores that it makes me queasy honestly. Schools should be places of joy, of laughter, of play and I can’t tell you the number of schools that because of all this are eliminating anything that’s not core academic from the daily routine of children… I have serious, serious heartburn about this in terms of the long-term effects.

Principals in our sample like Jed, Raigan, and Darcy explained that they saw no quick fixes or readily available long-term solutions to the challenges. They recognized the tensions, contradictions, and ruptures between external mandates and their local realities, and more profoundly for some, the dilemma of values and beliefs clashing with the educational authorities. As these leaders indicate, they themselves and those in their care were working on learning to adapt to the challenges at hand.

#LittleShifts: Challenges Framed as Technical

Here we turn to an example of a challenge where the principal framed the work as technical. Unlike principals Jed, Darcy, and Raigan, this principal, Margaret (Bermuda), had a clear definition of the problem and knew where to seek the expertise of professionals. She was also confident about building on her prior experience and wisdom to solve the problem. This illustrates a technical approach.

In Bermuda, there was a recently adopted rigorous national exam for the public schools, the Cambridge exam, and this was the focus of Principal Margaret’s challenge. She offered with humility that for her the most pressing challenge was to prepare her teachers so that their students would be successful. She courageously admitted that she had doubts about the new testing, yet knew she was responsible for ensuring her school performed very well and maintained high scores like they had achieved on the previous assessment. Margaret shared, “Last year in the system testing we came [out on] top and we’re very proud of our team and the results that we produced.” What a challenge for sure!

Principal Margaret’s first response to the challenge was to provide professional development for the staff. She was sensitive in caring for some of her high performing teachers whom she likened to thoroughbreds: “Just like race horses, you have to stroke them and pamper them because they are fabulous teachers but not always the easiest to get to go left or right.” She invited outside experts to lead professional learning on test preparation and tapped her experienced teachers to be a key part of professional learning led from within.

Margaret characterized this work as a “little shift,” which she believes can be harder than a “big shift.” She explained, “In some respects, it’s more annoying to have a small change than to have a radical change.” Using sports analogies she said,

If our PE [physical education] teachers go out, and they’ve changed the stepping rule in netball, or they’ve changed the offside rule in football, a little change like that is actually harder than if they change all the rules because you’re so used to doing what you do that you don’t always notice the shift.

Margaret was certain that the focal point at that time needed to be preparing for the exam, a little shift. She told her teachers, “We keep saying that we’re not teaching to the test but we wouldn’t send out the football team without knowing the rules of game, guys.”

Margaret previews how adults in her school will be engaging in a big shift. Her challenge will likely involve adaptive elements, such as teachers and the leadership team acclimating to new norms and even changing roles, and thus become classified as mixed. We discuss challenges that are technical and adaptive next.

#WithFidelity: Challenges Framed as Technical and Adaptive

Nine principals framed the work of their challenges as mixed—that is, both technical and adaptive; however, their dominant frame was technical. In sum, their primary stance was technical in nature. This is significant. We present three examples that capture this mixed approach and, like these leaders, begin with the technical work followed by adaptive.

Principals’ Work can be Quite Technical

In contrast to adaptive work, technical work is noted for having a clear definition of a problem and a known solution or the availability of outside expertise to provide solutions to a problem.

Similar to principals Jed, Darcy, and Raigan, Principal Dallas (US) was confronted with and conflicted by a challenge linked to accountability and standards. Yet, unlike them, he framed his work as mixed with technical as the dominant frame. Principal of an urban center that serves “students with severe disabilities, intellectual disabilities, students that fall under the autism spectrum disorder but more at the severe level” from kindergarten to the age of 22, Dallas said,

The bottom line is we used to not be given a [school] grade or a rating. Just over the last two years the state has implemented expanded accountability measures for even schools such as mine and even for students with severe needs such as mine. Keep in mind I told you about 96% of my kids are non-verbal…So if you can have that visual image of the kids then it kind of puts this whole notion of testing for those kids and accountability measures for achievement for those kids up in a great cloud somewhere.

 Like the others, Dallas was straddling a philosophical line and commented,

So having all of that to take into consideration as a principal I can’t ignore the accountability measures that are bestowed upon me. But at the same time also philosophically I will go on record to say I just don’t agree with them to be honest with you. I can’t ignore them and I definitely strive to have my staff do the best that we can with my kids every single day but I just philosophically don’t agree with it.

Despite this internal conflict, Dallas was clear that he would adhere to the policy.

Dallas reframed this accountability challenge into a challenge with his teachers. He needed “to address getting my teachers to expand their knowledge, expand their ability to really dig down more analytically, critically in regards to their teaching craft to provide kids the best at the individual level.” He was looking for “the best way to engage my staff in terms of their skill set as teachers without discouraging them, without making them feel as though their professionalism and their expertise, and their knowledge is being questioned.” His solution was to offer an innovative in-house approach to professional development. Although new to staff, Dallas had prior experience with this approach at a former school where he was principal. He commented, “So having had that history of organizing that kind of professional development, let’s just say honestly it was kind of easy to come up with.” (We describe the professional development later.) Dallas held a clear vision of what he needed to do and was drawing on previous learning and experience, thereby classifying this work technical.

He elaborated on how he needed to get teacher buy-in to change the schedule in order to create space for personalized professional development for each teacher every week:

I bargained with the teachers to alter the master schedule. It’s kind of like a give and take, bargaining, bartering, compromising with the teachers because I did not give them that prep time and I don’t want to deal with the union contractual issue.

He added, “So I had all these things that I had to shuffle and maneuver, it was kind of like an operational logistical chess game.” Dallas’s thinking illuminates how complex technical work is.

Like Dallas, others, such as Farley (US), recognized the importance of preexisting knowledge when addressing their challenges. Farley cited his background in business as an asset that helped him know how to implement a newly mandated teacher evaluation system effectively and “with fidelity.” Similar to Dallas, he secured experts for solutions—since solutions existed. Farley arranged to learn about the new evaluation framework from the original designers in conjunction with a train-the-trainer program. This assisted him with “rolling out” the new program. As is true for these two principals, the accessibility of experts in the field and readily available solutions are clear signals of a technical challenge.

Likewise, Principal Oscar (Bermuda), our third example, initially framed his more pressing problem as technical. He identified a multifaceted challenge that stemmed from a “government mandate” to assimilate a program from another site into his campus, which meant teachers from the lower division of his school would have to move to another location and merge with the upper division. “It will be very, very different” for the teachers, according to Oscar.

In Bermuda, the Ministry of Education sets policy and “dictates that class sizes can be up to twenty-four students”; Principal Oscar’s current classes were underenrolled. Thus, part of this change was intended to maximize class size and to do so, the principal would have to lose staff members and decide who would leave. Compounding the challenge, Oscar said there would be “more students per class and, of course, all of the various issues that come with those students.” Teachers were understandably nervous. Oscar explained how he has learned from his prior experience as principal and assistant principal, and that this helped him to respond. He had an understanding of the problem and solutions were in sight, making his first response technical.

Intentionally transparent with his staff about the situation, he was in tune with their feelings. For example, he shared with the teachers his own experiences with change, acknowledging how hard it can be. Based on experience, Oscar knew it was important to reach out to teachers and to share authentically. He said,

The school does have staff members that have been here since I was in primary school, so it’s difficult for people like that, they have their sense of ownership, entitlement, you know, “My school, I’m not going anywhere else. I’m going to retire here. How dare you change this school?”

Oscar developed a plan to meet with each teacher.

We operate on integrity, that’s real big at our school…I will meet with them one by one, I will hear them…give them the opportunity for those who wish to transfer…that will relax them somewhat, and they [will] know that it will not be a hat-taking or hat-chopping process.

Oscar stated that “PD” was not needed at that time; rather, he said, “What is needed for them is just security, that’s their fear right now.” He did, however, turn to outside experts to provide professional development to address teaching a larger class with a wider diversity of student needs. We expand on this later in our discussion of informational and transformational learning.

Principals’ Work can be (and may need to be) Adaptive, Even When not Recognized as Such

These three principals, Dallas, Farley, and Oscar, named important challenges that required work on their parts and by their faculty and leadership teams as well, yet the work required of each role group was not always the same. Though much of their work as principals was technical, others’ work, for the most part, had adaptive components in addition to technical components. While, for sure, there were technical aspects, we also discovered from the principals that roles were somewhat in flux and procedures and processes were going to have to change, which, to us, indicates that these leaders faced challenges that had adaptive components to their work as well.

In the initial phase of working on his challenge, Principal Dallas emphasized a technical approach. Yet being a reflective leader, he was aware of the deeper change required ahead if this was to be sustained. He said,

For me the goal is right now, now that we are up and running, how do we keep each other engaged in regards to what we’re learning and how well we’re learning, and how [and where] it takes us overall as individual educators.

In addition to restructuring time and space, if teaching is to change and the change becomes embedded in practice, Dallas explained that he will need to support teachers with the difficult process of coming to terms with new beliefs about what is possible and with adopting alternative ways of doing things in their school. This is adaptive work.

It is important to emphasize that we are not saying that these principals did not, themselves, participate deeply in adaptive work. Quite the contrary: for instance, Principal Farley’s new teacher evaluation actions illuminate that his method of instructional leadership would need to change. Farley shared that he wanted to alter his approach to the pre- and post-observation conferences. He was aiming for a different kind of conversation that reflected more of a laser focus on instruction. This is adaptive work.

Consistent with principals Dallas and Farley, Oscar framed the work of the first phase of his challenge as technical. He recognized the urgency of teachers afraid of losing their jobs and took action as soon as he could to allay fears and to keep lines of communication open. Yet he articulated that change is difficult and that it will take time to adjust to larger classes with greater student diversity. This demands adaptive work for teachers with support.


We found that for these 13 principals, learning was incorporated into all of their responses, irrespective of how they framed the challenges. Each leader provided accounts of learning in the context of meeting his or her pressing challenge. We offer three insights about this. First, these leaders cared for the learning of others before they considered their own learning. Second, they created professional learning opportunities for teachers that were informational, transformational, and mixed. Last, while learning in university preparation and certificate programs was cited as significant to most of these leaders, all highlighted how experiential learning was fundamental to their ongoing growth and development as a leader and especially in terms of managing complex challenges. We found this to be very important.

Caring for the Learning of Other Adults First

When these leaders discussed coping with a challenge, their emphasis was on caring for the learning of others. This does not necessarily mean that they were not learning themselves or that it is not important to them, yet what comes to mind when describing how they address their challenges is supporting others by creating learning experiences for them. These principals’ first response was to support the learning and growth of their faculty and staff, regardless of how they framed the challenge (i.e., adaptive, technical, or mixed). We offer two representative examples from our research.

Principal Dallas made teacher learning the hallmark of his approach to address the challenge of obtaining a satisfactory school grade and meeting accountability benchmarks. He created opportunities for his teachers to learn during the workday and on a weekly basis at his urban center school for students with special needs. Dallas disclosed that he knew that he was deviating from the district model of professional development when he said, “We have a certain topic schedule, everyone comes to the media center and ‘[it is] let’s engage in professional development.’ That happens every blue moon [here].” He elaborated,

This year, I’ve developed something called lesson studies. It’s not a fancy name—no real hoorah in the title. I wanted it to be exactly what I intended for it to be [for them]. … Even as educators we need to learn. And, we have to put in our time to study. And, I have this philosophical value that you can’t be the best teacher when you’re not willing to learn yourself.

He went on to describe what “lesson study” looks like in practice at his school.

So here’s the premise of lesson study. Lesson study pretty much is a designated time for every single teacher; it is mandatory for every single teacher to go through lesson study. Where they can collaborate with my instructional coaches and have an individualized professional development session with any of the instructional coaches that they choose for 45 minutes for that week. So every single week for the remainder of the school year they are required to go to lesson studies and bring a self-selected topic.

By providing his “own training,” he could “address the individual needs that we have as a school. Not so much the district needs.”

Principal Dallas stressed the importance of follow-up to lesson studies and explained that by “keeping the training in house” he was better able to

monitor the teachers’ growth because when I went in for an observation and formal walk-throughs it gave me a chance to visually see firsthand, this is what we taught you, this is what we worked on, this is what we collaborated on. Now I can see the picture.

He added that managing this process is complicated: “It’s a switchboard to really track my own staff development based on the individual needs of my teachers.” The next challenge, he explained, is to “insure whether or not the teachers are actually infusing what they’ve learned back into the classroom.”

Principal Georgina (Bermuda) is another example of a leader who focused on teacher learning, in this case to address the demands of implementing a newly mandated curriculum. She stressed the importance of creating space for “conversations” with her elementary school teachers to help them manage the complexity of the work. Her sentiments echoed those expressed by many other principals in our sample. She told us,

Allowing the adults to know that you have [prioritized having] professional conversations about teaching and learning, about content, about course curricular content [using] the data to drive instruction. They [her teachers] see it as, “Oh, this woman is giving all this work but we never had to do this before.” “I’m overwhelmed.” So going back at the end of every what…6 to 10 weeks? I always have these conversations with the teachers to find out, “Where are you and where is it that you want to go? Where and how can I assist you?”

She further explained, “I have one-on-one conversations. I do give a SWOT [analysis of the issue by looking at]—strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.” She continued, “I do that a lot with the team every time we have a staff meeting or if we are working on a threatening initiative, how are they feeling, what are the strengths of it?"

Principal Georgina offered her rationale for supporting teachers and their learning:

I have these conversations because I need to make sure that they know I’m there to support them and to grow them as an individual, not always as an entire body. [I help them understand] how to use their strengths to allow them to know they can do [it]. Just because it has not been asked of them…It is the norm as an education [system] to do X, Y & Z but I’m going to help you to get there because you don’t know, you don’t know. You never were asked to do this. [Chuckles].

Caring for teachers: Supporting their work through informational and transformational learning opportunities.

As we just discussed, the principals overwhelmingly assumed a leadership role in supporting the learning and growth of teachers when facing a challenge. Table 1 shows that they orchestrated informational, transformational, and/or mixed learning experiences. Informational learning helps teachers to manage technical challenges, whereas transformational learning can help them to grow their internal capacities to manage the complexity and ambiguity inherent in adaptive challenges. Both kinds of learning are valued and needed in today’s educational milieu.

Table 1. Leaders’ Approaches to Challenges: Informational and/or Transformational

Leader, Site, and School Level

Informational and/or Transformational

Amanda (USA, Elementary)

Informational with seeds of transformational

Dallas (USA, Special Needs K–13 School)

Informational and transformational

Darcy (USA, Pre-K–5)


Elira (USA, K–12)


Farley (USA, Elementary)


Georgina (Bermuda, Elementary)

Informational and transformational

Jed (USA, K–12)


Margaret (Bermuda, Elementary)


Matt (USA, Middle)

Informational with seeds of transformational

Oscar (Bermuda, Elementary)

Informational and transformational

Raigan (USA, Middle/High School, 6–9)


Tory (Bermuda, Elementary)

Informational and transformational

Wolfgang (USA, High School)

Informational and transformational

As Table 1 shows, two principals applied primarily an informational learning approach, four applied primarily a transformational learning approach, and seven used a mixed approach (i.e., both informational and transformational learning). In other words, nine leaders of the 13 we interviewed employed some form of informational learning (e.g., teaching skills, learning how to interpret data, learning to use an online grading system, and learning the rubric for the Common Core Standards) as part of their approach to helping others meet challenges. Eleven of these leaders used some form of transformational learning (e.g., having difficult conversations, challenging assumptions, small-group focused conversations, and 1:1 feedback sessions).

Promoting informational learning, for instance, Principal Amanda (US) told us that she created opportunities for teachers to visit each other’s classes during the day in order to observe “best practices” in instruction. She, like some others, felt that observing models of best instructional practice helped teachers avoid “reinvent[ing] the wheel.” Similarly concentrating on informational learning, Principal Oscar organized professional development workshops as a way to address one aspect of his challenge. Teachers were worried about increased class sizes, in particular working with “students on the autistic spectrum, behaviors in general, academic needs, the learning support of students.” He brought in experts to lead workshops on, for example, behavior intervention and strategies for teaching children with autism. These informational learning experiences were powerful. Oscar described the teachers’ responses: “You can hear the breathing. They just let it all out, it just became so real to them. So they had strategies, they were able to look for indicators.”

In contrast, we offer an example to capture leading using transformational learning. Jed, leader of a public urban K–12 charter school, described his perspective on the value of creating opportunities for his teachers and staff to engage in transformational learning. As he put it,

We believe that adult learning happens best when it’s transformational rather than informational. You know not too many retain too much when they’re sitting in a big room with some expert at the front of the room kind of lecturing. People walk away with workshop euphoria and they get all fired up about doing the things they learn. But a week later they’re back to doing the same things that they’ve always done.

He continued by discussing what he calls a “Cycle of Inquiry” that is part of the fabric of professional learning and professional growing opportunities for teachers and staff at his school. Jed shared that it is important to differentiate the kinds of learning opportunities offered to teachers and other adults especially since, from his view, it is important to recognize that “everyone” does not necessarily “need the same thing all the time” in order to build internal capacity. He added that the ways in which we think about supporting adult learning is akin to the “learning that we’re trying to promote around our students. We want people to adapt the model to meet the needs of each kid.”

Leaders’ Experiential Learning

Next we discuss the ways in which these school leaders described how they—themselves—learn and grow in order to be able to overcome pressing challenges. More specifically, we asked them, “How did you learn to do what you’re doing to manage this challenge?” Prior learning was recognized; however, new learning was prominent in their minds, particularly the support of mentors, and that is what they emphasized.

As university professors, it is important to mention that the majority of these school leaders explicitly acknowledged the value of their formal leadership preparation programs and institutes. In fact, they considered their prior formal learning a foundation that supported their abilities for leading schools and confronting challenges. Some, however, did not bring it up during the interview and focused exclusively on new learning, whereas a couple questioned the role of formal learning in preparing them for on-the-ground challenges.

Not surprisingly, all 13 principals volunteered that current and prior work experience contributed immensely to the work they do as educational leaders when meeting challenges. In fact, all discussed the importance of on-the-job learning as key preparation. This is important. Principal Amanda’s words echo what all expressed: “on-the-job training has a lot to do with it.”

Also, these principals emphasized the importance of the people they have worked with as key supports to their professional development, growth, and learning. More than half of them mentioned a specific supervisor, and referred to them as “mentors.” For instance, Principal Georgina highlighted two longer-term relationships—one from birth, her father, and the other, a principal who she met early in her career.   

In reflecting on supports for her own learning, especially in terms of her capacity to manage challenges, Georgina spontaneously mentioned her “dad.”

I had to have a pep talk from my dad; he’s a coach. [He emphasized], “You know, hang in there, don’t lower your standards.” And I’m like, “Dad, I don’t want to lower my standards, but how do I move them [her teachers] with me?”

Principal Georgina shared the advantages of having mentors in the field. While she talked about how they as a group helped support her, one stood out as being especially influential in helping her to build capacity as leader.

I was under a very, one of the strongest principals on the island [of Bermuda] [Name] is a senior principal, and she taught me early on about standards…she taught me a lot about expectations, she taught me to never think that just because it hasn’t been done before—that it can’t be done. And she grew me and she was very firm with me yet she was very loving and showed me a lot of, “OK [Georgina], how are you going to do this better? How are you going to involve your team? How are you, blah blah blah?”

Similarly, when asked how he learned to work with underperforming teachers,

Principal Darcy shared, “The first thing is I’ve had a great mentor…. I can pick up the phone at any time and ask him anything and he helps me out.” As you might imagine, it was not easy for Darcy to talk to teachers about problems occurring in their classrooms and to challenge their views for a variety of heartfelt reasons. He shared,

I have teachers on the staff that are twice my age… I have some people that could be my mom or dad…. So [I’m] having to have a difficult conversation with them. It’s not an easy thing to do. …I remember one of the first questions I asked my mentor. I said, “what is the most difficult part of the job? The kids?” He was like “oh no.” The parents? “No.” I was like the teachers? He was like, “absolutely.” He said “the adults are the most difficult thing to deal with.” I agree with that.

In contrast, Principal Tory (Bermuda) told us that she did not have strong mentoring relationships; however, she discussed how she learned a great deal through experience and in that context noted that she calls two principals for advice. When we asked how she learned to manage the pressing challenge in her role as an elementary principal in Bermuda, she told us while working and living overseas,

I’m going to be honest, a lot of it I did probably learn on my own, and, a lot of it I did learn [while working and living in the US for ten years]. When I first moved to [a southern state in the US]…that was when I first understood accountability. …And that’s when I learned the power of documenting and just keeping good records of everything that took place.

She characterized this experiential learning as “on-the-job training.”

While all of these school leaders spoke of the important ways that workplace learning prepared them for the demands of challenges faced in their practice, a minority mentioned professional development programs and conferences.


In this final section, we offer our conclusions and discuss implications for leadership practice, preparation, and policy.


Drawing on in-depth interviews with 13 principals in this exploratory study, our findings direct us to two important conclusions. First, viewing leadership challenges through a lens that filters the work into adaptive, technical, or mixed perspectives (Heifetz, 1994) provides a formidable framework for making sense of complex work. It seems likely that it would assist principals in deciphering different kinds of challenges when translating policies and mandates. It could also assist leaders in supporting those in their care by helping them to see the different kinds of challenges they encounter in their day-to-day work lives. Second, based on our findings, customizing learning opportunities for teachers and staff appears to be a central component of how principals address pressing challenges in their schools irrespective of the type of challenge. Learning, as we discuss, has complementary sides, leaders leading the learning of others and leading their own learning.

Leadership Work: Translating Policy and Framing Challenges

In today’s world, school leaders confront an array of challenges, and as our findings highlight, a principal’s work can be technical, adaptive, or mixed. Discerning such distinctions is significant because “the most common cause of failure in leadership is produced by treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems” (Heifetz et al., 2009, p. 19). If so, the work of leaders and those in their care will have a greater chance to be successful if their efforts are in tune with the true nature of the challenge. As we have learned from principals in our research, however, most challenges cannot be simply labeled as either adaptive or technical. Rather, the vast majority of the pressing challenges involved both technical and adaptive work.

Affirming our prior research (Drago-Severson, Maslin-Ostrowski, Hoffman, & Barbaro, 2014), Heifetz’s (1994) framework offers a robust lens that leaders could benefit from to identify the technical and the adaptive dimensions of their work. Once the elements are clear, their responses could be calibrated to mesh with the technical and/or adaptive nature of the challenge. It also may help them with introducing this lens and this distinction to those in their care. While preservice leadership programs cannot possibly prepare aspiring leaders for the particulars of every challenge, when practitioners are introduced to and embrace a model such as Heifetz’s, they have a framework to help diagnose and tailor their approaches to each new challenge that comes their way. Our research is consistent with scholars who seek to support aspiring and practicing leaders to recognize the adaptive components in challenges (Daloz Parks, 2005; Fullan, 2005; Heifetz, 1994), and we endorse those calls.

As some leaders expressed, principals’ challenges may be compounded by an internal tension between the policy or mandate and their values and beliefs about what is best for students and schools. This poses an adaptive challenge for them personally. For instance, some of these principals passionately articulated that they were wrestling with concerns about standardization and testing. Some were seeking ways to resist or creatively adapt to such forces while remaining accountable and abiding by the policy. They were learning to “work within and against the grain of policy simultaneously” (Thomson, Lingard, & Wrigley, 2012, p. 4).

A Learning Response to Pressing Leadership Challenges

 Contrary to prior research (Bajunid, 2008), the learning of teachers and staff was of utmost importance to the principals in our study. These principals concentrated—first and foremost—on caring for the learning of others before attending to their own learning. Rather than look inward, they initially focused on how to support others as they struggled to understand and address complex challenges. Even though they name these as “most pressing” for themselves, their initial response was—across the board—to consider how to help others to manage change and the complexities of challenges. This is a tribute to them. Before discussing this conclusion, we want to pause to voice heartfelt applause for each and all of them. Their care and dedication to others is nothing short of remarkable. Leadership for learning challenges school leaders globally (Townsend & MacBeath, 2011), and this learning, as we saw for these principals, importantly, centers on the adults—that is, the teachers, staff and administrators—along with children and youth.

While these leaders indicated that their participation in higher education programs and leadership preparation—including pursuit of advanced degrees—was instrumental in preparing them for their current positions, each one emphasized how learning on the job (what we refer to as experiential learning) was critical to their self-awareness and leadership. It comes as no surprise then, that these principals all supported faculty and staff during a challenge by developing opportunities for experiential learning at the school level. Specifically, principals were creating a path to help them manage their work and cope with change, allowing the possibility of moving through the cycles of learning outlined by Kolb (1984) and reinforcing the importance of learning while engaging in and reflecting on work. These leaders implemented both informational and transformational approaches (Drago-Severson, 2004a, 2004b, 2009, 2012, 2016; Kegan, 2000; Kegan & Lahey, 2016) to support adult learning and growth in their schools. This is important because informational learning, as stated, helps leaders and those in their care to manage technical challenges. Transformational approaches can help adults to grow their internal capacities to manage the complexity and ambiguity intrinsic to adaptive challenges.

Whether informational or transformational, it is paramount—vital—to privilege a space for learning as these principals emphasized. That is what a leader does. These leaders stressed that just finding the space is a “strategic maneuver”—it calls for “bartering for time” and sometimes “bargaining.” It calls for “building relationships,” as we learned from them and their authentic sharing. As leaders in our study shared, it also takes “time,” “trust,” “patience,” “relationships,” and “clear expectations.” These statements underscore how for these principals, leading the learning of teachers and staff was an important skill set.


Based on what we learned from this exploratory phase of our research, we propose recommendations for leadership practice, programs, and policy. We also discuss the study delimitations and limitations followed by recommendations for future research.

Recommendations for Practice

In partnership, school districts and universities are encouraged to provide the reflective space and fertile learning conditions for leaders to come together and make sense of challenges. Together they could sponsor learning initiatives that center on opportunities for teachers, principals, district leaders, and all in school communities to engage in self-directed learning in support of growth and capacity building. Specifically, principals might appreciate university-district support in tapping the human agency of teachers and staff, the potential that is already in their own schools, as a way to customize learning and problem-solving. Principals could benefit from support in building and sustaining strong cultures with a shared sense of accountability at the school level, which would help when translating policies. This would also help schools approach challenges without being driven by external forces.

In our research, while the majority of these school leaders emphasized the value of learning from experience and learning on the job—both of which we see as being intimately connected to informal learning—only a few of them discussed participating in learning networks (Brookfield, 1986), though some wished for this kind of collegial community to support their own learning and growth. These school leaders and others could profit from engaging in learning networks, a collegial community of practitioners and scholars, to help them grapple with translating policy and mandates into action. This could assist in building internal capacities both individually and collectively.

Recommendations for Leadership Programs

Leadership programs in higher education are perennially challenged to forge a link between theory and practice because we know the real work of leaders begins upon entering the school. In conjunction with work experiences—including internships, apprenticeships, and other experiential learning opportunities—leaders could be introduced to how Heifetz’s framework can assist them—and the adults in their school communities—to diagnose challenges for their adaptive and technical components and then to work together—and learn together—as they effectively approach such challenges. Along these lines, we urge faculty in leadership programs to support principals in supporting teachers and staff by offering a curriculum that not only addresses instructional leadership but also helps leaders to understand adult learning, adult development, and experiential learning—in particular leading learning that is job embedded. A focus on leading professional learning communities and organizational learning is perfectly aligned with creating the conditions for learning that principals can access when confronting challenges. We continue our call for a more cohesive, holistic approach to leadership education; one that includes technically oriented subject matter and more adaptively oriented preparation. This is fundamental to serving leaders.

Recommendations for Policy

First, we urge school boards and district leaders to grant principals greater flexibility with use of time and space during the day so that they can adapt to what works best for their contexts. Specifically, rather than circumventing the system, as we saw with some leaders, principals could benefit from having greater autonomy over professional development in the first place—the what, how, and when. Whether school-based or off-site, principals can fine-tune professional development to their schools’ needs, as those in this study preferred to do. Hargreaves and Fullan (2012) caution against allowing “all of the time” to be “eaten up with implementing external policies” (p. 50) and advise ensuring time to think and reflect on practice. Second, principals, as we have described, work extremely hard to live up to a community’s expectations and to overcome the challenges demanded by policies and mandates, yet they cannot accomplish this alone. We suggest it is the role and obligation of policymakers and legislators to support their work and promote success by providing the necessary infrastructure.


We delimited the scope of this study to leaders’ experiences with current pressing challenges and how learning was part of their responses as reported by principals practicing in urban public schools at two sites. Since there is not consensus on how to define an effective leader, we selected principals who were perceived to be effective or successful by state department leaders and educational leadership faculty, who had been principal a minimum of one year, and who had had received advanced preparation in leadership. We acknowledge that problems have multiple layers and that outside the boundary of this study and article are important issues such as power, politics, culture, and history, as well as strategies used to address other aspects of challenges.


One limitation of the study is a small sample size restricted to a single role group: principals. Another limitation is that one-time interviews were the sole form of data collection, and thus there was no triangulation of methods. To enhance credibility or validity, however, we used debriefings and journals to consider alternate interpretations and to question assumptions, plus we conducted member checks . Also, each leader was considered a case and analyzed as an individual before doing cross-case analysis. The interviews were in-depth and about a current event, and therefore did not rely on retrospective data. Dependability or reliability was improved by maintaining an audit trail of our processes and by having two researchers who independently coded data and then discussed to ensure consistency. We have presented dense, descriptive data of leaders’ experiences and provided detailed information to help readers understand the contexts. Transferability or generalizability is limited to similar sample groups and contexts as determined by readers. Our purpose, however, is “not to generalize the information…but to elucidate the particular, the specific” (Pinnegar & Daynes as cited in Creswell, 2013, p. 157).

Recommendations for Future Research

Building on this exploratory study, first, we make a strong call for future rigorous research using a larger, more representative sample of principals in the US and international settings, to more widely and deeply understand how effective school leaders face challenges and go about translating policy and mandates into practice at ground level. Specifically, we want to learn how principals can best approach pressing challenges and create the conditions needed to support authentic adult learning and internal capacity building. Second, we recommend studying how principals lead when translating policy and mandates by tracing their experiences over the course of a pressing challenge, and by tracking correspondence between their practice and adaptive leadership. In future research we recommend including the administrative team, teachers, and staff to enrich understanding with multiple perspectives. Last, it would be beneficial to identify and learn from successful district-university partnerships that are supporting principals in the context of leading through pressing challenges and leading workplace learning.


But I think that the way that this has translated has created these schools that are not doing right by kids and in turn not doing right by adults. (Jed, School Leader)

Circling back, these leaders identified a collection of challenges originating from various local, state, or national policies and mandates. External forces such as those calling for the Common Core Curriculum and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA; 2015) and No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB; 2002) in the US are a major source of challenges for principals. Similarly, in Bermuda, where some school leaders in our study practice, the new requirement for public schools to adopt the Cambridge exam for testing students likewise brings enormous challenges. As principals understandably become consumed with the complex and messy demands of translating policy into practice, school leader Jed reminds his colleagues to not lose sight of “doing right by kids” and the adults too.

Regardless of how these leaders framed the work (i.e., technical, adaptive, or mixed), they embedded learning experiences for teachers, staff, and themselves in their responses. Indeed, the adaptive work required them “to learn their way” into grasping the nature of the challenge in order to address it. While these principals appreciated and were building on prior learning from formal preparation programs, they accentuated how much they learned from informal experiences to know what to do when facing the challenge. Accordingly, we are compelled to continue to think about and study how best to support and guide school leaders with care and intentionality both within formal university leadership preparation programs and on the ground in practice for a seamless, continuous learning experience.

Today’s school-level challenges are complicated and full of surprises. Understandably, politicians and policymakers have a penchant for quick, technical fixes, as do many school administrators and community members, reminding us why it would be especially helpful to fortify leaders to discern the technical and adaptive nature of challenges, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of misdiagnosing the problem and choosing a less optimal approach. And, adding to the messiness, the demanding work of principals and their teachers may occur in phases with adaptive and technical elements shifting over time (Maslin-Ostrowski, & Drago-Severson, 2014). Going forward, we think and believe, based on our research and work with aspiring and practicing leaders, that school leaders would likely be emboldened by embracing a solid framework such as adaptive leadership (Heifetz, 1994; Heifetz et al., 2009) to help translate policy into practice for their unique communities. This, along with a working knowledge of adult learning and development, and the strategic wherewithal to create space and spaces for continuous, customized professional learning opportunities, both informational and transformational, offers principals a possible pathway to grow capacity and surmount pressing challenges. We began this research with hope and end with it as well.

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. (Mahatma Gandhi)


1. We list our names alphabetically and not in terms of contributions.

2. We want to express gratitude to doctoral students from Teachers College: to Alexander Mischa Hoffman for his longstanding contribution (2007–2012) to the research informing this paper, to Justin Barbaro for his assistance with the 2011–2012 phase, to Chelsey Saunders for help with conducting interviews in this phase, and to Paul Kim, a policy graduate student whose insights inform the final version of this paper.

3. We express gratitude to Ji Yingnan, a doctoral student at Teachers College, for her assistance with conducting a literature review on formal and informal learning, which has informed our discussion in this paper.


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APPENDIX A: Abbreviated Interview Guide

Section 2: Main Matter


As the school leader, I recognize that you face challenges every day. I want to give you a minute to take yourself back to your work as a leader. When you think about it, what is one of the more pressing challenges you’re facing today? This could be something—a problem or a challenge—a pressing one—that you and your faculty are either working on right now or something that you’ve recently been working on together. And this is the challenge that we’ll be focusing on for our time together in this interview.

[Probes: Need to make sure we learn the following. Remember we really want to understand the person’s story about leading while managing this challenge.]

What is the most pressing challenge—name the challenge?

When did this become a challenge for you?

What do you see as the origin of this challenge (e.g., policy? mandates? Other?)

What happened? How did or are you managing this most pressing challenge?

What, if anything, gets in the way? What’s particularly hard?

What are/were the demands placed on you as the leader when addressing this challenge? [Probes: Cognitive? Interpersonal? Intrapersonal? Emotional? Skill based?]


We’re going to shift gears a little bit now—okay? Can you share a little about how you work with your teachers and staff to help them manage change associated with this challenge?

[Probes: Professional development? On the job learning? Mentoring? Modeling? Offering different kinds of supports? Engaging in conversation with them? Creating forums for feedback? Input?]


As we move into the last set of questions, we want to learn about how you feel you were prepared to manage this.


In other words, how did you learn to do what you’re doing to manage this challenge?


We’re also wondering what kinds of supports you have to help you manage this complex challenge.


And, our last question if you feel comfortable sharing is what have you learned about yourself as a leader from this challenge?

[Probes: Anything related to prior educational experiences that helped you? Your preparation program? On-the-job learning? Ask about whether or not any new learning has helped them cope with the challenge? Anything else?]


Principal Pseudonym



Years as teacher

Years as principal

Years in other roles

Experience: in education, as principal


School—SES, demographics—number and background

of students, faculty and staff, school type, size, grade


School community

Academics of school

Assessment data




Defining the challenge

More pressing

Multiple challenges/multifaceted

Heartburn (adaptive)

Little shifts (technical)

With fidelity (mixed)

Management of Challenge





Policy mandate


Motivating people to change

Approach to change

Creating learning opportunities for others


Learned from challenge

Informational, transformational

Helping others learn

Learning about self

Formal learning

How learned to do this (leadership)

Mentoring, coaches, models

Learning from Experience

Prior experience

Learning on the job

Social-Emotional Demands on leader





Skill based

Principal Professional Growth & Development

Supporting/working with Teachers with Challenge

Engage teachers


Prepare teachers for


Follow-up to PD


Strategic time


Work in Isolation

The conflict


Between accountability measures and philosophy

Resists change

Macro view

Micro view

Quotes (to remember, that illustrate themes)

APPENDIX C: Example of Coded Transcript

Interviewer: We’re also wondering what kinds of supports you have to help you manage this complex challenge.

T3S3: Nothing from the district, [[39_22009.htm_g/00002.jpg]Support for principal] as a matter of fact, I don’t broadcast this to the district. You’re in your own silo, so to speak you just do what you need to do for our school. But my director who is my immediate boss she knows and, as a matter of fact, I have a meeting next Wednesday and she’ll see it in full practice when she comes out. [[39_22009.htm_g/00004.jpg]Work in isolation]

Interviewer: I’m still trying to understand how you came up with it.


And I say to my staff and I say that to anybody, if you want to be a principal you really need to be five to ten steps ahead at all times. It’s just the means of logistically what can we do to get better. I think my greatest, greatest challenge was the potential union issue. Teachers want their time, teachers feel like they need their time. They don’t want principals or anybody else taking the time that they feel they need for their own planning, whether it be grading, lesson plans, whatever the case may be. That was my greatest challenge. [[39_22009.htm_g/00006.jpg]Defining Challenge & Time]

I wasn’t so much worried about the lesson studies and what the design of the lesson study was all about at all to be honest with you. My challenge was I didn’t want to have the teachers walk in to the start of the school year and go through pre-planning when I introduce this and get a backlash from them to say you’re digging into our planning time and you’re doing blah, bah. That’s taking away from what we need, or you’re putting undue stress and work on us. That was my concern. [[39_22009.htm_g/00008.jpg]Defining challenge]

And again that bargaining chip was that if you give me that 45 minutes, I’ll give you an hour. I’m really just swapping times with you [[39_22009.htm_g/00010.jpg]Time: Strategic Time] and then the key for you in a non-threatening way whatever you feel individually is your weakness you will bring it to the table. Whatever you feel may not be a weakness but you want to grow and bring it to the table. So you get personalized one-on-one training on point. [[39_22009.htm_g/00012.jpg]Engage teachers & Helping other learn]

Interviewer: How did you know to stay five steps ahead of them in that way? How did you learn to do that?


That’s a really difficult question to answer I’m going to be really honest with you. I think it’s instinctive. You just have to know because as a principal so much is coming at you [[39_22009.htm_g/00014.jpg]how learned to do this] from so many different directions—district, your boss, your staff, parents, kids.[[39_22009.htm_g/00016.jpg]Tension] You know mandates here, mandates there [[39_22009.htm_g/00018.jpg]Mandate], budget this, budget that [[39_22009.htm_g/00020.jpg]Compliance]. If you don’t have a way to link all of those different components to a certain vision that you laid out then you’re going to fall behind again and things are going to start to fall apart. [[39_22009.htm_g/00022.jpg]Tension]

APPENDIX D: Example of Coding for Categories


Examples from Principals

Understanding Challenges


Defining the challenge:

More pressing

My strength is instructional leadership, so the school that I was put at had a previous principal who had been there 13 or 14 years, where you don’t see growth in the teachers. Teachers were allowed to [have] low standards, teachers were not observed, not given feedback, not coached, not mentored. Because at that time they did not have a strong standardized test, you know, to deal with, you have these, I call it invalid grades, invalid tests because the teachers just tested on whatever they wanted to. The school was looking good but nothing was taking place. (Georgina, Bermuda)

Response to Challenges: Internal


Social-Emotional Demands on leader: Interpersonal

It’s this kind of like whirlpool of relationships going on and you have to find a way to balance all of those things and yet still try to make the academic needle move a little bit… Right now we’re dealing with a lot of staff that don’t know each other, that don’t have bonds with each other. I’m asking my teachers trust your department head, by the way you just met the department head seven weeks ago. I don’t have these long term relationships. Which can be good too though. It can be good too because you’re able to set the trend as to what the expectation is at the school. (Raigan, US)

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 1, 2018, p. 1-44
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22009, Date Accessed: 8/8/2020 11:20:34 PM

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About the Author
  • Eleanor Drago-Severson
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    ELLIE DRAGO-SEVERSON is a professor of Education Leadership and Adult Learning & Leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University and directs the PhD program in Education Leadership. Her research, teaching, and consulting focuses on helping school leaders of all kinds to support their own growth (personal mastery) and to support those in their care. Recent books include Tell me so I can hear you: A developmental approach to feedback for educators (Harvard Educational Press, 2016) and Learning designs (coauthored, Learning Forward & Sage, 2015).
  • Patricia Maslin-Ostrowski
    Florida Atlantic University
    E-mail Author
    PAT MASLIN-OSTROWSKI is a professor in the department of Educational Leadership & Research Methodology and coordinator of the higher education leadership program at Florida Atlantic University. She was recently invited by Australian Catholic University to be a distinguished visiting research fellow. Her research and practice focus on the human dimensions of leadership and a quest for policy and practice that better supports the preparation and development of leaders, and that engenders a holistic, authentic approach to their vital work.
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