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.