Rapid-Cycle Adaptive Leadership

In the second episode of our series, Dr. Linda Henderson-Smith explains how school leaders can use a strategy called Rapid-Cycle Adaptive Leadership to turn challenges into opportunities.

Dr. Henderson-Smith discusses how leaders can create a trauma-informed culture, guide their schools during times of transition, and lead when a crisis occurs in this series called “What It Means to Be a School Leader.” Dr. Henderson-Smith is a licensed counselor and a consultant for trauma-informed, resilience-oriented care with the National Council for Mental Wellbeing.


  1. Trauma-Informed Practices Across School Settings (on-demand webinar)

Other Episodes in the Series

Episode Transcript

Linda Henderson-Smith: The two things that I stress the most are communication and relationships. Healing happens in relationships, and you can’t have healing relationships without communication and trust. If those are the things that you create and think about the most, those are the easiest ways to really create a different culture within your school setting.

Brent Miller: Hello and welcome to Progress Report, a podcast produced by the National Center for School Safety, the STOP School Violence Program National Training and Technical Assistance Center funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Center is a project of the University of Michigan School of Public Health. 

In this series, What It Means To Be a School Leader, Dr. Linda Henderson-Smith will discuss how leaders can create a trauma-informed culture, guide their schools during times of transition and lead when crisis strikes. In this episode, Dr. Henderson-Smith will tell us how school leaders can use a strategy called Rapid-Cycle Adaptive Leadership to turn challenges into opportunities.

So let’s dive into what Rapid-Cycle Adaptive Leadership is. Could you start by defining the rapid-cycle piece?

LH: So rapid-cycle kind of comes from the continuous quality improvement area of the world, the performance improvement world, and it’s really about creating a process that’s kind of quick, but methodical, to address those adaptive challenges.

BM: You just mentioned adaptive challenges. What exactly does that mean, and how do they compare to what I’ve heard you refer to as technical problems?

LH: So this is always an interesting question, mainly because people often get them confused and try to use technical solutions for adaptive challenges and adaptive solutions for technical challenges. A technical problem is something that’s kind of easy to identify, it’s kind of quick and easy to solve, it’s kind of cut and dry, it doesn’t necessarily require a change of knowledge, skills, attitudes or abilities, but is much more open to an authority or an expert to say, “Okay, we just need to make this change and it just needs to be in this one place here,” and people are generally receptive to it. They’re receptive to the technical solutions. Now, adaptive challenges are much more difficult to identify.

It actually requires the people that are involved in it to get involved in solving it, it’s not something that you can just kind of make a quick fix and get it done, it requires a change in values, beliefs, roles, relationships and approaches to the work and really kind of requires change in multiple places within the organizational structure. So you’re talking about things that really require a change and there’s a gap in what we currently have and what we need in terms of knowledge, skills, attitudes and abilities, and it requires those changes in order to actually make this happen.

And the other way you can really kind of tell if it’s an adaptive change is that there’s a whole lot of resistance. When there’s resistance to it, it’s an adaptive challenge, most times, it’s… Most technical challenges or technical problems, when you go to solve them, people are like, “Oh, that makes sense. We’re good and move forward,” but if there’s resistance, number one, it’s gonna take longer, but number two, that generally means it’s an adaptive issue.

BM: Thanks for breaking that down for us. So back to rapid-cycle adaptive leadership. You talked about the rapid-cycle piece. Now, what is adaptive leadership all about?

LH: The key components of adaptive leadership include: Number one, emotional intelligence, so looking at our own self-awareness, our own self-management, our social awareness and our relationship management, how do we engage with ourselves and others, and are we aware of how those things happen? The second is organizational justice, so really making sure that we’re looking at decision fairness and how much we communicate, so information sharing and looking at our outcomes and the level of accountability that we may have. So the outcomes concern. The third is character, our integrity, our credibility and our values differences between ourselves and those that we are leading.

And then the fourth is development, us always making sure that we’re focused on being life-long learners and that we know that we don’t know everything, so even though we may be in a position of leadership, we’ve gotta be open to learning from others, and we’ve gotta be open to developing others. And an adaptive leadership kind of way, it’s just important for us to be self-aware, to be open to others, open to learning and open to really being able to influence those around us to be their best selves as well.

BM: Can you give us an example of adaptive leadership?

LH: So I will use an example from our work in Ohio, a former Ohio principal at an alternative school, after being a part of one of our trauma-informed learning communities and attending the kick-off and the training that we provided, the principal decided that her school would completely re-evaluate their positive behavioral interventions and supports program and implementation to remove punishment and rewards that end up being course of punishments in the end. And so she led this alone, bringing together a team of people to explore what to do instead of suspension or detention, and so this required the team to really take a step back from their current plan of PBIS and put it on hold and go back to the beginning.

She’s now the head of social-emotional learning for all the schools in her county, so she was able to talk to people, engage in getting up on that balcony, pausing that plan, and really shifting the entire way that they were gonna be doing their PBIS. So much so that the county acknowledged her by putting her into that position.

BM: I just heard you say something about getting up on the balcony. What does that refer to?

LH: To really manage change successfully, leaders have to kind of take a step back from the issue, and as it’s called “get on the balcony”, but they also need to be able to get on the floor, so they need to be able to see the context of the challenge that’s in front of them, and from the position of the system level, like the higher level looking at it overall, they can identify where the differences and values and behavior really are, recognize patterns of work avoidance and really watch for unproductive reactions to the change. So it’s important to be on the floor and really see how it’s impacting people, which is why we always talk about ensuring that you’re getting the voices of those that are actually impacted, but from a leadership role, you also have to be looking at it overall and kind of look through where those pain points really are in the change process.

BM: It sounds like adjusting your perspective is an important consideration for leaders, so in addition to getting on the balcony, leaders need to get on the floor as well.

LH: I think on the floor is where you really get to talking to other people, getting their information, really seeing what it means and what the impact may have. I always think of the TV show, Undercover Boss, they were very clear about getting on the floor and seeing really how things would impact and what changes needed to be made from that perspective. So that’s how I always envisioned the getting on the floor and the getting on the balcony is kind of at the end where they kind of take a step back and look at what they learn from the floor, but then how that fits into the overall organizational structure and policies and practices, and they see where those pain points may be, that’s what it means to get on the balcony, it really means to take that 10,000-30,000 foot view based on what you learned and look at what really are those pain points and where those things are that you can remove barriers from as a leader.

BM: You talked about the perspectives that are important for leaders to take as they manage change. Now I’m wondering about specific actions, what are some things that leaders should do?

LH: Leadership is about providing guidance to influence the sustainable change of values, attitudes or behavior, so it’s about influencing it, so utilizing your relationships to influence the chain of values, behaviors and attitudes versus telling people or mandating that people do certain things because of what position you hold. But ultimately, what a leader needs to be able to do is: Number one, regulate their own personal emotional response to manage the school’s distress. It’s going to be important for them to be able to either have peer support or have ways that they can regulate so that others don’t see them in a dysregulated space, and so that all… Everyone is not dysregulated when trying to actually address the situation. We’ve gotta learn as leaders to tolerate uncertainty and frustration, and we have to be willing to sit in discomfort.

I think that’s one thing that we don’t often talk about, but leaders have to be willing to sit in discomfort, because from discomfort is where growth happens. And so if we really wanna grow and change, we’ve gotta be willing to understand that there are some things we aren’t gonna know, and that it can be very uncomfortable for us, but we have to be willing to sit in it. And they also have to be willing to facilitate the learning process. Understanding that not just through communication and not just through modeling as a leader, it is the role to facilitate the knowledge, skills, abilities and attitudes changes, even if other people are helping with the implementation, it is important that the leader be the facilitator because oftentimes, people don’t do things unless they feel like their leader has brought in, and so it’s important for them to do that.

So they have to use their presence and their composure to really regulate the distress and create a holding environment that allows for people to be uncomfortable, but still protected and safe.

BM: I just heard another term that’s new to me, holding environment. What is that?

LH: So a holding environment is really about creating a safe space and a structure for problem-solving and for really having discussion and dialogue that may be hard. So how to have a, as I like to call them, open on a difficult discussion for growth. You have to create an environment that allows for the discomfort of having those discussions. It’s important for leaders to make sure that whatever process is put in place as part of that holding environment is an inclusive one, making sure that everybody has the opportunity to communicate their perspective, their thoughts, their story, their feelings in that moment. We’ve gotta, again, communicate to understand, being patient and listening with intent instead of again, just listening to respond in this place.

Some of the ways to do that are by… As people are communicating, restating, so listening for those factual content and restating what you feel like you’ve heard, so that you can make sure that there’s the understanding of the facts, but then reflecting, so that means actually listening for the emotional content as well and the feelings underneath what’s being said and being able to communicate that back as well, reframing exactly what it is that you’ve heard, but also it’s important in these situations to ask open-ended questions, to use I statements and to summarize.

Those are some of the things that we can do when we’re really communicating to understand. The third tip is to manage the communication, making sure that everybody has an aqua opportunity to communicate their story, but be careful and precise when setting up expectations at the beginning or the ground rules, or some people call it like a covenant of safety for the group, making sure that people don’t feel like they always have to compromise, but on the other hand, there’s flexibility that allows for everybody’s safety needs to be met and everybody to communicate their voice and then maintain the focus. Separating people from behaviors or problems is necessary in a holding environment. I highly encourage the use of parking lot if there are subjects that need to actually be discussed that are not relevant to the conversation at hand.

Unfortunately, in these types of environments, other problems and issues will start to come up and people will wanna talk about those, so inevitably, just being able to say, “Okay, well, that’s not what we were talking about today, but we can put that on the parking lot for us to discuss.” And then personal management, slow yourself down, work through your own defensiveness and again, defer your own immediate emotional response by asking for clarification, I think it’s important, because oftentimes people will say things and leaders and myself included, will respond because we’ve been triggered instead of just actually seeking clarification, taking that pause moment to seek clarification to make sure that we’re actually responding to the right thing.

BM: It’s not surprising that communicating with others is a skill that leaders should cultivate. How do you think leaders can hone that skill and why should they value good communication?

LH: It’s important because with most adaptive challenges, the way to sustainable change and a sustainable solution is to include the people that it impacts the most, it’s important to make sure that if you really want sustainable change that you engage people and share the responsibility. So one of the principles of trauma-informed, resilience-oriented leadership is that of collaboration and mutuality. Teamwork makes dreams work, and we’re all equal in this process, this is an equitable process, so as leaders, we have to make sure that people feel that level of equity and feel like they actually have control and the freedom and ability, they have permission in order to actually say what they need to say and do what they need to do.

It’s important for the leader to have a point of view and to be able to voice that and to really encourage and urge people to actually take action towards the change that they want, but it’s also important for them to have the skill of inquiry where they have the ability to ask the questions, seek clarification and sense those processes from that balcony perspective.

BM: You mentioned the skills of inquiry and what I think sounds like advocacy. How are those skills different and how do they fit into rapid-cycle adaptive leadership?

LH: So advocacy is just stating a point of view and urging action, and so that’s about trying to influence people into action through convincing them of your state of view. Inquiry is about asking questions, clarifying information and sensing processes. For rapid-cycle adaptive leadership, both are extremely important. So it’s important to know that advocacy oftentimes is about one-way communication and inquiries about two-way communication, actually getting information from other people, and it’s necessary in order to push change in a sustainable way.

BM: Is there anything else about rapid-cycle adaptive leadership that you’d like to share?

LH: I would say that the key to rapid-cycle adaptive leadership is ensuring most of all that you know the difference between technical problems, adaptive problems, and technical solutions and adaptive solutions that we talked about here today. But I think ultimately, it’s also about relationship, making sure that you understand that even in a rapid-cycle adaptive kind of change process, it’s important to build relationships, so you’ve gotta make sure that you’re patient and persistent with the people that you’re talking to, you’ve gotta be respectful and also make sure that you’re being respected. I think we oftentimes forget that respect looks different for different people.

So it’s important to really understand how respect is perceived by the people that we’re engaging with, you’ve gotta be validating and affirming to the team that we’re working with and provide them the support and the power that they need in order to really affect change, we need to seek to understand both students, staff parents and community stakeholder needs and respond accordingly, not necessarily just based on what we think is right, but really understanding better through active listening what it is that they’re saying are the issues and how we can potentially solve them. And then we’ve gotta work to set realistic expectations, realistic goals, and communicate those.

I think the communication of those goals is necessary, and communication of those expectations is necessary. From the beginning, everyone needs to understand that adaptive change doesn’t happen overnight, it’s not like we can just put a policy in place and fix it. It’s gonna take time, it’s gonna take intentionality on the parts of all those involved, and then as leaders, we have to be consistent. We have to be consistent, we have to follow through with what we say we’re gonna do, and we have to really identify and specify what our role is so that people know what to come to us for and how we are gonna be a part of the process. If we do those things, any adaptive challenge that comes our way, we can address and approach from a trauma-informed resilience-oriented way.

BM: Thank you for listening to the second episode in our series, What It Means To Be a School Leader, featuring Dr. Linda Henderson-Smith. In the next episode, Dr. Henderson-Smith will discuss how school leaders can guide and interact with their community during a crisis. 

For more information about the National Center for School Safety, visit our website at nc2s.org or check us out on Twitter and Facebook. This episode of Progress Report was produced by the National Center for School Safety at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Additional resources and information can be found in the show notes. And music is thanks to Makaih Beats.

This project was supported by cooperative agreement Number 2019-S-BX-K001, awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the US Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, The Office for Victims of Crime, and the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the US Department of Justice.

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20 min.

Topic Areas

Capacity Building, Comprehensive School Safety Plans