Four Reasons Christian Schools Need Adaptive Leaders

Aaron EinfeldThe CACE RoundtableLeave a Comment

Adaptive leader in front of class.

One of my favorite leadership books is a story about an imaginary colony of penguins.

The main character, Fred, is a particularly observant penguin who discovers that the colony’s iceberg is melting from the inside. Disaster looms. The iceberg will soon split apart as it melts.

Fred informs the colony Leadership Council. At first, Fred receives a mixed response from the Council. Some penguins simply tell Fred that the iceberg is, in fact, not melting. Others believe Fred, but debate whether they should tell the rest of the penguins. They certainly don’t want to alarm everybody.

The Leadership Council considers their options. They wonder, Could we repair the iceberg somehow? Is there a way to prevent it from melting? The colony explores possible solutions while soul searching.

Here’s the spoiler: The breakthrough finally comes when the colony realizes that they can become nomadic. In order to survive, they will need to learn how to travel from iceberg to iceberg.

Eventually, the colony develops an entirely new lifestyle. They are forced to abandon some of their old ways of understanding what it meant to be a penguin. The colony confronts a scary question: “Are we still penguins if we leave our melting iceberg?

Just like Fred and his comrades, we live in a volatile, quickly changing world. To put it in penguin terms: icebergs everywhere seem to be melting. For many institutions, the pandemic has accelerated the melting process.

“Given that these challenges don’t have clear solutions, they require Adaptive Leadership.”

As a Christian school leader, is your iceberg melting?

Maybe your Christian unity is “melting” amid political polarization, theological division, structural sin, and social inequality.

Maybe your talent pool is “melting” as it gets harder to recruit and retain excellent staff.

Or perhaps your “affordability iceberg” is melting as tuition becomes increasingly inaccessible to many families.

Each of these melting icebergs presents a vexing problem for Christian school leaders. Given that these challenges don’t have clear solutions, they require Adaptive Leadership.

Sometimes these challenges call for systemic change. Adaptive Leaders use a particular approach to facilitate significant organizational change. These changes help an organization to adapt and thrive under new circumstances.

Here are four reasons for Christian school leaders to consider an adaptive approach as they deal with melting icebergs:

1. You’re facing adaptive challenges, not technical challenges.

A problem well-defined is half solved. But correctly diagnosing a problem is easier said than done. Leaders should distinguish between two kinds of problems: adaptive challenges and technical challenges.

According to leadership guru Ron Heifitz, a technical challenge can be solved with existing knowledge. We can draw from “the way we usually do things” to figure out a solution. You can hire an expert to give you the answer. For example, you hire an event planner to run your annual silent auction.

In contrast, Heifitz explains that an adaptive challenge requires us to learn something new, and to unlearn or set aside existing habits, assumptions, behaviors, or values.

“One of the main mistakes leaders make is to apply a technical solution to an adaptive challenge.”

Scheduling more silent auctions won’t be enough to solve your affordability and access challenge. Instead, your school system might need to examine the assumptions and values embedded in your financial model. This kind of deeper, structural change is an adaptive change.

One of the main mistakes leaders make is to apply a technical solution to an adaptive challenge. This erroneous approach is like penguins trying to repair a melting iceberg instead of embracing a nomadic lifestyle.

2. Adaptive challenges don’t have clear solutions.

You may find it increasingly difficult to hire excellent staff in a small or shrinking labor market. If so, you already know there isn’t an obvious solution to your staffing challenge. The technical solution of simply posting your job openings on more job boards won’t resolve the challenge.

There are a host of trends that make it challenging to identify and recruit and retain talent in Christian schools. One trend is declining mental health. You’ve probably seen a significant uptick in mental health struggles among your teaching staff and students alike. There isn’t a manual for how to help tired teaching staff recover from a global pandemic while addressing the concurrent mental health crisis among teenagers.

If our challenges don’t have clear solutions, we are wise to examine our underlying assumptions about the challenge to gain insight that can inform new solutions. For example, in order to find and retain talent, we might need to look at expectations of teachers, as well as their workload and compensation packages. Do you have a talent development system that invests in the personal and professional development of your staff? Do staff experience your in-service training as obligatory or a perk of the job where they experience growth and transformation? 

We may need to make fundamental shifts in our school cultures and staff expectations if we are to attract and retain talent in such a difficult job market.

3. Adaptive leaders adjust core assumptions that inform behavior.

In order for the penguin colony to survive, they had to let go of a core assumption that was just not true: Our iceberg will never melt. Unless we examine our individual and collective core assumptions, we won’t adequately diagnose the adaptive challenge we face.

“…we need keen self-awareness in order to successfully inspire a shared vision…”

The core problem for the penguin colony was not a melting iceberg. The core problem was that the penguins didn’t believe their iceberg could melt.

These are the kinds of assumptions that adaptive leaders attend to. We need to continuously examine the assumptions we hold about ourselves, our teams, and the challenges we face.

As leaders, we need keen self-awareness in order to successfully inspire a shared vision, manage conflict, and lead the kinds of change necessary for our organizations (and our missions) to adapt and thrive.

4. Adaptive organizations are more resilient.

In the long-run, the practice of Adaptive Leadership enables your organization to continue pursuing its mission amidst volatile and changing environments.

Kodak is a classic example of an organization’s failure to adapt. When digital cameras arrived on the scene, Kodak addressed the challenge by investing in better paper. Imagine if Kodak had responded to the digital photography revolution by saying, We’re about images, not just photographs.

What about you and the organization you lead? When was the last time you changed your mind about something that really mattered to you? Can you think of the last time you realized that one of your long-held assumptions (about yourself, others, or your job as an educator) was no longer true?

How did letting go of untrue assumptions impact your life and work?

You don’t have to lead in isolation. Join the Adaptive Leadership Cohort this summer. You’ll belong to small group of Christian leaders poised to deal with their melting icebergs. This cohort experience is offered by Calvin Seminary and facilitated by Dr. Aaron Einfeld, Director of Lifelong Learning and Executive Coach. To learn more, go to


  • Aaron Einfeld

    Dr. Aaron Einfeld’s passion is equipping leaders for transformation. He has 17 years of experience in a range of educational leadership roles. He currently serves as Director of Lifelong Learning at Calvin Seminary. Dr. Einfeld is a Birkman Certified Executive Coach; he has worked with leaders at all stages of their careers. He holds a PhD in Adult Learning from Michigan State University, an MS in Higher Education from Indiana State University, and a BA in Psychology from Calvin University. He can be reached at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.