Leading Change During Challenging Times

Leader 2 Leader Blog, Industry,

By: Carla L. Sparks, Ed.D., Faculty Lead and Program Director of Educational Leadership Programs at National Louis University’s Florida Regional Center

In my current leadership role, I have spent countless hours during the last two years on the phone and on zoom talking with teacher leaders, assistant principals, principals, principal coaches, school district leaders, charter school administrators, and educational leaders of service provider organizations. These conversations have ranged in emotion from utter despair to gritting teeth until the terror passes, to joy and enthusiasm about leading change. I have had conversations with leaders who are exhausted physically and emotionally and others who are energized and raring to make things happen. Some have cried and they shook their heads while others thrust their arms in the air and laughed. I have wondered about the range of thoughts and emotions among the leaders with whom I work. I have thought to myself: How is this broad range of reactions to the extreme challenges in educational leadership during the last 27 months even possible?

Does the difference in reactions lie in the kind of school or another work environment these leaders live through daily? Does the difference have to do with personality? Does it have to do with other influences that have nothing to do with education? Is there something magical in those educators who are thriving and leading during a devastating time in education and in the world at large? Is it related to something called grit?

The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP)1 released some discouraging survey results in December 2021. The survey findings indicated that without some change, there will be a mass exodus of principals from preK-12 schools. The related data showed that among the 502 school leaders who responded to the survey, just 35% strongly agreed they were generally satisfied as principal of their school, down from 63% who strongly agreed in 2019. Only 24% strongly agreed that they plan to continue as a principal until retirement. Even worse, 13% strongly agreed that they definitely plan to leave the principalship as soon as possible. Additional data supported the conclusion that the principal pipeline is impacted directly by the teacher shortage. Data also supported the obvious notion that COVID has impacted drastically the principal’s role and the challenges they face in their schools. Another challenge supported by the survey data was that some school leaders’ decisions to leave the profession are accelerated because of the tense political environment. Interesting, but not surprising, is the survey finding that while financial compensation is a concern, it is not the most critical factor influencing principals’ decisions to abandon their roles. The top three critical factors are heavy workload, state accountability measures, and the amount of time and effort spent on compliance requirements.

Despite these dismal and frightening survey data, there are educational leaders who continue to love going to work and are still excited about what they do. What is their secret?

While I am not naïve enough to believe there is a simple answer, there are some traits and skills that resilient, thriving leaders seem to possess. Through my interactions with educational leaders during the challenging times in which we now live and work, I have become aware of some of these characteristics. A growth mindset appears to be near the top of the list. Self-care, including exercise, relaxation, humor, and meditation, has surfaced as a contributing aspect of resilience. Flexibility, supportive colleagues, supportive family, faith, empathy, creativity, focusing on purpose, collaboration, optimism, diligence, and time management all make the list of traits of survivors and thrivers. Celebrating small wins2 also serves not only to maintain momentum when leading change but also to continue to be happy as an educational leader.

In my formal training as an educational leader, one of the most influential concepts was that of adaptive leadership which “is the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.”3 That is something I have watched effective educational leaders do during these last two years. This is also something I try to keep in mind as I work with leaders who are intentionally trying to grow in their leadership capacity.

Adaptive change is not easy. Stress and discomfort accompany adaptive change. Adaptation displaces, reregulates, and rearranges former practices; thus, it can cause a sense of loss (see Footnote 3). One of the most important things I have had to remember during the last two years is that leaders must help those they are leading to tolerate the feelings of loss and disequilibrium.

Similarly, “leaders manage others’ emotions and build strong, trusting relationships.”4 In order to manage the emotions of others, leaders have to keep their own emotions in check. Perhaps that is the key, and when combined with the many fine traits I have observed among leaders who continue to thrive, we might just stem the tide of educational leaders abandoning their chosen profession.



1NASSP. (2021, December). NASSP survey signals a looming mass exodus of principals from schools. https://www.nassp.org/news/nassp-survey-signals-a-looming-mass-exodus-of-principals-from-schools/

2 Kotter, J. P. (2012). Leading change. Harvard Business Review Press.

3Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Harvard Business Press.

4Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2005). Resonant leadership. Harvard Business School Press.


Carla Sparks is an alum of National Louis University (NLU) where she earned her Master of Education degree in Curriculum and Instruction and her Doctor of Education degree in Educational Leadership. Carla spent more than 30 years in K-12 public education, the last 10 years of which she served Hillsborough County Public Schools, Florida as a district leader and administrator in the seventh-largest school district in America. She currently serves NLU as the Faculty Lead and Program Director for Educational Leadership Programs at the Florida Regional Center. Her research interests are in change leadership, project-based learning, graduation by an exhibition of mastery, and differentiated instructional practices. Carla lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, adult children, and grandchildren.