January 18, 2021

From 7 Superintendents: What 2020 Taught Us About Leading

By Transcend
Clockwise from top left, the authors (and the Learner-Centered Leadership Lab’s Founding Cohort): Dr. Valerie Bridges (NC), Dr. Cederick Ellis Sr. (MS), Dr. Lynn Moody (NC), David Miyashiro (CA), Dr. Daniel Woestman (IL), Christine Fowler-Mack (OH), Tom Rooney (CA)

Leadership is a lonely space and there are certain things you hold in and you don’t share.

2020 challenged leadership like no other year in our lifetimes.

Leaders of school systems made decisions through a relentless, omnipresent pandemic that brought death to a third of a million people in our nation and created fear and trauma in our students, families, and staff. We led our systems through the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and far too many others, deaths which reopened the never-healed wound of systemic racism in our nation, and created even more trauma in our communities. We navigated through the tremendous inadequacies of our education system as 56 million American schoolchildren, and countless educators, staff, and administrators pingponged in and out of their learning and teaching routines and struggled to have their basic needs met.

 In the face of threats and uncertainties, we as leaders experience a unique fear. As we make decisions, we fear that our decisions could bring harm to some of the very people we are charged with caring for. This fear is always there, lurking in the background — even in less turbulent times. 2020, however, brought it to the wide open surface.

We saw our leadership teams struggle fearfully with the possible consequences of their decisions. We saw it acutely in our building leaders, as they grappled with our decisions about how to handle remote and in-person learning.

 We also saw it in ourselves. 

Within tension, there can be a lot of growth. At that edge — figuring out what is the right next move. What do I want to show up in my leadership more authentically because of this time period?

As leaders, we don’t often admit to vulnerability, to revealing our inner core rather than our surface front of certainty.

 This year, through participating in a unique leadership development opportunity, we — a lucky handful of leaders in districts from rural North Carolina to suburban San Diego to Cleveland Metro — learned to access our cores in a different way — to transmute fear and uncertainty into vulnerability and connection in ways that enable us to not only survive but thrive and advance as people and professionals.

We came together in April 2020 as the inaugural cohort of the Learner-Centered Leadership Lab, an action-research leadership development community created by Lindsay Unified School District, a public PK-12 district in California, and Transcend, a non-profit that supports communities in creating extraordinary, equitable learning environments.

 The Lab was originally designed before the pandemic struck. It was meant to be an in-person collaborative space to explore what learner-centered leadership looked like and how this form of leadership might be nurtured, sustained, and spread as a lever to reinvent our industrial model education system to meet the needs and demands of 21st century learners. Like all things in 2020, though, the Lab had to adapt and evolve, both in content (responding to the various crises) and in form (virtual rather than in-person).

 We all entered the Lab already deeply committed to learner-centeredness: the idea that schools and systems need to be designed with the needs of the learner at the center so that each and every learner equitably gets what they need when they need it and how they need it.  Like all superintendents, we also all had rough concepts of leadership, which, over the course of our participation in the Lab, crystalized in ways that now enable us to lead in a more empowering and transformative manner.

Transformative Change

In the January 2021 issue of School Administrator, John Kotter, the Harvard Business School leadership guru, discusses two different neurobiological systems in humans — the survive system and the thrive system. The survive system neurochemically generates fear, anxiety, and anger in the face of threats. The thrive system, in contrast, finds opportunities in threats and can turn them into exciting challenges. When the survive system is overloaded, it shuts down the thrive system. As leaders, we are all too often called on to lead towards thriving without having the space to grapple with surviving. This way of leading, we think, is no longer valuable in helping us transform our education system.

This is where the Lab threw us a lifeline. In the most crisis-laden year, it enabled us to activate our core: to strengthen our capacities and “model vulnerability and creating those conditions that give people permission to be uncertain and afraid, that you have colleagues you can lean on [so] the system at large can emerge in a different place.” Through the Lab, we had a space to address our survive system so that we could move forward with thriving. In the process, we also developed a much clearer concept of learner-centered leadership in action which enabled us to spread a new type of thriving leadership to our leadership teams and building leaders.

The innovators who are comfortable making decisions in uncertainty are doing great and the other 60% are having a hard time.

Growing Our Concept of Learner-Centered Leadership

In our Learner-Centered Leadership Lab community, we ourselves became more empowered learners, and often that learning centered on our core way of being. We found a community where we could for the first time admit to our peers the fears and vulnerabilities we felt in our cores that were overwhelming our thrive systems. Through our open conversations, we discovered how fear and vulnerability are not incidental to our leadership; rather, admitting them and exploring them in ourselves and with others opens the door to humility, empathy, and more powerful relationship-building. Listening to one’s core creates a learner-mindset in leaders which then enables us to grow ourselves, grow those around us, and grow the conditions that enable systems transformation.

Participating in this group allowed me to be totally vulnerable and transparent with my leadership team in a way I’ve never been before. It’s allowed me to be vulnerable and share with my leadership team / coronavirus team that I’m also afraid.

Our ever-evolving concept of learner-centered leadership developed through action; the Lab was structured around our lived experience of leadership. We brought in problems of practice from our local contexts, problems that were pushing our learner-centered leadership to the edges of our competencies. Almost none of these were COVID-specific though many were made starkly visible by the COVID and equity crises. Problems ranged from developing other leaders to creating a more diverse leadership team to bringing schools from another district into ours. Together, as a group, facilitated by Transcend and Lindsay, we used consultancies to grapple openly and vulnerably with these problems and, through that process, generate insights. These insights impacted not just the leader sharing the challenge or opportunity but also the others in the group. These insights enriched our individual concepts of what learner-centered leadership looks like in practice, strengthened our core belief in learner-centeredness, and grew our leadership competencies such that we are even more able to tackle a variety of challenges. We then took these experiences to our districts to grow our teams.

Looking Ahead to 2021 and Beyond: 3 Questions for You

2021 is sure to bring additional challenges to our school systems and how we lead our organizations with learner-centeredness. Through our work together — through our vulnerability together — we know we feel stronger as we sail into the new year’s already challenging headwinds. We feel capable of working with our survive system so that we can look at the future through the lens of the thrive system — as an opportunity rather than a crisis.

We leave you with three questions to consider as you think about how you might address the survive system and its impacts on the thrive system — in yourself and in other leaders in your organizations. These questions are meant as a guide to help you galvanize your core and begin to crystalize your concept of learner-centered leadership in action in ways that grow transformative capacity in your system.
What’s one thing you experienced as a leader recently that brought clear focus to your core as a leader?What might be required of you to ensure that every learner is provided what is needed to thrive?How might you give yourself and your leadership team permission to be vulnerable — and lead from vulnerability —in your / their work life?

In the comments below, we’d love to hear from you. Does this resonate? What concrete action(s) might you take?

Valerie Bridges, Superintendent, Edgecombe County Public Schools (NC)
Cederick Ellis, Sr., Superintendent, McComb School District (MS)
Christine Fowler-Mack, Chief Portfolio Officer, Cleveland Metropolitan School District (OH)
David Miyashiro, Superintendent, Cajon Valley Union School District (CA)
Lynn Moody, Superintendent (retired), Rowan-Salisbury Schools (NC)
Tom Rooney, Superintendent, Lindsay Unified School District (CA)
Daniel Woestman, Superintendent, Belvidere Community Unit School District #100 (IL)


Transcend supports communities to create and spread extraordinary, equitable learning environments.

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Transcend is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit that operates nationally.