How do leaders navigate uncertainty and complexity for short-term recovery and long-term success?


Leadership is one of the most significant school-related factors that contributes to student success and what they learn in school, second only to classroom instruction. In short, great schools do not exist apart from great leaders.


Administrators and system leads are navigating incredible challenges in a complex, changing world. In times of increased volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA), less is sometimes more: fewer well-communicated priorities may help your team and community tackle current challenges in a focused manner. 

LEA leaders can create conditions for success by concentrating on four key areas: creating a vision for an ideal future state, managing change, revisiting roles and relationships, and leveraging community partnerships. 



Identify Your Ideal Future State

The pandemic has changed education incalculably. Norms and structures that were held as commonplace, such as end-of-year testing, are now nonexistent (at least for the time being). These changes provide leaders an opportunity to set a new vision and align teams to work towards common aims. New visions and goals must take into account the short- and long-term effects of the pandemic on students, families, and staff. This is an important moment for LEA leaders to rethink what their ideal future state looks like and their “north stars.”


  • Start with reflection. Powerful learning has occurred, and whatever comes next will build on learnings from a year that will never be forgotten. 
    • Build a design team. The team’s task will be to engage positively with the community and use what they are learning throughout the year to make decisions in the best interests of students and their learning. TNTP has a resource on forming a design team.
  • Listen to and learn from your community. Host a community conversation to learn from the stakeholders you work with and serve. Here’s a toolkit for putting on this type of event.
  • Develop your “north stars.” Based on what you found from these conversations, decide on priorities to focus on as a system or district. KnowledgeWorks’ Visioning Toolkit and this design and reflection tool are useful resources for undertaking this process. teaching and learning will be like in your community. Questions to consider include:
      • What will have the biggest impact on achieving your vision? 
      • What is most important to each stakeholder group (teachers, students, parents, school board, etc.) based on our visioning process? 
      • What seems most urgent? 
      • What seems the easiest to pull off given our budget and resources? 
      • What seems to be aligned with things we are already focusing on? 
  • Plan. Articulate a plan for how to strategically meet those priority needs, and determine which are necessary to achieve your vision and which you can be more flexible about. 
  • Communicate. Share these priorities with your community and the ways in which your team will strive to meet them.

Manage Change

Change and crisis management are now essential skills for school leaders; running an effective school requires leaders to be engaged in constant change management. Support and collaboration from the entire staff are needed to keep up with the fast pace of change and to ensure that issues are addressed together as they arise. Choosing a change management model in advance allows leaders to focus on the targeted change while bringing the community along. Here is a guide to managing change in education from RTI International.


  • Set a vision.  
  • Pick a change management model. Change is not automatic or unpredictable. It follows patterns. Using a change model can make the work predictable. 
  • Communicate. Relay information to your school community more often than you think you need to. This will help build trust and transparency into your thinking and processes. Here is a sample innovation update communication.  
  • Commit to continuous improvement. Instruction Partners offers a continuous improvement toolkit.
    • Leaders are more successful at supporting all learners when they consistently collect, monitor, and evaluate data and outcomes from schools. In addition, leaders who engage in continuous improvement have “more engaged workers coached by more capable managers whose more agile organizations can make more effective decisions” (per McKinsey). 
    • Be sure to provide ample support and resources for the team through the stages of change. Hold regular check-ins and share the workload. 
    • Here are four more resources on continuous improvement:


Learn about the innovative strategies Chula Vista ESD leveraged to improve internal and external communication.

Revisit Roles and Relationships

As Simon Sinek said, “A team is not a group of people who work together. A team is a group of people who trust each other.” Leaders must develop mutual trust and understanding with the educators they work with if they want to lead long-term growth and change. Research has also shown that systems mimic the personality of their leaders. What leaders model for their teams will become part of the team culture. Leaders have the opportunity to become the change theory they wish to see and model attitudes, practices, and behaviors that help teams thrive.


Collaborative reflection protocol for LEA leadership teams planning for the future.


  • Know and build up your team. 
    • Use an assessment tool. Whether your team takes a paid assessment like DiSC or Strengthsfinder or you use a free survey like 16 Personalities, True Colors, or an enneagram test, understanding the different types of people on the team will improve teamwork, communication, productivity, and effectiveness. Assessments also provide a common language team members can use to understand each other better on their way to building trust. 
    • Invest in team time. Intentionally plan time for the team to build trust, empathy, and understanding of one another. This may include traditional team-building activities or opportunities for deeper learning like dialogical interviews and council practices.
    • Provide coaching. Leadership coaching helps build capacity and support your team to become higher-functioning and more efficient. Investing in leadership coaching also makes team members feel more appreciated, which reduces turnover. Most schools and systems report that return on investment is higher than they would have imagined. 
  • Reflect and learn. Assess and reflect on the existing relationships you have with staff. Where can you improve? What is going well? What relationships do you need to strengthen?   
  • Match skills to positions and shift responsibilities when needed. During times of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity), this could mean reassigning staff, clarifying expectations, or shifting responsibilities. Here are two structured ways to go about this:
    • Use a role charter process to clarify expectations and dependencies between roles. This helps create clarity about tasks and connections between roles. (Here is a sample role charter process.)
    • Go through a declaration of intent process to learn your current staff’s plans and interests for the upcoming school year. The information gained from this process is key for developing an overall staffing plan. (You can send an e-mail survey or use this COVID DOI process from TNTP.)
    • If roles are shifting, here’s a template email for notifying staff.
    • If instruction is moving online, here’s a document about how responsibilities may change.
  • When openings come up make the most of how you recruit and hire. Here are some tools to help.
  • Make culture the priority. 
    • Be sure to model the way of being you want others to embody.
    • Support staff to be and do their best.  
    • Be intentional and collaborative in how you work with your labor partners. Engage them early and often.  
    • Remember, building trust takes time and effort. As Henry Ford said, “Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.“
  • Pass the microphone. Distribute leadership whenever possible. Hearing multiple voices and giving opportunities for others to step up will strengthen the team. 

Leverage Community Partnerships 

There’s a great deal of benefit in leveraging all available resources to support student learning and well-being. Schools cannot and should not do this work alone. Community-based organizations (CBOs) often have the assets, agility, and flexibility to help fill gaps and support students. They can provide our schools opportunities and resources that we might not be able to provide on our own. In a time when schools are not the only hub for learning, these partnerships become even more important. Understanding your community assets is essential when designing instruction and learning experiences. 


  • Build from existing infrastructure and plans. Start with what had been planned for the year and adapt from there. Chances are you already had a deep network of partners. Remember: you and your community are resourceful. 
  • Inventory needs. Create a list of highest-priority student needs (such as outreach to disconnected students, family engagement, supervision, enrichment, interviewing families about needs and tech issues, meal distribution, drop-off/pick-up) that could be supported by CBOs and afterschool providers.
  • Create a clear list of services. Use this inventory to make a clear list of services you need partners to support. 
  • Map your existing assets. Map existing assets in your community. According to AmeriCorps’s guide, there are 10 essential steps in community asset mapping. Here are three other resources on asset mapping:
  • Leverage the County Office of Education. Partner with your COE to make sure mental health referrals and food security options are made available to your families. Bring services to campuses as much as possible, and offer remote and community-located services as needed. 
  • Identify a targeted list of partner organizations. Match your needs with existing community assets to create a list of potential partner organizations. They can include youth-serving CBOs (such as YMCA), afterschool program providers, city or county recreation agencies, and libraries. Prioritize agencies that have experience collaborating with or contracting with schools.
  • Create a clear plan and timeline with partners. Invite selected CBOs into the planning dialogue for summer and fall. The earlier community partners are involved in planning, the clearer each party can be about roles and expectations, making implementation of plans much smoother (as opposed to creating plans and then informing partners of their role).
  • Leverage CBOs’ flexibility and relationships to the community. Work with CBOs to get creative and meet kids, families, and schools where they are. CBOs across the state are eager to play a strong role in supporting students in every way they can, and stand ready to step in and play complementary roles in partnership with schools. CBO staff are often from the same communities as the children they serve, and they bring invaluable relationship assets that are critical to keeping kids connected to school. They can broker a range of support resources to students and their families. CBOs, including public and nonprofit housing sites, are important options to consider for off-site meal distribution and care.


Further Resources


  • How have our plans for the future changed as the district shifted during COVID?
  • How will our plans continue to evolve? 
  • How are we embracing bold ideas to create stronger outcomes for students and better experiences for our staff? 
  • How will we manage change as we move forward?
  • How can we leverage our community partners?
  • Based on the data we collected, what are some of the bright spots we can celebrate and replicate? What are our biggest needs when it comes to leading forward? 
  • How are we reimaging roles based on the future of learning and students’ needs?
The Field Guide for California LEAs
The Field Guide for accelerating learning, equity, and well being was developed by the California Collaborative for
Educational Excellence for California LEAs in collaboration with technical assistance partners.