Complexity Leadership for Complex Day Schools

Leading Jewish day schools in 21st century America is a complex task. Our world is rapidly changing and complicated. Recessions. Hurricanes. Charter schools. The sovereign Jewish self. Special needs. Affordability. Staffing droughts. The manner in which we address our challenges is shaped by the lens through which we view them and grounded in the context of our mission and vision. A theory known as complexity leadership offers a particularly germane frame through which we may consider our work.

Jewish Day School as Complex Adaptive System

Each Jewish day school is an animated and holistic system greater than, and a unique expression of, the sum of its parts. Each day school, as a system, is uniquely bonded as an expression of its mission and vision. Comprised of these myriad dynamic, interacting and interrelated elements, such systems are described as complex adaptive systems (CAS), a term taken from science and mathematics. Complex adaptive systems feature many moving variables that shift between and amongst one another, and in response to environmental variations. They are organized around their shared purpose. An air traffic control system is a good example of a CAS that is guided by its mission and vision, to ensure safe air travel. Successful system function depends on many constantly shifting variables that must be continually monitored in order to achieve this mission. Weather, aircraft downtime, traffic conditions, pilot quality, mechanical issues and others are uniquely interdependent in an ever-shifting array in which each dynamic variable impacts the other.

Complex adaptive systems are different from those that are complicated. A jet engine, unlike air traffic control, is complicated. Jet engines have hundreds of moving parts; however, the number of parts is finite. Once it is designed, built and assembled the jet engine will perform in a highly predictable way. Not so the complex air traffic control system, and not so the individual Jewish day school system. The many diverse, interdependent and fluid elements that comprise each unique Jewish day school may be usefully viewed as a CAS, a particularly germane lens to orient our perspective as we consider our mission, our opportunities and our challenges.

The Edge of Chaos

A system that is complex is nonlinear and adaptive. Organizations viewed through the lens of complexity leadership theory are responsive to feedback from the system. Such a system is sensitive: large and small changes in the environment are disruptive to distinct parts and to the system as a whole. Disequilibrium results.

Consider the myriad elements that comprise a particular Jewish day school. Some are obvious, such as students, parents, teachers, budget and schedule. Others are less visible, and include community, historical culture, agency relationships, legacy endowments and Jewish birthrates. Each of these is one of many dynamic, fluid agents of our system. A disruption to any individual agent shifts multiple elements of our system. In our complex adaptive system, the resulting disequilibrium leads to what is known in scientific terms as “the edge of chaos,” a state that serves to push the system beyond its current boundaries or capacities.

Through a traditional leadership lens, disruptors would not be allowed to shift the system’s agents: a budget gap would be quickly filled with a special fundraiser; a teacher who leaves is immediately replaced with one who is similarly qualified. The essential role of each agent remains unchanged. A troublesome bump might be momentarily felt, but its impact will be absorbed, and the system continues as before. Current boundaries and capacities are maintained. When viewed through the lens of complexity leadership theory, however, disruptions are seen as opportunities to push beyond our traditional frames, to inspire a response that includes collaborative problem solving, creativity, innovation, adaptation and learning. When we are anchored by our mission and vision, the resultant outcome of our disruption—which really felt like the “edge of chaos”—is often one that we would not have predicted, that may not have previously existed, but could help facilitate our mission even better than before.

We Jewish educators have experienced many disruptors. We have all felt pushed to the brink, even to the very “edge of chaos.” I have been brought close to this edge frequently, and recently. Just three days before the end of the year the only Hebrew teacher in my small, unique Jewish day school announced she would not return in the fall. With my traditional leadership lenses firmly in place, and considering my responsibility to our mission to provide excellent Hebrew language instruction, I tried to replace her. I advertised locally. I advertised nationally. I contacted the Jewish Agency. I had a structure in place, but things were getting bumpy. I felt the disruption. I experienced the dis-equlibrium.

Then, I changed my glasses. I put on the lens of complexity leadership theory. Considering other elements (teachers, staff and community members) of our system and their commitment to our mission, I alerted various individuals who are part of my school system. None of them was a Hebrew teacher, but we were bound by our desire to provide the very best for our learners, to provide our students with an excellent Hebrew language learning experience, one in alignment with our educational philosophy and within budget. We were ready to adapt, to recombine our resources in new ways. We considered our resources, within and beyond the walls of our school. We researched options.

And something completely unpredicted has emerged as a result: our upper elementary students will learn Hebrew from a native speaker teaching live and online from Israel. We ensured that the program’s philosophy aligns with our understanding of how children learn best. Our IT professional will monitor the efficacy of the digital tools. A beloved teaching assistant will serve as the adult “on the ground.” As the recombination of the elements of our system emerged to this unpredicted outcome, we realized that we will facilitate our mission in an exciting new way, one we could not have imagined.

Elements of Complexity Leadership

Complexity leadership theory recognizes three essential functions of leadership: administrative, adaptive and enabling. Each is valuable and necessary within the context of complexity leadership theory. The administrative function concerns itself with traditional managerial tasks, such as scheduling, handling the budget, registration and the ordering of textbooks. Administrative leadership is often what is most familiar: the efficient management of routine tasks and the coordination of typical resources that grease the working of the day to day functions of the organization.

Adaptive leadership recognizes and responds to shifts in the environment. This function comes into play when what used to work is no longer working. Adaptive problems usually have no ready solutions. Rather than an administrative leadership fix, solutions to adaptive problems are often found within the collaborative efforts of many different agents of the system as creativity and resource sharing encourage new uses for familiar tools. The adaptive function calls leadership to “get off the dance floor” (in the words of Ronald Heifetz and Donald Laurie) and onto the balcony to gain an overarching view. It is the adaptive leadership function that creates an ambience and a structure that is nimble and open to the systemic disequilibrium that arises from a shifting environment.

Into this “chaotic” space between the administrative and the adaptive appears the enabling leadership function. The role of enabling leadership is to directly foster the conditions that allow for something new to emerge. The sense that a system is on the “edge of chaos” fosters emergence, the sometimes sudden, unanticipated outcome of a collaborative, creative, innovative, solution-oriented process. Returning to the earlier example of our Hebrew teacher problem, the outcome of emergence is our use of digital tools, long-distance resources, and capable staff to meet the challenge of providing excellent Hebrew language instruction for our students. Enabling leadership utilizes disequlibrium, even the chaotic edge, to energize and motivate the system toward the creativity and innovation of emergence.

Understanding that shifts in the environment of our complex adaptive system may have unforeseen benefits, it may behoove us to occasionally, intentionally disrupt the system that is our own Jewish day school. What are some of the administrative and adaptive functions that can be put in place to foster an environment of emergence? The adaptive leadership role requires the consistent monitoring of alignment between innovation and mission. Fostering an ambience that values inclusivity, transparency, communication, creative problem solving and a dynamic collaborative process is essential. Administrative functions include setting aside time for open dialogue, sharing the perspective from the balcony, encouraging various agents of the school to identify the gaps they’ve noticed, or providing time to transparently share achievements and challenges.

Systemic protocols may be intentionally disrupted to accelerate disequilibrium. Encouraging peer to peer observations, or a long-term administrator to get back to the classroom, are examples of energizing disruptions, as is constructive conflict between various agents. I recently achieved a new level of positive community connection, one of the aspects of our mission, due to a conflict with another agency over the placement of a sign! The number of individuals involved with the solution to the adaptive sign-placement challenge helped us to realign our habitual behaviors toward our shared mission and vision of community cooperation.

In the midst of disequilibrium, recombination and unanticipated emergent outcomes, positive and negative feedback loops provide

the assessment to determine whether or not the innovation is grounded in the mission and vision of our system. Through the lens of complexity leadership theory, the measure of a successful emergence must come from its alignment to the mission and vision of the system: our Jewish day school.

Viewing Jewish day schools as complex adaptive systems through the lens of complexity leadership theory encourages us to keep in mind that each school is a unique combination of its myriad agents. This perspective inspires creativity, grounds us in our purpose, and helps us to realize the powerful potential of our schools. Complexity leadership theory is a useful lens through which to view our organizations as ever-shifting systems, improving by remaining grounded to mission and vision. In my community, Hurricane Katrina was a profound disrupter which led an entire city to the very edge of chaos. What has emerged was unpredicted, and various agents of this complex adaptive system recombined to push my unique Jewish day school to surprising outcomes and mission-grounded innovations.♦

Sharon Pollin is head of the Jewish Community Day School in New Orleans, Louisiana; she is a doctoral candidate in educational leadership.

Sharon Pollin
Mission & Vision
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership
Published: Fall 2014