Wanted: a reflective and adaptive leader

  1. Competent
  2. Supportive
  3. Honest
  4. Dependable

These are the top four traits of a successful leader as negotiated by our group. As an experiment, I plugged these traits into indeed.com to see how often these adjectives were used in ads by companies seeking employees. In a Canada-wide search of thousands of job ads, there were zero hits for all four words.

Undeterred, I tried again. I had more success with the combination of three words: “Supportive Honest Dependable” (Perhaps competency is assumed as a prerequisite for employment). There was a total of eighteen hits for this trio of traits. Most were for ads for lower wage jobs: six were for personal support workers, six were sales positions. It’s interesting that these traits seem to be associated with lower-wage service positions. What does this say about how we value them in the workplace.

There was one exception: one ad was searching for a supportive, honest and dependable candidate to fill a leadership position. Grand Prairie Regional College is searching for a Vice President of External Relations who is supportive, honest and dependable. I wish them the best in their search.

I’m not sure why there isn’t more of an emphasis on these traits for leadership positions. Perhaps these “soft” skills are hard to quantify in a job ad. Perhaps we need to shift our values in what we look for in leaders.

I believe we need to look to leadership theories to provide guidance. In my reading, I have found myself gravitating toward two of the leadership theories described in the literature: reflective leadership and adaptive leadership. Both embody traits which I believe are assets in the digital space. A reflective leader challenges beliefs and assumptions; builds esteem and confidence; respects diverse cultures and customs; values open communication; and creates a safe environment (Castellie, 2015). All these qualities have much in common with our group’s top-four traits. The supportive leader is one who respects and values their team’s identity and input. An effective leader supports the team as they work toward their common goals. I think the traits of being dependable and honest are important to creating a safe environment. Reflective leadership responds to the needs of others. The same is true of adaptive leadership. Adaptive leadership is supportive in that it strives to identify problems and steer their team through challenging and complex situations. This includes problems both within and outside the organization (Khan, 2017 180-181). I believe that adaptive leadership is perfectly suited for the digital environment, which continually evolves. Leadership must be nimble and able to navigate through these challenges. 

Sheninger (2014) references the “fears and misconceptions” that surround digital technologies in education. Who is scared? Who is misinformed? In Sheninger’s writing, it quickly becomes evident that it’s not the learners but the educators and the educational designers. Sheninger notes that social media “levels the playing field” — perhaps that’s exactly what scares some educators who are accustomed to a hierarchical learning environment. To overcome this, a leader needs to be competent, supportive, honest and dependable.

In my experience, these traits manifest themselves through the actions of listening, respecting, identifying strengths, and focusing on goals. Digital leadership requires openness — to use our collective knowledge, our hive mind to glean how to use technology to our best advantage. To build trust, educational designers have to admit that we don’t have the answers. How could we? Technology is continually evolving. We have to embrace the chaos; ready to utilize every new platform, digital space or app. We must trust ourselves as a group, that we will discover the best digital tools for us at this moment in time. This is a big shift away from the traditional top-down approach. In my experience, educational institutions have difficulty putting this idea of openness into practice. Perhaps that’s why we are still seeing the traditional procurement of educational software and platforms which quickly become clunky and outmoded. 

Digital leadership is built on openness. Technology can be used to cut us off from one another or to provide an opportunity to connect, and work together to achieve common goals. I believe that forward-thinking HR departments should be embracing words like supportive, honest and dependable. For the employees who will prosper in the digital environments, I believe that they are prerequisites for success. 


Khan, N. (2017). Adaptive or Transactional Leadership in Current Higher Education: A Brief Comparison. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(3). https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v18i3.3294

Sheninger, E. (2014). Pillars of digital leadership. International Centre for Leadership in Education. Retrieved from: https://leadered.com/pillars-of-digital-leadership/

Castelli, P. A. (2016). Reflective leadership review: A framework for improving organisational performance. The Journal of Management Development, 35(2), 217-236. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.royalroads.ca/10.1108/JMD-08-2015-0112

3 thoughts on “Wanted: a reflective and adaptive leader

  1. Hi Jeff,
    You have taken a fascinating approach to exploring the attributes/models we have explored so far – and identified a huge gap. You ask “what does this say about what we value in the workplace” and I think your search and results speak volumes. When you think about what might need to change to better align what people say they value about leaders, and what employers, particularly in recruiting senior leaders are looking for (or say they value) – what comes to mind? You suggest that digital leadership requires openness (in its many manifestations) – and a reflective leader might be a good fit – someone who can challenge assumptions, but also create the safe spaces needed to do so. How do we grow more truly reflective leaders, who may be more open to embracing more open approaches?

  2. Hi Michelle,
    Thanks for your excellent feedback.
    You asked: How do we grow more truly reflective leaders, who may be more open to embracing more open approaches?
    My initial thought is that the answer lies in accepting the ever changing nature of our digital space, and the lack of control we have over this environment. There are no proven paths to success. What worked ten years ago, might not work at all today.
    A leader must not be anchored to what’s worked in the past. They must be driven by the current needs of the end user, the learner. What do today’s learners need from our digital learning? How do they use it? How can we offer them an educational product that meets their needs, and does the job that they require from it? I think the concepts of reflective and adaptable leading stretch beyond the team and into the learning community.

    1. Hi Jeff – “A leader must not be anchored to what’s worked in the past. They must be driven by the current needs of the end user, the learner.” I was struck by how this speaks to a leader seeking and using evidence and data – and I think all too often decisions are made on “what’s worked on the past” (we are all guilty of that :)). How do we determine what our learners need, or how they use tools/resources in digital learning environments. These are great questions for research and for all of us in our roles within organizations to consider.

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