Leadership in a digital learning environment: collegiality & trust

[Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash]


It all begins with trust

(Sheninger, 2019, para. 7)

In this blog post, I would like to reflect on what leadership characteristics have the potential to foster a “transparent, relevant, meaningful, engaging, and inspiring” culture in our educational institutions (Sheninger, 2019).  I  had a privilege to work with some excellent leaders, and I observed that often the quality of work and the satisfaction of the team members are directly related to the leadership abilities of their leader. From my personal experiences, I came to value in leaders such values as competency, dependability, as well as an ability to inspire others to give their best to an organization they are part of.

One of the distinct roles of leadership in a digital learning environment, which I would like to focus on, and which is strongly represented in the literature, is establishing a sense of community and trust (Sheninger, 2019). Since digital learning environments can be quite isolating for individuals (Kuo, Walker, Belland, & Schroder, 2013), [and following my previous aspirations in learning agile project management], I strongly believe that collegiality and distributed leadership, as well as adaptive leadership, can be instrumental in digital learning environments.

Natalie Khan (2017) in her article, identifies the differences between adaptive and transactional leadership in Higher Education as catalysts that can help shed light on the ability of leaders to embrace change. She states that “the adaptive leadership approach takes a holistic view of leadership by focusing on both leader-follower relationships and any potential external issues” (Khan, 2017, p. 179). This places an emphasis on the relationship between leader and followers, which is also highlighted by the motivational factors within the adaptive leadership approach by emphasizing the value of the followers and their struggles, as well as including them in the decision-making and planning processes, rather than just valuing their achievement of a target (Khan, 2017, p. 181).
I can definitely relate to this aspect of the adaptive leadership, and for me, it is an extremely important characteristic of a leader. It communicates respect of a leader towards their team, and at the same time builds trust within the organization, which is essential for the success of the team. This can be further amplified by the distributed leadership model (Huggins, 2017), which builds the foundation for the development of future leaders, fosters collaboration, and increases effectiveness within the organization. In my opinion, this model also brings us back to the issue of trust and fostering of relationships. As Huggins (2017) states, leadership development is often “a process that required […] to have a tolerance for risk” (p. 7) and embraces possible mistakes as a learning process while others are given an opportunity to lead. This can be a very challenging task, especially when a leader is less flexible and has difficulty embracing other leadership styles.
Overall, I find that when leading change in a digital learning environment, adaptive leadership can provide many benefits to this process, specifically by affirming flexibility so much needed in the online spaces. Furthermore, a distributed leadership model can help establish trust within the organization, motivate, and foster leadership potential within the group, as well as help build collegiality and trust.

Huggins, K. S. (2017). Developing leadership capacity in others: An examination of high school principals’ personal capacities for fostering leadership. International Journal of Education Policy and Leadership, 12(1). doi: 10.22230/ijepl.2017v12n1a670
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), 178-183. doi: 10.19173/irrodl.v18i3.3294.
Kuo, Y.-C., Walker, A. E., Belland, B. R., & Schroder, K. E. E. (2013). A predictive study of student satisfaction in online education programs. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 14(1), 16-39. doi: 10.19173/irrodl.v14i1.1338
Sheninger, E. (2019, December 19). Pillars of digital leadership [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://leadered.com/pillars-of-digital-leadership/

2 thoughts on “Leadership in a digital learning environment: collegiality & trust

  1. Hi Marta, thank you for your interesting post. I’m wondering in your opinion, how might someone new to a leadership roll in a digital learning environment work towards establishing a sense of community and trust ?

    1. Hi Susan,

      thank you for an excellent question! I think building trust and community in an organization can be very challenging, especially for someone who is new to a leadership role.

      In my opinion, some strategies that can help with that are:
      (1) embracing and encouraging creativity within the team; (2) including team members in the decision-making process as appropriate; (3) allowing people to lead projects and/or processes and thus motivating them and foster their sense of belonging and contribution,
      These are some of the ideas that come to mind from my experience. What was your experience with this?


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