Leaders working in digital learning environments face challenges and opportunities that technology and globalization have pushed to new and transformative goals in education. As a teacher in a K12 learning environment, I believe that the most important attributes of a leader working in digital learning environments are that they be: trustworthy, relationship builders, forward-thinking, and tolerant of risk-taking. Attributes such as trustworthiness and forward-thinking have long been prevalent in survey responses on desired leadership attributes (Kouzes & Posner, 2011). However, the context of digital learning environments calls for different leadership attributes than traditional face-to-face or non-digital learning environments (Sheninger, 2014). The new and transformative goals that leaders in digital learning environments work to accomplish will be met more quickly and sustained by prioritizing actions that are characterized by trust, relationship building, forward-thinking, and a tolerance for risk. These attributes are supported in this blog post by two holistic theories of leadership that I think incorporate these attributes and work best in leading change within digital learning environments: reflective and adaptive leadership theories.

Trust is a powerful and essential leadership attribute that is timeless and seamlessly crosses different cultures, in public and private sectors. Non-Western and Western leadership models consistently place trust at the top of effective or desired leadership attributes (Castelli, 2016; Julien, Wright, & Zinni, 2010; Kouzes & Posner, 2011). Without trust, the many other important attributes and goals of a leader are often lost. Trust brings authenticity to relationship building that makes people willing to follow a leader to meet the collective end goal.

Relationship building is a foundational element that makes digital learning environments most responsive to learners’ needs. Khan (2017) highlights that “adaptive leaders focus on working with all members to elicit change for the greater good of an organization” (p. 180). Latzke (2020), a consultant and leader in international K12 schools, states, “I came to work every day with the philosophy that my job was much more about serving people than managing things. This required relentless attention to building relationships with all community members. There is no doubt it made us stronger, more effective educational teams” (para. 5). Adaptive leadership theory speaks to the importance of connections to the past, present, and future of decision making while focusing on relationship building based on current realities (Khan, 2017). Reflective leadership places relationship building at its core. Castelli (2016) identifies six relationship-based components of reflective leadership as: creates a safe environment that promotes trust, values open communications, connects work to organization mission, builds self-esteem and confidence, respects diverse cultures and customs, and challenges beliefs and assumptions. Relationship building establishes the backbone of an organization’s culture, the shared set of values, attitudes, goals, and practices that will meet the transformative goals of forward-thinking leaders.

Forward-thinking leaders have a vision that becomes a part of the culture that they help to establish in a digital learning environment or community. Adaptive leadership focuses on leader-follower interactions in combination with external factors such as organizational complexity, current situations and challenges, and past actions of the organization (Khan, 2017). Digital leaders need to be thinking about the long-term consequences of their transformative plans of action more than ever due to the financial, technological, and professional development investments required to build and maintain digital learning environments in their organization’s future (Khan, 2017; Latzke, 2018; Sheninger, 2014). The vision that forward-thinking leaders share with their learning community is the blueprint that mitigates some of the risks that need to be taken to drive transformative change.

A tolerance for risk drives distributed leadership models that are a part of adaptive leadership practices in digital learning environments. An effective leader knows that empowering others is key to the collective success of the group, even taking on the role of “a leadership capacity builder” (Huggins, 2017, p. 12). However, it takes time and effort for leaders to train other people to take on leadership roles, and leaders know that if their trainees “fail,” it is often a reflection on the leader (Huggins, 2017). Nonetheless, an effective leader also knows that failure is a valuable part of any learning process and promotes a growth mindset at all levels of 21st century digital learning environments.

Trusted and motivational leaders in 21st century digital learning environments are perhaps more critical than ever because the connectivity of the digital age can make them a leader to more people, more quickly, in a revolutionary era in education. Leaders who are trustworthy, relationship builders, forward-thinking, and tolerant of risk will build the most active communities and digital learning cultures. Adaptive and reflective leadership models seem to be the best holistic matches to meet the demands of digital learning environments: they are based on relationship building and collectively embracing change. So much of the technology we use today is adaptive and reflective, and our leaders need to reflect this and be a step ahead.


*** For the K12 and post-secondary educators in the house… I appreciate this short blog post and visual representation of one leader’s vision of his role today.  http://www.bradlatzke.com/3-skills-that-flip-the-leadership-pyramid/



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

Huggins, K. (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). Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.22230/ijepl.2017v12n1a670

Julien, M., Wright, B., & Zinni, D. M. (2010). Stories from the circle: Leadership lessons from aboriginal leaders. The Leadership Quarterly21(1), 114–126. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2009.10.009

Khan, N. (2017). Adaptive or Transactional Leadership in Current Higher Education: A Brief Comparison. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning18(3). Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v18i3.3294

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2011). Chapter 1: Leadership Is a Relationship. In Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It (2nd Edition)[DX Reader Version]. Retrieved from https://royalroads.skillport.com/skillportfe/assetSummaryPage.action? assetid=RW$564:_     ss_book:43184#summary/BOOKS/RW$564:_ss_book:43184

Latzke, B. (2018, February 6). How would you transform your school [Web log post]? Retrieved from https://www.bradlatzke.com/how-would-you-transform-school/

Latzke, B. (2020, January 29). 3 Skills That Flip The Leadership Pyramid [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.bradlatzke.com/blog/

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


Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash