Adapting Leadership to Digital Learning Environments

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What is leadership, and are there common fundamental qualities of an effective leader? Kouzes and Posner (2011) depict leadership as “a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow” (p.2). Senge defines a leader’s role as taking the first step across a threshold to create change and suggests that leaders come in various roles but are not defined by any given position or responsibility (Sarder, 2015). Understanding the fundamental nature of leadership is difficult, especially considering the multitude of views, perspectives, and theories on the subject. For example, the Western cultural perspective focuses on the individualistic aspects of leadership such as personality traits and characteristics (Julien et al., 2010). Conversely, other cultures, such as some Canadian indigenous cultures, argue “leadership, as conceptualized in western terms, has no equivalent meaning in [their native] language” (2010, p.119). In fact, many would argue the deterministic approach to leadership can reveal predictors of effectiveness but not define success. The fundamental aspects of leadership in the digital domain are no easier to understand. Arguably, leadership in the digital environment presents a significant challenge to those who attempt to extrapolate what makes an effective leader due to digital technology’s dynamic nature. This article reflects on my personal leadership experience and how digital technology has impacted my professional practice to speculate which characteristics are essential to leaders working in digital learning environments (DLEs).

My Leadership Experiences

I gained my leadership experience by co-owning and operating an Olympic-style Taekwondo school, which for over twenty years, utilized a distributed leadership approach and fostered the development of leadership capacities in instructional team members. Distributed leadership can be viewed as “the sharing, the spreading, and the distributing of leadership work across individuals and roles throughout [a] school or organization” (Smylie et al., 2007, p.470, as cited in Huggins, 2017). We chose this approach to harness our dynamic instructor team’s collective abilities to enhance student engagement and performance and the school’s overall effectiveness (Klar et al., 2015, p.5, as cited in Huggins, 2017). For instance, by delegating leadership tasks, we accommodated a large student base and maximized our return on investment. Moreover, the school featured two distinct departments, belt grading and competition, which required many instructors to effectively individualize all students’ learning experiences to satisfy their learning and motivational needs. Each instructor possessed personal qualities, skills, and personality traits that were fundamental to their personal leadership development; some were strong communicators, technically skilled, while others were innately charismatic. Accordingly, we implemented a leadership development strategy that attempted to bridge the gaps between these innate qualities and learner needs, balancing all instructors’ leadership capacities through personal experience, trial and error, and personal reflection (Huggins, 2017). By supporting our leadership team’s development and delegating roles and responsibilities, the school achieved long-lasting success, satisfying thousands of learners and producing Olympic-calibre athletes through a community of leaders.

The Impact of Digital Technology

Our Taekwondo school integrated digital education technologies throughout the 2010s, which had a subtle, but notable impact on our leadership development approach. First, virtual instruction emphasized domain-specific skills, which intensified the leadership development process. Instructors were to develop new technical skills to adapt to DLEs which involved the use of breakout rooms, management software, and other digitally mediated instructional elements and frameworks to accommodate student engagement. Furthermore, instructors also appropriated their pedagogical strategies to meet digital learners’ needs through characteristics such as creativity, innovation, and forward-thinking, strategies far removed from the traditional, gym-based teaching methods of old. Second, affordances associated with the web and virtual programming expanded the school’s student reach, with instructors assuming more significant roles and responsibilities such as teaching long hours and working with students on an individual basis. This new-found sense of responsibility required instructors to re-establish credibility and trust with not just themselves, but with the students, their peers, and with ownership. Kouzes and Posner (2011) illustrate the importance of credibility by stating, “you cannot follow someone who isn’t credible, who doesn’t truly believe in what they’re doing – and how they’re doing it” (p.9). Simply put, instructors were to acquire sufficient digital skills to feel competent, thus earning credibility when delivering educational provisions through DLEs, while owners were to support and foster such adaptation and personal growth.

Final Thoughts

In consideration of my leadership story, I propose the importance of adaptability as it pertains to leadership in DLEs. Adaptive leaders recognize potential changes within their external environment, in this case, DLEs, and postulate appropriate paths that garner positive effects for the organization (Khan, 2017). Yukl and Mahsud (2010, as cited in Khan, 2010) state the importance of appropriating behavior as the situation changes, a relevant statement that aligns with the dynamic and ever-evolving nature of digital learning. The success of our Taekwondo school was realized through our ability to adapt to an evolving industry. Our instructors, our leaders, and our students all made the necessary adjustments to accommodate the digital domain. I would be doing a disservice to leadership by speculating that characteristics such as forward-looking, competency, and credibility are essential to all leaders in the digital domain; rather, they serve as predictors of effective practice but do not define success. The significance of leader personality traits, behaviors, and innate skills or abilities are mostly situational, and as the digital learner adapts to changes in their learning environment, so too should our approach to leadership.



Julien, M., Wright, B., & Zinni, D. M. (2010). Stories from the circle: leadership lessons learned from aboriginal leaders. Leadership Quarterly21(1), 114–114.

Khan, N., McGreal, R., & Conrad, D. (2017). Adaptive or transactional leadership in current higher education: a brief comparison. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning18(3), 178–183.

Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (2011). Credibility: How leaders gain and lose it, why people demand it (2nd ed.). Wiley.

Huggins, K., Klar, H., Hammonds, H., & Buskey, F. (2017). Developing leadership capacity in others: An examination of high school principals’ personal capacities for fostering leadership. International Journal of Education Policy & Leadership, 12(1). 1–15.

Sarder, R. [Sarder TV]. (2015). What makes a great leader? by Peter Senge, author of the fifth discipline [Video].

One thought on “Adapting Leadership to Digital Learning Environments

  1. It’s interesting that you bring up martial arts as part of your personal definition of leadership.
    I too took karate at a young age and our classes were possibly somewhat unique in that every student in the class was a teacher.
    Our Sensei truly believed that the best way to learn was by teaching, so once you gained some skill and proficiency, you began teaching the earlier belts.
    I also learned a lot about leadership and teaching from my karate classes growing up. Thanks for your post!

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