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Although we had already been working on this book for over a year, the actual writing began in earnest in the summer of 2016. We recall this as a time of rampant uncertainty. In fact, pundits began to refer to this period as the beginning of the “post-truth” era. In North America, this state of affairs was exacerbated by the US presidential election campaign in which the often wild and contra-factual allegations by the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, seemed to dominate every news cycle. The issue of what is true, whose truth matters, and whether voters could continue to have confidence in the election process itself frustrated any attempt to focus on the real issues. The proliferation of so-called fake news reports and increasing evidence that the Russian government had interfered in the election campaign simply added to the uncertainty. Moreover, global concerns, including the Syrian refugee crisis, the so-called “Brexit,” catastrophic climatic events, militaristic threats from North Korea, and the all-too-frequent attacks against innocent civilians, including school children, contributed to a pervasive sense of unease and increased divisiveness, often along political party lines.

In such turbulent times, trust in our institutions and systems and trust in members of our social networks is severely strained. Ironically, however, just when our beliefs in institutions and the people tasked with administering them are diminished, educational leaders are being entrusted to take on ever more expanding responsibilities. Educational leaders, for example, are expected to be experts in their field, excellent managers of physical plants, insightful problem solvers, skilled brokers between educational institutions and communities, highly capable stewards of staff development, and visionaries who are able to guide their institutions masterfully through difficult financial times. Above all, educational leaders are expected to build and sustain trusting relationships in their social networks. Indeed, such relationships are critical for our success as educational leaders because we cannot hope to work towards common goals or create the optimal conditions for teaching and learning without them.

Unfortunately, few educational leaders have had sufficient training in how to nurture relationships or how to repair them when they break down. This is due, in part, to the myth that such “soft” skills do not need to be taught and deep-seated beliefs that when it comes to leading, “experience is the best teacher.” We argue, on the contrary, that such skills are far from being intuitive and that educational leaders need specific guidance to explore, understand, make sense of, and respond to uncertainty and the complex problems and crises that arise from it. To address this gap, we developed the 5-step sensemaking approach, which we introduce and model through scenarios drawn from interviews with educational leaders and our own experiences as administrators.

Prior to writing the book, we asked 15 superintendents, deans, and principals to use the 5-step sensemaking approach to share a complex problem or dilemma with our research assistant, who transcribed the sessions. Although the scenarios are set in particular milieus, they reflect the kinds of dilemmas that occur in any setting. To maximize the impact of the scenarios, we recommend that readers focus on the challenges being portrayed rather than the fact that the setting may be different than their own. In addition to the scenarios, which were fictionalized to preserve anonymity, the transcriptions were mined for illustrative quotes that are interspersed throughout the book and are identified only by the role of the person speaking. A brief description of the chapters is included below.

In Chapter 1, Exploring Uncertainty, we make the case that uncertainty is neither positive nor negative, but is, instead, an inescapable characteristic of the complex adaptive systems in which we work. In this context, we examine warranted and unwarranted certainties and uncertainties as important touchstones for educational leaders. We introduce the Certainty Matrix as a tool to help educational leaders think about what they know and how they know it. Finally, we present a scenario which illustrates the overlapping concerns of educational leaders at different levels of a complex adaptive educational system.

In Chapter 2, Understanding Uncertainty, we focus on the dilemmas and crises that educational leaders inevitably face in complex adaptive systems. This leads us to consider complexity leadership theory and social capital as resources that can help educational leaders come to a deeper understanding of uncertainty. We show how the three roles of complexity leadership (administrative, enabling, and adaptive) relate to three key sources of social capital (norms, networks, and trust). Finally, we present a scenario that illustrates the importance of social capital in educational leadership.

In Chapter 3, Making Sense of Uncertainty, we describe the 5-step sensemaking approach in detail. Rooted in sensemaking, this approach engages readers in an iterative series of guided questions, completing a Certainty Matrix, and creating a relationship map to make sense of what happened in order to formulate a course of action. Educational leaders who have used this approach say that they are able to reach a deeper understanding of difficult challenges and the roles they played in them. At the end of the chapter, we model the 5-step sensemaking approach with a scenario that illustrates how an educational leader makes sense of the complex relationships in her workplace.

In Chapter 4, Grappling with Uncertainty, we provide three scenarios from three different settings. We follow three educational leaders as they use the 5-step sensemaking approach to respond to the challenges they face and consider the courses of action open to them.

In Chapter 5, Responding to Cases of Uncertainty, we present 9 scenarios for educational leaders to practice applying the 5-step sensemaking approach on their own.

Who the Book Is For

This book was written for educational leaders who are currently leading educational institutions as well as those who are considering a career in educational administration, regardless of the educational setting in which they find themselves.


We would like to thank the following superintendents, principals, deans who freely and generously participated in the interviews and preliminary testing of the 5-step sensemaking approach. They are listed alphabetically as follows: Airini, Sal Badali, Gwen Birse, Mike Borgfjord, Cathy Bruce, Dionne Deer, Randy Dueck, Heather Duncan, Mark den Hollander, Vinh Huynh, Barb Isaak, Rod Kehler, Vern Reimer, Jennifer Tupper, and Leslie Wurtak. We would also like to thank our colleagues, friends, and family for their suggestions and support during this project. Finally, we would like to acknowledge the important contributions of Catherine Draper who conducted and transcribed the interviews and provided us with valuable insights throughout the course of the project.

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Navigating Uncertainty

Sensemaking for Educational Leaders


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