Adaptive Intelligence, a Powerful Tool for School Leaders

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Adaptive Intelligence: Leading from the Head, Heart, and Gut

Adaptability as a school leader is a great skill. A typical day in a school is filled with ever-changing moments. Putting out fires throughout the day keeps you on the move. When you have a moment of peace, you must pivot to handle different situations, personalities, or quick decisions. All of these things require actions or reactions. So, a question arises about how you lead as a school administrator. Do you lead through the head, heart, or gut? What is your level of adaptive intelligence?

Robert J. Sternberg, a psychology professor at Cornell University, defines adaptive intelligence as “the intelligence one needs to adapt to current problems and to anticipate future problems of real-world environments.“ Adaptive intelligence is developed based on our skills, attitudes, and behaviors. Adapting to changing situations, environments, or encounters to survive is essential to adaptive intelligence.

You may wonder what this has to do with leadership. The leadership role is challenging, and we are supposed to make it look easy. School leaders are sometimes considered superhuman and expected to be decisive quickly. Observers expect us to have all the answers at the tip of our fingers. However, we often need time to process information and then decide. In reality, we know a day in the life of an administrator does not happen like that. We make decisions based on our knowledge, empathy, and intuition. That’s adaptive intelligence.

Before we explore how the head, heart, and gut shape adaptive intelligence, let’s look at a couple of scenarios. Read them and reflect on how you react, respond, or decide.

Have you ever been challenged by a staff member, and how did you handle it?

Scenario: During a late spring staff meeting, you hand out the following year’s grades and class assignments to teachers. You are moving some teachers to different grade levels based on their certification and subject matter strengths. You decided to make changes based on student data, meetings with team-level grades, and observations. Several teachers are not happy and confront you during the session. Some say they were not consulted, and others threaten to quit. What do you do in this situation?

Has a work situation challenged you to change your behavior? If so, why and how did you change?

Scenario: Several staff members request a meeting with you. During the meeting, they mentioned that you could be more approachable as a leader. They accuse you of being unresponsive to their request for more resources and fewer directives. One staff member stated that although you say there’s an open-door policy, people cannot be honest about their concerns. How do you react or respond?

“Adaptive intelligence allows school leaders to face constant changes, new conditions, and complexities.” Adaptive Intelligence, a Powerful Tool for School Leaders Click To Tweet

The “Three Brains” of Adaptive Intelligence

We often hear or say the phrases, “Use your head,” “Listen to your heart,” or “Have some guts.” After reflecting on the scenarios, did you think with your head, heart, or gut? Let’s go deeper into these three areas. Scientists say we are equipped with “three brains” and, thus, three neural bits of intelligence. The “head,” “heart,” and “gut” each serve their purpose in processing emotion, communicating to the rest of our body, and behaving. 

The Head

Starting with our head, it is our operational (observational) intelligence. The head is where the reasoning, thinking, patterns, language, narrative, and perception live. The head values planning for the future and is also responsible for making observations. Head leadership allows you to

  • Rethink the way things are done.
  • Reframe boundaries when necessary.
  • Understand the complexities and patterns of the world.
  • Think strategically without losing sight of the goals.
  • Be resourceful and find creative solutions.
  • Plan and see opportunities.

The Heart

Next, the heart is your emotional (empathetic) intelligence. The heart brain is mainly used for processing emotions. This is where you discover and verify what matters most in your life, values, and priorities. The heart allows you to relate, connect, and empathize. It allows you to give others grace and to be understanding of others. Heart leadership will enable you to:

  • Balance individual and organizational needs.
  • Create and maintain trust.
  • Have compassion in a diverse workplace.
  • Create an environment where people can be genuinely committed to their work.
  • Know what is most important or a priority in your life
  • Understand and overcome potential obstacles.

The Gut

Lastly, the gut is instinctual (intuitive) intelligence. Your gut instincts enable you to engage with the world around you directly. It’s where intuition and instinct are centered. Use of your gut intelligence tends to be immediate, practical, and direct. Intuition can help you to recognize your core identity, sense of self, and courage. Following your gut can lead to self-preservation, safety, and maintaining boundaries. Gut leadership allows you to :

  • Balance risk and reward and dare to take risks.
  • Act with integrity even when it’s complicated.
  • Be tenacious and persevere despite obstacles.
  • Make hard decisions without fear.
  • Know when to act.

Being a principal or school leader requires that you can pivot. Psychologist Valeria Sabater writes in “What’s Adaptive Intelligence,” “Albert Einstein said it, and Stephen Hawking repeated it: the only valid notion of intelligence is the ability to change. That is, an intelligent person is a person who can adapt to the changes to their environment in an innovative way, no matter how difficult those changes are.” Now you know more about the three brains: head, heart, and gut. Reread the previous scenarios and reflect on your previous responses. Which of the three brains did you lean towards? What would you do differently? How will this information affect your leadership?

Again, school leadership is a demanding role. Sometimes your three brains are overloaded. When overload occurs, here’s what it may look like to others.

  • Head Overload: Colder, less personal, and more distant.
    • You can lose yourself in worrying about what may go wrong. We are less forgiving and trusting.
  • Heart Overload: Insecure
    • You are concerned about what others think or feel about us. We can be overly emotional and vulnerable.
  • Gut Overload: Reactive, impulsive, and action-oriented.
    • Your decision-making and planning are impulsive. We are in survival mode and reactionary.

Adaptive Intelligence Can Transform Your Leadership

How can you use adaptive intelligence to improve your leadership skills and strategies? Adaptive intelligence allows school leaders to face constant changes, new conditions, and complexities. Learning more about leading with your head, heart, or brain can strengthen your ability to improve teaching and learning, school culture, and community partnerships. For example, a school administrator must balance the personalities, wants, and needs of students, staff, parents, and community members. The head, heart, and gut will assist in planning and providing the best support systems.  

Adaptive intelligence lets you access different ways of thinking and the ability to shift when needed. It also deepens your awareness of how school stakeholders think, feel, and behave. Shifting between your head, heart, and gut can help you be an active listener and open to creative solutions. Imagine you must cut school programs due to budget cuts. Adaptive intelligence creates spaces for you to ask questions, listen, and observe. Lastly, adaptive intelligence produces a deepened awareness and opens the ability to plan strategically and access risks and opportunities. 

How are you using your head, heart, and gut to lead and make critical decisions? What are three or four takeaways from the information? Self-assessment is always a way to study oneself and evolve. Reflect on your style and use adaptive intelligence to improve your leadership.

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