Transformational Leadership During COVID-19

I feel like I have been in a state of Flow for the last 25 years. It seems like yesterday when back in 1995 four of us sat around a table discussing how the only way we could get our new Masters in Educational Technology to the teachers who really needed it was to put it on the newly available World Wide Web.

“Tectonic shifts” in society happen when an unexpected event creates widespread innovative experimentation around a new idea. (V Govindarajan & A Srivastava, 2020).

The World Wide Web was one of those shifts, resulting in widespread experimentation around a new idea—online learning. I had the privilege of being part of a group of visionaries allowing me to be an innovator in the experimentations around online learning.

Diffusion Of Innovation by user Pnautilus on Wikipedia. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License. This licensing tag was added to this file as part of the GFDL licensing update.

On January 9, 2007, I sat with with a different group of visionaries. As we watched Steve Jobs unveil the iPhone for the first time at Macworld in San Francisco, we saw this unexpected event as a potential tectonic shift. We became one of the initial experiments by being the first university to give every incoming freshman an iPhone.  Again, I had the privilege of being part of a group allowing me to be an innovator in the experimentations around this new idea—mobile learning.

The Pandemic is Bringing Widespread Change

Currently, I find myself experiencing another tectonic shift event. With the World Wide Web and iPhone the shift moved through the expected Innovation Adoption Lifecycle. The Cycle illustrates when a shift event occurs the adoption over time will assume a normal distribution curve. (Rogers, 1962) This time it is different. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced an abrupt global experiment. 

Before COVID-19, faculty had a choice when to adopt online and mobile learning, and the Innovation Adoption Lifecycle evolved as it should.  Now faculty don’t have choice. With the normal adoption lifecycle unable to unfold naturally, the innovation divide is not apparent. Instead of a bell curve, we’re experiencing a flat line. Many traditional faculty and students are finding the reality of this challenging.

Faculty and students are doing an amazing job meeting the challenges. But they find they do not have the experiences, understanding, or context they need to adapt well. These experiences have a deep impact on everyone.

Leading Change During and After COVID-19

We may need a different style of leadership to help lead us out of this abrupt experiment. Innovation leadership may be what is needed to help us move out of the crisis of a flattened curve into the reality of our new future.  Innovation leadership is both a philosophy and technique. The competency model of innovation leadership was developed by Dr. David Gliddon at Penn State University.  

The model describes two types of innovation.  Exploratory innovation involves generating novel ideas, strategies, and solutions—which we experienced with the World Wide Web and the iPhone.  

Value-added innovation involves refining and revising existing products or services. We need value-added innovation, and it requires a different type of leadership style.  It needs a transformational leadership style. 

The transformational style requires a leader to work with a team invested in the existing product but willing to see the new possibilities. They must be willing to be flexible and work together to explore ways to adapt to new situations. The challenge for a transformational leader is to enhance the motivation and morale of the team members by helping them come to a collective understanding of the new reality. They must connect their individual sense of identity and self to the project rather than the product.

Article after article confirms what we’re experiencing now is going to transform many aspects of life. Will education will be one of them?  After this “tectonic shift” subsides will our classrooms just return the status quo?  Or, will we be able to bring together the transformational leaders and the teams of value-added innovators and launch the next generation of widespread innovative experimentations?


Csikszentmihályi, M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row.

Gliddon, D. G. (2006). Forecasting a competency model for innovation leaders using a modified delphi technique. (Doctoral dissertation).

Govindarajan, V. and Srivastava, A. (March, 2020) What the shift to virtual learning could mean for the future of higher ed. Harvard Business Review.

Politico Magazine. (03/19/2020). Coronavirus will change the world permanently. Here’s why. Downloaded 10/8/2020

Rogers, E.M. (1962). Diffusion of innovations. Free Press of Glencoe Rogers. 

Author: Gary Tucker, Executive Director of eLearning

An early adopter in online education, Gary helped develop and deliver one of the first fully online Masters degrees in Educational Technology. Still an early adopter, he now depends on the expertise of his dynamic eLearning team. When off-the-clock, he reads and rides his bicycle.

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