Complex Adaptive Systems Leadership in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (Vuca) Environment: a Case Study of a First-Year Female Superintendent of Color

Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Educational Leadership, Research and Technology

First Advisor

Joseph Kretovics, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Gary Miron, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

LaSonja Roberts, Ph.D.


Board of Education, case study, complex adaptive systems leadership, female of color superintendent, female superintendent of Indian Asian descent, first year superintendent


Superintendents in the K-12 education system in the United States are called upon to ameliorate problems and issues derived from many internal and external forces since its inception. Current literature reveals that, superintendents face complex challenges to improve district level educational outcomes for students within environments that are more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) and do require a shift from dominant traditional (hierarchal and control) leadership approaches. The aim of this qualitative case study of interviews is to represent the single voice of a first-year female superintendent of color’s (Asian, Indian descent) perspective, perceptions, thoughts, and experiences. The interviews were designed to examine how the superintendent utilized three complex adaptive systems leadership (CASL) behavioral tools of (a) freedom to name and act upon complex challenges, (b) diagnose the interactions and relationships that inform the nature of these challenges within the district, and (c) examine the complex interactions from the balcony to better understand the whole (Brown, 2012; D. G. Green, 2011; Heifetz et al., 2009) to transition her traditional leadership behaviors to a CASL behavioral approach (Brown, 2012; Goldstein et al., 2010; Heifetz et al., 2009). The complex adaptive systems leadership behavioral tools were studied under conditions of rapid communication, interdependency, complex network dynamics, and navigating ambiguity and contradiction during the COVID-19 pandemic (Uhl-Bien et al., 2007). The purpose of the approach was to gain a better understanding of the issues and challenges the superintendent faced, and how she constructed meaning guided by her interactions and communications with the board of education, district leadership, parents, students, teachers, staff and community. In addition, how the intersectionality of race and gender, and first-year employment status influenced her leadership behaviors. Results showed the superintendent utilized both traditional and complex adaptive systems leadership (CASL) depending upon the situations she encountered. Future focused research could examine how public-school boards use and implement selected tools of complex adaptive systems leadership when supervising superintendents in VUCA environments and how the Department of Education and/or statewide associations of school boards utilize tools of complex adaptive systems leadership to train public school board members for a VUCA environment?

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