Date of Award

Spring 2019

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Educational Foundations & Leadership


Higher Education

Committee Director

Chris R. Glass

Committee Member

Dana Burnett

Committee Member

Tony Perez


The focus of this study was to determine which aspects of “Adaptive Leadership” are most commonly used by leaders in online education at doctoral research institutions where online education is playing a major role in enrollment. Within this study, the current state of higher education is reviewed and major changes in the financial, technological and competitive landscape are discussed. Challenges within the higher education context are addressed. These challenges include the increasing cost of a college education, decreased state support for public institutions, reduction of regional hegemony caused by technological advancements, increasing competition for students, and student demand for greater flexibility and services.

The reality that many institutional leaders are turning toward online education as a way of improving the financial outlook of their institution will be presented. The challenges in adopting online education, and the assumptions and expectations of today’s online learners will be reviewed as will the impacts on institutional infrastructure, policies and processes. The theory of adaptive leadership is presented, and its applicability to the changing world of higher education is discussed.

A phenomenological qualitative research study was undertaken where leaders in online education at major doctoral research institutions within the United States were interviewed regarding their leadership styles. Emergent themes and commonalities across the leadership approaches and narratives were identified and reviewed in the context of adaptive leadership. From this analysis a clearer idea of the adaptive leadership approaches that are being used to make change at academic institutions has emerged.

Online leaders in higher education today do use adaptive leadership approaches when they are dealing with complex challenges that involve both technological and interpersonal transformation. Online leaders who have been successful in motivating change are shown to use a cycle of trust development as an ongoing and essential component of their efforts. They are also shown to use behaviors associated with adaptive leadership when they are dealing with complex adaptive challenges, which are a common component of the online leader’s responsibility at major public, doctoral, research institutions.


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