Getting to the Light

Note: This is the script of my 3 Minute Thesis presentation earlier this year. The idea is to condense your thesis into a three minute presentation using only a single slide as a backdrop. This certainly forces the erstwhile scholar to be concise in both words and thought. Wouldn’t it be great if every speech was delivered in three minutes! Hope you enjoy this.

The translation of uncertainty in Mandarin Chinese is 不确定性( bù què dìng xìng) which carries two meanings.  One is being dependent on chance and the other is the “state of being unsure.”  To illustrate this, an ancient Daoist tale tells of an old man whose horse runs away and upon hearing of this loss, the old man’s neighbours respond with sadness and sympathy for the loss of his horse.  The old man responds and simply says, “how  can you be sure this is bad luck?” A few months later, the horse returns and brings other high quality horses with it at which the neighbours are overjoyed to which again the old man responds by asking, “How can you be sure this is good luck?”  

    The uncertainty created by COVID-19 has driven leaders away from traditional, rational decision making practices toward socially based adaptive practices which produce meaning and coherence for themselves and their organizations.  The way the world is changed is characterized by one Superintendent who says, “I don’t think that this is a tunnel we’re going to come through and say, ‘Oh, we’re just back to daylight.’ We’re just going to continue to navigate this.”  How have leaders worked to get back to the light and what decision making practices have they used to make choices in such uncertain times? 

    My study will look at organizations which have taken an adaptive approach to these times.  Sensemaking is one such adaptive process and is a social practice popularized by Karl Weick which involves engagement of people with evidence for the purpose of making the use of such evidence “meaningful and actionable” (Honig, 2008, p. 647).  Sensemaking in organizations calls first for framing of events which occur outside of the expected (like COVID), then interpreting their meaning from a circumstantial or organizational perspective, and finally producing a plausible action plan to create a path forward (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2005).   My research plan is to interview 6 Superintendents of school districts in Alberta and British Columbia to learn about how they and their organizations have adapted and made sense of this uncertain time so that these adaptive responses can be applied to the world which will emerge out of the tunnel of uncertainty.

    To end the story…the presence of the horses leads to prosperity for the old man until one day when the old man’s son falls off a horse and breaks a leg while out riding.  Predictably the neighbours are again distressed & the old man predictably responds “How do you know this is bad luck?”    Soon after the old man’s army is  attacked by bandits and everyone is killed except the old man and his injured son who both were unable to fight.  The interpretation by Daoist philosophy is that one can never be certain when good luck will become bad, or when bad fortune will turn into good.  Like the old man and his horse, this has been a difficult and often tragic time in the world but we must learn how these recent events in our lives, organizations, and social worlds can be used to lead us forward into the light.  


Honig, M. I. (2008). District central offices as learning organizations: How sociocultural and organizational learning theories elaborate district central office administrators’ participation in teaching and learning improvement efforts. American Journal of Education, 114(4), 627–664.

Weick, K. E., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2005). Organizing and the process of sensemaking. Organization Science (Providence, R.I.), 16(4), 409–421.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s