Co-inquiry During Unprecedented Times 2021

All the members of the co-inquiry teamCo-Inquiry During Unprecedented Times

Christie Navarro, Director, Center for Leadership Learning, University of California Davis
Darren Pierre, Clinical Assistant Professor, Higher Education, Loyola University Chicago
Jessica Chung, Curriculum and Instruction Coordinator for the Undergraduate Leadership Minor, University of Minnesota
John Weng, Assistant Director, A.S. Administration for Associated Students at UC San Diego; Doctoral Student & Instructor at University of San Diego
Kathy Guthrie, Associate Professor, Director of Leadership Learning Research Center, Florida State University
Kerry Priest, Associate Professor, Staley School of Leadership Studies & Leadership Communication Doctoral Program, Kansas State University
Michael Gleason, Irving R. Burling Distinguished Professor in Leadership, Associate Professor of Leadership & Director, Institute for Leadership Education, Wartburg College (Iowa)
Michelle Cummings Steele, Associate Professor and Director, MA in Leadership and Public Service and the Department of Urban Studies, Lipscomb University, Nashville


The 2020 dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racism challenged everyone to do things differently. For leadership educators, this meant shifts in how we teach, connect with students, understand our role in making change in our institutions and communities, and navigate our own personal change. Exploring these shifts has been at the heart of an ongoing collaborative inquiry among our diverse team of eight leadership educators from higher education institutions across the U.S. In this PAUSE for Pedagogy, we describe our co-inquiry process, share reflections on our learning, and offer considerations for application in other professional contexts.


The perfect storm of the COVID-19 pandemic and calls for racial justice stoked our personal fires and the sense of urgency to make shifts in leadership education. Since March 2020, we have acutely felt the conditions of a “VUCA” world (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) (Berinato, 2014). From the lens of Human Systems Dynamics, in times of high complexity and uncertainty, educational best practices of the past may no longer meet the conditions or serve the needs of the present and future (Eoyang & Holladay, 2013). As educators during times of leadership crisis, we may also feel stuck, overwhelmed, or burned out as we seek to lead and serve our students, institutions, families, and communities. Unprecedented times call for new forms of inquiry, learning, and practice. An inquiry stance creates the conditions for curiosity, shared exploration, self-reflection, and asking better questions (Eoyang & Holladay, 2013). We looked to collaborative inquiry (also known as cooperative inquiry, co-inquiry) as a tool for finding our way forward. Based on the literature and our own experience, we have found three intersecting purposes of co-inquiry:

Co-inquiry is a process for exercising leadership

Contemporary perspectives of leadership learning, development, and practice have called for relational, collective lenses that emphasize co-creation of knowledge through dialogue and reflection (Crevini, 2015; Ospina & Foldy, 2016). As its name suggests, the co-inquiry process creates space for individual and collaborative meaning-making, and courageous action on complex adaptive challenges. Thus, both processes of co-inquiry and leadership are activated to create change.

Co-inquiry is a method of action-oriented research

Co-inquiry as a form of action research has been advanced by numerous engaged scholars and practitioners (Napan et al., 2018). Co-operative inquiry creates a process by which to see patterns more clearly, explore multiple perspectives, develop new understandings through sense-making, and learn how to act with creativity and courage to create change (Heron & Reason, 2006). Considering we were ready to approach things differently and to address the urgency and complexity of how to move forward in leadership education, we surmised that utilizing the co-inquiry method was fitting.

Co-inquiry is an approach to leadership development

Building capacity for self-reflection and self-awareness are foundational skills for all leadership educators. The ability to regularly engage in understanding how our personal and social identity, world views, and lived experiences impact and influence our work is critical (Guthrie & Jenkins, 2018). Employing the co-inquiry process in a group setting extends support and deepens mutual learning opportunities.


Establishing the Group

In the second half of2020, we formed a co-inquiry team to produce a journal exploring how leadership educators can navigate the dual pandemics facing the United States and the world: public health and social justice. The invitations were framed intentionally, outlining the hope for collaboration and doing things differently in the spirit of co-creation. This beginning is notable because it set the tone and spoke a new possibility as we committed to meeting every week on Zoom. We did not set a rigid outcome, just a process that we would use to discover it. Each step of this process was framed as an opportunity to trouble and deconstruct what “normal” looked like. This notion has been a guiding principle throughout the past year.

Each of us got involved in this project for different reasons, whether it was alignment with our professional development goals, our hopes and sense of responsibility to the future of our field, or the desire to do innovative and complex work in a strong community.

Developing an Inquiry Focus

The focus of our learning journey has included the impacts of COVID-19 on our practice, the uprisings of racial justice movements in the U.S. and the long and enduring attacks on the Black community, the current national election cycles, and more. We realized that these conversations are not disparate, they are intertwined, and they do not affect us as individual issues but all at once. Furthermore, the impact of these issues not only affect our students but us as professionals and the way that we engage in leadership education.

Cycles of Reflection & Action

We embarked on a process that included: reflection and dialogue, analysis, and action. In doing so, we sought to identify and explore important questions and considerations that help to build path(s) forward personally and professionally in new local and global contexts/realities. Drawing from cycles of adaptive action (Heifetz et al., 2009; Human Systems Dynamics Institute, n.d.) our guiding questions were: “What? So What? Now What?” We began with open and candid dialogue about the pressing issues in the field, identifying themes that arose and documenting and visualizing these thoughts using a variety of digital tools.

Typically, people who convene a group hold the responsibility of logistics or direction. This dynamic was intentionally disrupted and helped us share power and ownership while recognizing the expertise and competency we each held. For the first few months, each week was facilitated by someone different until we got into a rhythm of shared group governance in the meetings. The rotations exposed us to the different ways we each facilitated, the ideas we each prioritized, and the strengths of our approaches. Each meeting began with “connection before content” (Block, 2018) building a foundation of positive regard and trust, which has opened up our willingness to contribute even strange ideas, jump in to help, and consider all sorts of processes and ideas. The nature of the pandemic, online learning, and tumultuous current events broke the ice of rigid professionalism, allowing us to connect as our whole selves through a tense U.S. election season and its aftermath (hooks, 1994). These moments were just as informative to our work as any other meeting.

The nature of co-inquiry is cyclical, each cycle getting us closer and closer to the product we hoped to create. Allowing this “inefficiency” permitted us to take time and consider multiple vantage points, reflect, and process at different paces, which opened up the project to different perspectives and approaches that don’t usually get included in a formal journal.

At this point, many of us would agree that this group has been an anchor, a point of stability, and hope in an otherwise VUCA world. This community of practice has helped us each critically examine our default behaviors as leadership educators, diagnose the systems in place in our field, and maintain the humanity of our work. It took a lot of time, patience, and consistent commitment to calibrate our norms and group dynamics, but this investment has created a hopeful experience of what is possible in leadership. From this experience, we offer some considerations as you replicate this process in your own contexts.


Only you know yourself, your group, and your larger context, so we offer the following guides for bringing co-inquiry into your spaces.

  • Each person comes with wisdom and knowledge to share. This is the basic assumption that allows power to be shared and contributions to be valued. If we believe that people in the room have something to share, we can also assume that as a group, you will surface what is truly important to the collective.
  • Set a clear direction without limiting how you might get there. As with outcomes work, setting a purposeful outcome can be grounding and the means of reaching it can be set by the people in the room.
  • As a convener, you set the tone. Frame the request with the values of genuine collaboration, value of all contributions, and openness to a “messy” process. This means you really do have to feel a genuine openness to whatever arises.
  • Provide many avenues for processing and contribution. You could incorporate a mix of individual asynchronous reflection, small group asynchronous and synchronous conversations, sharing out loud, email, or chat.
  • Leverage robust digital tools like Zoom breakout rooms, open access Google Doc notes, or visual tools like Google Jamboard to capture everyone’s ideas and voices (not just the loudest or most confident voices). Then, spend time as a group identifying trends or notable ideas. Some of the questions we used were:
    • What patterns are you seeing? What do you observe? What surprises you? What are people saying?
    • What tensions exist? What is important? What options do we have?
    • Now what can we do? Now what is a next wise action for us individually and collectively?
  • Encourage the group to take time to get to know each other personally. Continued check-ins and updates help develop positive group dynamics. These relationships help sustain the energy to do complex work over time, as well as deepen the commitment to showing up over time.
  • Share power and responsibility wherever possible. This requires a mutual trust to do the work of hosting, facilitating, creating and contributing to documents, and more. Recognizing all sizes and shapes of contribution creates a positive feedback loop to encourage more of it going forward.


At the start of our journey, each of us committed to exploring the abrupt changes to our roles as leadership educators (and as humans) during the turmoil of 2020. Little did we expect the deep sense of community — truly inclusive, compassionate, empathic community — that has been created. Each week, we continue to flourish, both professionally and personally, while co-creating knowledge and potential solutions on how to navigate the next phase of leadership education. Our work together has surfaced the importance of mutually developed learning experiences in the continued development and support of our personal and professional identities.


Berinato, S. (2014). A framework for understanding VUCA. Harvard Business Review.

Block, P. (2018). Community: The structure of belonging. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Crevini, L. (2015) Relational leadership. In B. Caroll, J. Ford, & S. Taylor (Eds.). Leadership: Contemporary critical perspectives (pp. 188-211). Sage.

Eoyang, G. H., & Holladay, R. J. (2013). Adaptive action: Leveraging uncertainty in your organization. Stanford University Press.

Guthrie, K. L. & Jenkins, D. M. (2018). The role of leadership educators: Transforming learning. Information Age Publishing, Inc.

Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Harvard Business Press.

Heron, J., & Reason, P. (2006). The practice of co-operative inquiry: Research ‘with’ rather than ‘on’ people. Handbook of action research, 2, 144-154.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom. Routledge.

Human Systems Dynamics Institute. (n.d.). Adaptive action. Retrieved from:

Napan, K., Green, J. K., Thomas, J. A., Stent, W. J., Jülich, S. J., Lee, D., & Patterson, L. (2018). Collaborative transformations: Cooperative inquiry as a catalyst for change. Journal of Transformative Education, 16(3), 246-267.

Ospina, S. M., & Foldy, E. G. (2016). Collective dimensions of leadership. In A. Farazmand (Ed.), Global Encyclopedia of Public Administration, Public Policy, and Governance (pp. 1–6). Springer International Publishing.

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About PAUSE for Pedagogy

PAUSE for Pedagogy aims to connect leadership education theory to practice and seeks to take lessons learned in the classroom to expand our theoretical knowledge of teaching and learning. Written for both the experienced educator and those new to the profession, this column will add tools to readers’ pedagogical toolboxes. Most columns are accompanied by a video interview with the author exploring the ideas raised in the article in more detail. The series is edited by Lisa Endersby and Dan Jenkins, members of ILA’s Leadership Education Member Interest Group. Have you implemented an innovative practice in your leadership education? Contact Dan and Lisa at

Dan Jenkins Photo Dan Jenkins is Chair and Associate Professor of Leadership & Organizational Studies at the University of Southern Maine. He received his doctorate in Curriculum & Instruction (Higher Education Administration) from the University of South Florida. Dan has published more than 30 articles on leadership education and assessment and is an associate editor for the Journal of Leadership Studies. Dan is also a past Chair of the ILA Leadership Education MIG, Co-Chair of the ILA Leadership Education Academy, and enjoys numerous volunteer roles with the Association of Leadership Educators. Follow Dan @Dr_Leadership.

Lisa Endersby Photo Lisa Endersby is a speaker, educator, and storyteller exploring the intersecting realms of technology, leadership, and assessment in higher education. Her current role as an Educational Developer at York University involves supporting faculty in exploring and implementing innovative best practices for teaching and learning. Her doctoral work examines the relationship between professional identity development and communities of practice. Lisa also volunteers her time as the EDC Institute Coordinator for the Educational Developers' Caucus (EDC). Lisa can be reached at