Theses Doctoral

The Wounded Educational Leader: A Qualitative Study of How Six Superintendents Describe and Understand a Wounding Experience

Espinal, Rafaela Y.

Leaders are often wounded in practice, most often psychologically. My dissertation is a qualitative three-part interview study that explored how six superintendents describe and understand a wounding experience—defined as a serious conflict, dilemma, or critical event in leadership practice that has a profound impact on the person. This study was built on Maslin-Ostrowski and Ackerman’s (1998, 2000a, 2000b) and Ackerman and Maslin-Ostrowski’s (2001, 2002a) series of research studies. It addressed a gap in educational research by providing insights needed to better understand how six superintendents described, processed, and made meaning of their wounding experience.

Additionally, I explored how they learned, healed, or recovered. Two professors with expertise in educational leadership and practice recommended superintendents who self-identify as having been wounded. I purposefully selected participants located in the eastern United States and conducted three in-depth interviews. All six participants described and understood their wounding crisis as follows—it: (a) originated from doing what they referred to as the right thing for students (and other stakeholders); (b) was a “rub” against their “core values”; and (c) was a “blindsiding experience,” which they did not anticipate. All participants (6/6) stated that they believed that wounding happens to most educational leaders and that being wounded felt inevitable when standing by tough leadership decisions that impacted stakeholders. In addition, all participants (6/6) told me that they had rarely—if ever—discussed their wounding experience.

I concluded that these superintendents, who expressed that they cared deeply for their students and communities (i.e., their moral purpose), experienced hurtful wounding crises that they framed predominantly as adaptive challenges in which their values were threatened or compromised, and for these participants, the wounding crises were emotional experiences that were—for the most part—often left undiscussed. These findings imply that spaces are needed where wounded leaders can tell their stories in confidence. I recommend creating forums for voicing, processing, responding to, and learning from wounding crises where leaders can express their emotions to determine avenues for recovery and healing. Supports may include social-emotional development, reflective practices, collegial inquiry, mentoring, and coaching.


  • thumnail for Espinal_tc.columbia_0055E_11128.pdf Espinal_tc.columbia_0055E_11128.pdf application/pdf 2 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Organization and Leadership
Thesis Advisors
Drago-Severson, Eleanor
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
February 22, 2021