The Change Leader by Michael Fullan


This article found at the Educational Leadership website caught my attention. It discusses how instructional leadership as the principal’s central role has been a valuable first step in increasing student learning, but it does not go far enough. It resonates with what I have been reading about the initiative from my school’s central administration, “Den gode Akershusskolen“.  The goal is that as many as 87 % of all the students who attend high school complete all courses. The goals are quality learning for all. To be able to ensure this in all our schools it is vital that we have school leaders who are change leaders. Fullan argues that we need leaders who can create a fundamental transformation in the learning cultures of schools and of the teaching profession itself.

According to Fullan the principal of the future—must be attuned to the big picture, a sophisticated conceptual thinker who transforms the organization through people and teams. Five essential components characterize leaders in the knowledge society:  moral purpose, an understanding of the change process, the ability to improve relationships, knowledge creation and sharing, and coherence making.

I have listed the five essential components here:

Moral Purpose

Moral purpose is social responsibility to others and the environment. School leaders with moral purpose seek to make a difference in the lives of students. They are concerned about closing the gap between high-performing and lower-performing schools and raising the achievement of—and closing the gap between—high-performing and lower-performing students. They act with the intention of making a positive difference in their own schools as well as improving the environment in other district schools.

Let me be clear: If the goal is systemic improvement—to improve all schools in the district—then principals should be nearly as concerned about the success of other schools in the district as they are about their own school. Sustained improvement of schools is not possible unless the whole system is moving forward.

Student learning is paramount to the Cultural Change Principal. This principal involves teachers in explicitly monitoring student learning. But the Cultural Change Principal is also concerned with the bigger picture and continually asks, How well are other schools in the district doing? What is the role of public schools in a democracy? Are we reducing the gap between high-performing and lower-performing students in this school? district? state? nation? The Cultural Change Principal treats students, teachers, parents, and others in the school well. Such a principal also works to develop other leaders in the school to prepare the school to sustain and even advance reform after he or she departs. In short, the Cultural Change Principal displays explicit, deep, comprehensive moral purpose.

Understanding Change

Having innovative ideas and understanding the change process are not the same thing. Indeed, the case can be made that those firmly committed to their own ideas are not necessarily good change agents because being a change agent involves getting commitment from others who might not like one’s ideas. I offer the following guidelines for understanding change:

  • The goal is not to innovate the most. Innovating selectively with coherence is better.
  • Having the best ideas is not enough. Leaders help others assess and find collective meaning and commitment to new ways.
  • Appreciate the implementation dip. Leaders can’t avoid the inevitable early difficulties of trying something new. They should know, for example, that no matter how much they plan for the change, the first six months or so of implementation will be bumpy.
  • Redefine resistance. Successful leaders don’t mind when naysayers rock the boat. In fact, doubters sometimes have important points. Leaders look for ways to address those concerns.
  • Reculturing is the name of the game. Much change is structural and superficial. Transforming culture—changing what people in the organization value and how they work together to accomplish it—leads to deep, lasting change.
  • Never a checklist, always complexity. There is no step-by-step shortcut to transformation; it involves the hard, day-to-day work of reculturing.

The Cultural Change Principal knows the difference between being an expert in a given content innovation and being an expert in managing the process of change. This principal does not make the mistake of assuming that the best ideas will carry the day. Instead, the Cultural Change Principal provides opportunities for people to visit sites that are using new ideas, invites questions and even dissent, and expects the change process to proceed in fits and starts during the first few months of implementation. Nevertheless, such a principal forges ahead and expects progress within a year because he or she has nurtured the conditions that yield results sooner rather than later.

Improving Relationships

The single factor common to successful change is that relationships improve. If relationships improve, schools get better. If relationships remain the same or get worse, ground is lost. Thus, leaders build relationships with diverse people and groups—especially with people who think differently. In complex times, emotional intelligence is a must. Emotionally intelligent leaders are able to build relationships because they are aware of their own emotional makeup and are sensitive and inspiring to others (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002).

The Cultural Change Principal knows that building relationships and teams is the most difficult skill for both business and education leaders (Hay Management Consultants, 2000). This leader works hard to develop the full range of emotional intelligence domains, especially self-management of emotions and empathy toward others (Goleman et al., 2002). Focusing on relationships isn’t just a matter of boosting achievement scores for next year, but rather a means of laying the foundation for year two and beyond. The Cultural Change Principal’s efforts to motivate and energize disaffected teachers and forge relationships among otherwise disconnected teachers can have a profound effect on the overall climate of the organization. Well-established relationships are the resource that keeps on giving.

Knowledge Creation and Sharing

Creating and sharing knowledge is central to effective leadership. Information, of which we have a glut, only becomes knowledge through a social process. For this reason, relationships and professional learning communities are essential. Organizations must foster knowledge giving as well as knowledge seeking. We endorse continual learning when we say that individuals should constantly add to their knowledge base—but there will be little to add if people are not sharing. A norm of sharing one’s knowledge with others is the key to continual growth for all.

The Cultural Change Principal appreciates that teaching is both an intellectual and a moral profession. This principal constantly reminds teachers that they are engaged in practicing, studying, and refining the craft of teaching. The Cultural Change Principal is the lead learner in the school and models lifelong learning by sharing what he or she has read lately, engaging in and encouraging action research, and implementing inquiry groups among the staff. Teachers who work with the Cultural Change Principal know that they are engaged in scientific discovery and the refinement of the teaching knowledge base. Knowledge creation and sharing fuels moral purpose in schools led by Cultural Change Principals.

Coherence Making

Because complex societies inherently generate overload and fragmentation, effective leaders must be coherence-makers (Fullan, 1999, 2001). The other characteristics of the change leader—moral purpose, an understanding of the change process, the ability to build relationships, and the creation and sharing of knowledge—help forge coherence through the checks and balances embedded in their interaction. Leaders with deep moral purpose provide guidance, but they can also have blinders if their ideas are not challenged through the dynamics of change, the give-and-take of relationships, and the ideas generated by new knowledge. Coherence is an essential component of complexity and yet can never be completely achieved.

Principals not attuned to leading in a culture of change make the mistake of seeking external innovations and taking on too many projects. Cultural Change Principals, by contrast, concentrate on student learning as the central focus of reform and keep an eye out for external ideas that further the thinking and vision of the school. They realize that overload and fragmentation are natural tendencies of complex systems. They appreciate the creative potential of diverse ideas, but they strive to focus energy and achieve greater alignment. They also look to the future and strive to create a culture that has the capacity not to settle for the solution of the day. Cultural Change Principals value the tensions inherent in addressing hard-to-solve problems because that is where the greatest accomplishments lie.

Learning in Context

Learning at work—learning in context—occurs, for example, when principals are members of a district’s intervisitation study team for which they examine real problems—and the solutions they have devised—in their own systems.  Learning in context has the greatest potential payoff because it is more specific, situational, and social (it develops shared and collective knowledge and commitments). This kind of learning is designed to improve the organization and its social and moral context. Learning in context also establishes conditions conducive to continual development, including opportunities to learn from others on the job, the daily fostering of current and future leaders, the selective retention of good ideas and best practices, and the explicit monitoring of performance.

Enhancing the Teaching Profession

We will not have a large pool of quality principals until we have a large pool of quality teachers because quality teachers form the ranks of the quality principal pipeline. An essential strand will be to reduce teacher workload, foster increased teacher ownership, and create the capacity to manage change in a sustainable way that can lay the foundation for improved school and pupil performance in the future. Principal-leaders should work to transform teachers’ working conditions. From the standpoint of sustainability, the principalship itself benefits from these improved conditions: We will only get quality principals when we have quality teachers.

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