More Tortoise; Less Hare:
Paradoxical Practices When Leading Learning Change
by Bill de Jager, SCSBC Director of Learning ◊
It isn’t easy – not for a minute!
Leading learning change, that is.
At its worst, leading [learning] change is a planned journey into uncharted waters with a leaky boat and a mutinous crew.1 You may very easily end up struggling like a pregnant elephant only to end up delivering a mouse2. Machiavelli’s input isn’t overly encouraging either: It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.3
Leading learning change is not for the faint-of-heart! It takes lots of energy, enthusiasm and hope4. You will need to become a disturber of the peace.5
It begins with your desire to influence – to be a leader. Yet, your understanding of leadership is critical to leading learning change. Do you believe that leadership begins with really knowing yourself? That leading is relational? That leading is abandoning yourself to the strength of others?6 That leading is the polishing and liberating and enabling of people’s gifts?7
Yet, there is more to leading: being able to listen assiduously; able to encourage contrary opinion; and able to endorse a concept of persons – an understanding of the diversity of people’s gifts, talents and skills.8
Your leading will be a serious meddling in other people’s lives.9 However, Dr. Michael Fullan would caution you to avoid the coercive do what I tell you and the pacesetting do as I do, now! styles, for such leading-change approaches reflect a low emotional-quotient.10 Like it or not, you can’t bulldoze change.
What he believes to be more effective is a mix of high emotional-quotient styles: the authoritative come with me; the affiliative people come first; the democratic what do you think?; or the coaching try this.11 Walter Wright supports Fullan’s advice: The primal task of leadership is to handle both our own and other people’s emotions. Managing emotions is twice as important as intelligence or competence in predicting effective leadership.12
Such leadership is necessary as learning continues to change. As the rusted steel door of industrial schooling creaks shut, almost every country and province is rethinking and reinventing schooling within a world-wide web of digital connectivity. Past and current industrial curriculum, pedagogy and assessment practices are all being reexamined, questioned, and challenged. Yet, leaders within school systems, including our SCSBC schools’ learning leaders, are struggling with the implementation of new useful practices. It’s a complex and difficult process, with fewer successes than expected.
Fullan is one of those useful voices who are providing field-tested wisdom within the conundrum of leading change. He has been involved in change projects around the world, including Ontario, Alberta, and Manitoba public school districts. He’s worth a listen.
In one of his books, Leading in a Culture of Change, Fullan provides a framework for leadership, built on his deep involvement in numerous educational “trenches.” In his latest book, Motion Leadership in Action: More Skinny on Becoming Change Savvy, he succinctly offers an update on what really seems to be working when leading learning change. You are encouraged to read his suggestions and advice in full.
However, I would like to highlight a few of his field-tested suggestions that initially may seem counterintuitive to what we assume the expectations of leading learning change to be, especially those of you who are overly eager to take charge, to command, and to make change happen yesterday. Your consideration and implementation of these paradoxical suggestions may be beneficial in your work.
Fullan asserts that leading in a culture of change is about unlocking the mysteries of living organizations. That’s why [his] book places a premium on understanding and insight rather than on mere action steps.13 He strongly argues that a top priority for leaders is relationships, relationships, relationships! It’s heart before head; touch before task.14
Wright speaks similarly: We are relational beings who are motivated by powerful emotions as we journey through life. … Primal leaders understand this. They respond to our needs and address our fears. They empathize with the conflicting forces driving our ambiguity about life, relationships, work and calling. They take on themselves the risk of uncertainty and offer hope—a vision for the way forward.15
Such advice may try your patience, frustrate your personal multi-point strategic plan for change implementation, and force you to listen until it hurts. But if you really want to be part of community-building in a faithful direction16….
Here’s another suggestion to consider. Learning change will inevitably bring forth seemingly-unending, irritatingly-loud voices of resistance. Your impulse may be to use the mute button as rapidly as possible.
Yet, consider an opposite tactic. Respect those you wish to silence17, suggests Fullan; redefine resistance.18 He believes that we are more likely to learn something from people who disagree with us than we are from people who agree.19 He encourages leaders to practice impressive empathy – an empathy for someone who is in your way or who you wish would go away.20 If you include and value naysayers, noise in the early stages will yield later, greater implementation.21 De Pree reminds us that contrary opinions [are] an important source of vitality.22
And now perhaps the most important paradoxical suggestion. Leading learning change will be a time of ambiguities and complexities with hard-to-solve problems, which you may believe that you, especially you as the learning leader, are getting paid to solve. You believe you are required to think and lead; others are expected to follow and implement.
Fullan would disagree: Of all our strategies, the one that has the greatest power is developing new capacities in individuals and groups.23 In other words, the work of leading learning change is getting people to collaboratively wrestle and solve those ambiguities and complexities. Fullan has learned that if people begin sharing ideas about issues they see as really important, the sharing creates a learning culture (emphasis mine).24
But accessing people’s rich knowledge can’t be commanded. They need to find it motivating to do so. It is import to note that [school learning leaders] must name knowledge sharing as a core value and then establish mechanisms and procedures that embody the value in action.25
One of the critical pieces in leading learning change is knowledge creation and sharing. Our schools are full of hard-working, smart educators whose collective knowledge of learning has the capacity to corral change. Let’s circumvent Fullan’s frustration: It is one of life’s great ironies: schools are in the business of teaching and learning, yet they are terrible at learning from each other.26 Imagine the learning change that may emerge when you facilitate a forum where educators are learning from each other!
These three counter-intuitive suggestions all share one characteristic – time. Relationships, redefining resistance and rich knowledge-sharing all take time, more time than you are willing to give them. But you may be in a hare-brained rush at your own and your school’s peril. Consider slow knowing—the more patient, less deliberate modes … particularly suited to making sense of situations that are intricate, shadowy or ill defined27. Consider one of Africa’s wise proverbs: If you want to go quickly, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.
- Michael Fullan, Professor Emeritus, OISE/University of Toronto and Special Adviser on Education to the Premier of Ontario, NASSP workshop, 2009.
- Jim Heynen, Transforming Schools; Transforming Lives Workshop, CSI conference 2009.
- The Prince by N. Machiavelli, Chapter VI, p.4.
- Leading in a Culture of Change by M. Fullan, p.4.
- Leadership Is An Art by M. De Pree, p.xiv
- Ibid., p.10.
- Ibid., p.9.
- Leadership Jazz by M. de Pree, p.7.
- Leading in a Culture of Change, p.35.
- Ibid., p.35.
- Relational Leadership by W. Wright, p. 62.
- Ibid., p.41.
- Motion Leadership in Action: More Skinny on Becoming Change Savvy by M. Fullan, p. 65.
- Leading in a Culture of Change, p.75.
- Leadership Is An Art, p. 15.
- Motion Leadership in Action: More Skinny on Becoming Change Savvy, p. 74.
- Leading in a Culture of Change, p.84.
- Ibid., p.87.
- Leading in a Culture of Change, p.92.
- Ibid., p.122
Discussion Questions for Leadership Teams
1. How effectively does our leadership team’s dominant leadership style nurture relationships, redefine resistance, and encourage knowledge sharing?
2. To what degree are we placing a premium on understanding and insight about the people we serve rather than on implementation plans?
3. How fully are we utilizing contrary opinions as an important source of vitality for our learning community?
4. How willing are we to allow our staff to collaboratively wrestle and solve the ambiguities and complexities of learning change? Is knowledge sharing and creation a core value that we really honour?
5. Are we zooming too quickly or too slowly?