Why Change Doesn’t Change Much…Leadership in the post-election time


Recommendation: With an occasional exception, the focus of my writing continues to be centered on ways to improve learning and the processes involved in facilitating that focus. It’s where I’ve spent the majority of my career. My focus is not intended to minimize the importance of political action and ways in which political action may support or impede the improvement of learning. As I have in the past, I urge you to follow the writing of Jan Resseger for the policy side of educational issues. She is an ardent supporter of public education and a wealth of information and resources for folks seeking to become informed about education in the post-election time. Thank you.

Why Change Doesn’t Change Much…Leadership in the post-election time

middle of nowhere_1129

From the The Farside Gallery 4, Gary Larson


During the holiday break, I found myself returning repeatedly to the implications of the president-elect’s proposed nominee as Secretary of Education. I’ve found myself swinging between the exciting possibilities for change and the desire to ask my doctor for some strong anti-depressants.

Regardless of which end of the spectrum I found myself, I realized that the word which was dominating my thoughts was “change”. I also realized that, in spite of all of the changes we have seen in the quest for educational improvement, school reform, elimination of achievement gaps, etc., we have seen very little change in the way we educate our children. Oh sure, we’ve seen significantly different areas of focus: behavioral objectives, values clarification, content standards, large-scale state assessments, etc. We’ve also seen our share of “band wagons” and also our share of “train wrecks”. But with a few notable exceptions, all this change hasn’t changed much.

Why is that?

Spoiler alert… I’ve written elsewhere about the increasing awareness that the majority of change efforts that we have witnessed have been examples of trying to do the wrong thing (schooling) better at the expense of doing the right thing – focusing on learning. But there are many factors which are at play in making change result in actual change/transformation. In this piece, I’ll focus on one of these factors – an exploration of a critical connection – the connection between successful change, leadership, and adult engagement. In the second piece in this series, I’ll focus on intentional actions that can increase the probability of positive impact.

So here goes…

For past the 10 years, most of my consulting work has revolved around leadership and leadership coaching. I’ve learned some things and I’ve unlearned others. Here’s what I’ve learned. Many might characterize these as beliefs and I suppose, in some ways, they are; however, I sense that they are more than that because I have seen this work.

People rarely quit jobs. They quit bosses. This “quitting” may be in the form of actual departure, but in many cases, it’s a kind of virtual departure… they just “checked out”. (BTW, one can extend this ‘quitting notion to kids, teachers and content – i.e., kids quit teachers far more frequently than they quit content).

People stay in a job, engage (and stay engaged) when there is a clear sense of purpose (one that they can buy into), when they are trusted to have some autonomy, and when they feel that they are growing (getting better) in their work. See Dan Pink, Drive

Where does this engagement, this sense of purpose, this autonomy, this sense of growth come from?

Leadership. Plain and simple, leadership.

There is a direct and causal relationship between and among 4 factors that enable successful leadership:. Beginning with the end in mind, I’ll begin with followership.

FollowershipLeadership can be defined as the capacity to build followership. This assertion comes from a conversation with Tom Sergiovanniwho for years was the leading author of texts used in courses for supervision and leadership. See Moral Leadership: Getting To the Heart of School Improvement. In a presentation I had helped organize, Dr. Sergiovanni noted leadership is based on stewardship and service, not authority, rules or personality…that if you looked behind you and didn’t see anyone following, you weren’t leading.

So how is followership built?

People follow those whom they trust and who make them feel safe.

It is this belief that Simon Sinek, refers to as the Circle of Safety in his TED Talk, “Why good leaders make you feel safe”.

And how is this “circle of safety” and sense of trust built?

It is built through relationships. We have seen this over and over again in classes where students go the extra mile because of the relationship that exists between them and the teacher. We have felt it when, as adults, we extend and even inconvenience ourselves for people who care about us.

And how are these relationships grown and nurtured?

Susan Scott in her work on communication (see Fierce Conversations and Fierce Leadership) shares that such relationships are built or destroyed one conversation at a time. They are destroyed though impersonal, perfunctory, or insincere exchanges. They are built through deep, caring, honest conversations. These are not conversations held via email, they don’t take place in large groups. They occur face-to-face and are sometimes, as Scott describes them, “care-frontational”.

Relationships that come from such conversations foster trust and a sense of safety for risk taking. Such relationships foster in us the confidence that we are not alone and that we will not be asked to do what our leaders/ colleagues would not do themselves.

And so people confer leadership to those who have fostered these building blocks. These factors build upon one another and enhance the development and articulation of a clear sense or purpose/vision which can be shared and understood. When present, these conversations, the development of caring, supportive relationships, and the sense of trust that results from these build the kind of followership that allows the realization of that vision/purpose.

When these conversations, relationships, and trust are absent or only superficially developed, change initiatives, regardless of the nobility of their intent, falter. Want to test this? Recall an initiative that was considered high profile only a few years ago that has been replaced by another such “miracle cure”. I’ve worked in districts where we could have filled wall with post-it notes, each representing a program or new initiative that is no longer in use.

Question: Why did these fail? Why did little or nothing change (other than an unintended increase in willingness to be a part of the next great idea)?

Answer: Lack of followership!

Now look at the intentionality of the efforts. How clear was the purpose? How was it communicated? Who was involved? How frequent and honest were the conversations about the implementation? Who nurtured the relationships? Who made it clearly safe to risk and possibly fail? What was the level of followership that developed?

Here’s what happened to me as I was writing this piece. I found myself reflecting upon my time as an aspiring leader, as a titled leader, and, occasionally, as a good leader. I found myself not liking all that I saw in my reflection. I found things that I would love to go back and undo. I found times when I was blissfully unaware of my role as relationship builder or as role model for meaningful conversations. I recalled times when I saw no one behind me and blamed them.

My reflection didn’t grant me any “do overs” but it did push me to offer such an opportunity to you. And it’s a lead-in to the next post…how to conduct a self-assessment and how can we be intentional about maximizing the interaction of the factors I’ve shared as critical to the development of followership.

In researching some of the resources included here, I recalled a conversation I had one time with Dr. Tom Sergiovanni.  By the time I met him, he had enjoyed a long and successful career. In our conversation, Tom openly shared his disappointment with his earliest work. Leadership, he offered, was not about mastering the mechanics of supervision and management “Leadership, “ he said, “is about the capacity to build followership.”

Struck by this memory, I decided to revisit Tom Sergiovanni’s career and contributions. Dr. Sergiovanni died in 2012. Here’s an excerpt from his obituary contributed by a colleague who recalled the following quote from his friend…

“…the work of educators (should) involve not only their professional skills, but their hearts and souls as well in their commitment to the human integrity of the work of educating the young.” (Read more…)

As homework, I invite you to begin the reflection by responding to just two questions.

How is your heart and soul reflected in your leadership?

What are the challenges you face in bringing this to your work?

That’s the beginning of my next piece…

PS The keys to good leadership didn’t change with the election ♥

3 thoughts on “Why Change Doesn’t Change Much…Leadership in the post-election time

  1. Wow, Rich — I think that is one of your best yet!

    BTW, my sister (Anna) came through everything fine and was home the next day! I talked with her and she was feeling great and in good spirits and discouraged me from coming down (seeing the weather in the route I would have been on, I’m glad of that as it turns out). She also said that it may be 2 weeks before they get results because of the extensive amount of lab work being done. For now she is getting along great. I may go down in a couple weeks, but we’ll see.

    Sooo when is our call? (G) I have an all day meeting on Thursday but I’m free besides that.




  2. Excellent post! I can relate to your own reflection as I reflect. There are definitely some ” do overs” that I wish I had a chance for. I think I may have been better earlier on in developing relationships with my heart as a new young administrator. I may have developed some callouses over the years with some complacency mixed in. I think complacenecy for me may bring me to just making sure all daily tasks are done right with a loss of focus on making sure I am doing the right things for those I lead….

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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