Education Opinion

3 Essentials for Change Leaders

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 05, 2017 5 min read
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There is change energy in our nation. Gone are the agriculturally and ethnic roots where the traditional was valued, maybe even more than change. Energy is active and, in its present form, the fervor to replace what was (and is) has captured the minds and hearts of the majority. People are paying attention and fighting against what they don’t believe in and for what they do. Action is a good thing. It is personally empowering and it does contribute to change. It is also exhausting.

Tradition vs. Change
Perhaps more than anywhere else schools hold the tension between the desire for traditions and core values and the desire for change. While voices rise up demanding we do things differently and get different results, there is a counter resistance when we raise the need to close buildings or drop programs or add early childhood or shift the system to become a STEM one. Educational leaders can become exhausted and frustrated from the work they are doing. They can become disempowered by falling short of making the changes for which they work so hard.

One of the most challenging leadership responsibilities may be communicating to external audiences and rally people to support the movement forward. While we have plans to make the system new and vibrant and working for all, we end up sounding like protectionists. Whether proposing a change in school starting times, grade configurations, use of technology, staffing, grading or school-business partnerships, leaders are on point. They need the skills to bring the community of students, faculty, staff, parents, and community members along.

A Metaphor
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, streamed on Netflix, is a dramatic representation of the O.J. Simpson trial that exposes the dealings and maneuvering on both sides of the court. No matter what you may believe about O.J.'s innocence or guilt, how the trial unfolded is instructive. Two specifics stood out as mirrors of what is happening in our country. One is overconfidence and the other is shrewd understanding of the audience and the use of an opening that will change minds and energize.

The prosecutors appeared to be overconfident. They had the evidence they thought they needed to convince a jury of O.J.'s guilt. The overconfidence led to their failure. Some leaders who are change advocates can fall victim to overconfidence as well. Being sure a proposal or an idea is good for children and will support them to greater success is an inherent good. That force for good can be deterred by not understanding the potential opposition. In the throes of enthusiasm we can discount the realities of those who are affected by not listening to someone who is walking in those shoes.

Perhaps that is what happened in Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It appeared to the entire world, perhaps even the Trump campaign, that she was going to win the election. Overconfidence may have kept Clinton from understanding what she needed to do to win. Simply having what she considered good ideas and a high standard of civility proved to be not enough. Strategy was missing, strategy that took into account the effectiveness of her opposition’s ability to appeal to the change ferment, to respond to the fermenting discontent and to speak in plain terms with simplicity.

Stories abound from school leaders who have tried to make changes and have failed. Mandated changes are easier to make. One can simply shrug and blame the mandate. But for the many more things that can be changed and are not mandated, there is a skill of communication required. Let’s learn it isn’t just about getting the message out. It is about crafting the right message in a manner that is understandable and generates support. It takes skill. That leads to a second lesson.

Understanding Your Audience
In the dramatic representation of the O.J. trial, Johnnie Cochran shrewdly led the defense team to allow the undercurrent of the belief there existed racial bias in the Los Angeles Police Department to be exposed. Rather than spending time defending O.J., he kept raising questions about the possibility that the investigators from the police department wanted to frame O.J. because they were biased. Even today, we are still dealing with racial bias in police departments, so we can identify the depth of this pulse and understand how it simmered at the time. The defense team came to understand the value of deflecting attention away from O.J. and to the police by providing evidence that Detective Mark Furman had expressed bias, used racial epithets in the past.

Then candidate Trump understood his audience. Playing to the frustrations that had been seemingly ignored by the previous administration, he played his strong suit. Make the deal... taking a lesson from his experience, finding the hot spots, selling his name and product as something that people really want and need. He brought people together by separating them from others. In the long haul, this strategy may not allow him to lead but it did allow him to be elected.

School leaders come to their communities with their own good ideas, receive others from the board of education, parents, teachers, students or acquire others from conferences and dialogue with other school leaders. Timing matters. Do the preparation before encountering the resistance. It appears the current administration is doing that with the revision of the travel ban this time.

Before putting an idea out there consider:

  • the ‘why’ that will matter most to those needed to make it all happen
  • who the key people are to be includee in the planning
  • the steps needed to be taken
  • the voice with which the message will be spread
  • the interruptions that may occur along the way and the manner in which they will be dealt with and by whom
  • how the energy required to carry the change forward will remain fueled

The Three Lessons

My behavior and that of other organizational members determines whether a given change initiative lives or dies. Behavior is the connective tissue between strategy and action, between intent and implementation. Behavior comprises culture (Shea, G. & Solomon, C.).

  1. Taking the time to understand where the sweet spot exists in those who are affected by the change makes the difference. What beliefs do they hold that can be energized? Is it belief in equity? Is it fear of their children not being prepared for the workforce? Is it the desire for their children to experience academic success? Is it a yearning for their children to feel more included and involved in school life
  2. Trust the team that knows where the feelings are and trust your own intuition. Then,
  3. check it to protect form overconfidence and with the audience at the rim of the circle. They are the translators. Becoming a successful change leader depends upon knowing them.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Illustration by johnhain courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.