School & District Management Opinion

Are We Leading Change or Leading in a New Era?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 07, 2017 5 min read
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We have always highlighted our contention, and the convincing research and perspective of others, that leadership matters. Followership matters equally. Students benefit from strong, inspired leadership. Leadership brings the community together in times of crisis, articulates the direction and the purpose of movement forward, is vigilant to keep all safe as they travel on the learning journey, and keeps everyone coming back each day, not out of fear or consequence or retribution but of interest and commitment to the process and the goal. In the past, this type of leadership resulted in a rise in student achievement and in increasing numbers of high school graduates. What does that mean in this day and age?

Most in the country agree that it seems like more than a year since we elected a new POTUS. Many are exhausted from the onslaught of 24/7 news and the turn in course of domestic and foreign policy. Our heads spin and stomachs churn. We find ourselves numbing to mass shootings and terrorism, unable in life and death terms to distinguish which is causing greater loss of life. The places of our daily lives are shaken into uncertainty....churches, concerts and bike paths and schools. We are losing grip on good and bad, on respect and dignity. Is this one person’s doing or should we have been preparing for a new age?

Two or so decades ago, Dee Hock, founder of VISA was speaking and writing about ‘chaordic leadership'. It is time for us to read or reread his work. Consider these glimpses into the organizational world he saw on the horizon...

By chaord, I mean any self-organizing, self governing, adaptive, nonlinear, complex organism, organization, community or system, whether physical, biological or social, the behavior of which harmoniously blends characteristics of both chaos and order. Loosely translated to business, it can be thought of as an organization that harmoniously blends characteristics of competition and cooperation; or from the perspective of education, an organization that seamlessly blends theoretical and experiential learning


A vital question is how to insure that those who lead are constructive, ethical, open, and honest. The answer is to follow those who behave in that manner. It comes down to both individual and collective sense of where and how people choose to be led. In a very real sense, followers lead by choosing where to be led. Where an organizational community will be led is inseparable from the shared values and beliefs of its members.

There are those who believe that the POTUS and some of those he chooses to keep close to him have deeply held prejudices. So deep that they, themselves, may not even recognize them. There are those who believe it to connect the rise in violence and divisiveness in our country to those words and actions. We are not being directed toward hatred or violence but there is a subtle modeling of spurious words and curious decisions that appear to give permission to surface the long dormant. So, too, can this be true in schools with the words and actions of school leaders. We have not yet lost a gut sense of the authentic and many step back because of it while others rush in. This truth brings with it a responsibility and an advantage.

Leaders’ Responsibility and Advantage

We celebrate leaders and the growing acceptance of the powerful role they play in success for students. What kind of leader is ready for holding chaos and order without jeopardy for the followers? In every school and district there are leaders engaged in the daily leadership responsibilities of their position. In most cases, that hasn’t propelled districts and schools into a new model. The good news is there is growing understanding and acceptance of leaders’ role in student success. So now what? If the leaders are one of the essential contributors to student success, and have yet to seriously affect the nature of how teaching and learning takes place in schools, what are leaders missing?

At the intersection of intellect, emotion, imagination, and intuition one finds the heart (Palmer, 2011. p. 6). Teachers and leaders alike yearn to be called back to the active front where making a difference empowered with efficacy lives. The leader is sees and clears the path, leads the way, and brings the community to a new place. Success may be a destination but progress, a little every day, is what gets us there.

Leadership for a New Era

We need leaders who understand what Dee Hock was talking about. ‘Chaordic leadership’ is not top down, it requires the everyone lead contribute their ingenuity along the way. The traditional modes of teaching and learning are being disrupted form outside the schools walls and educators know that a richness for students will arrive when those walls become more permeable under teacher leadership. But how to change and what to change to? In order to have an effect upon student achievement, leaders need a vision, a sketch in their minds of what the moving horizon line might look like. They need the skills that allow them to build a coalition to begin filling in that sketch of a vision; a coalition that includes people from within the educational community, teachers, students, parents, and people who live in the community. Even beyond those, schools need business and higher education partners as well. Leaders need the skills to courageously welcome voices of support and dissent and keep them at the planning table.

Seeing is believing. Opening our minds to those who say “yes, we can” instead of those who tell us we can’t or we tried once and failed matters. The naysayers step aside because the choices are ours. It is today’s leader who carries those positive voices and with a coalition of others listens. These conversations “yes we can” conversations are not so much a part of our culture but they live in classrooms every day. We need to raise them into the adult relationships and board decisions. They are courageous conversations in which leaders help everyone walk through the beliefs, realities, fears, hesitations, and resistance.

Do you recall what year was it when the first edition of Did You Know? by Scott McLeod and Karl Fisch was shared?

It was ten years ago. Ten years. Educators were rocked into a reality that had been unfolding with accelerating speed. The video was shown in faculty and PTA meetings. All were amazed. Now, ten years later, some have boldly moved ahead. Unless we change the way children are taught and learn, and the skills they attain in the process, we will not increase the numbers of students wanting to move into fields that require science, technology, engineering, and math strength. Watch the video to see what we knew 10 years ago for motivation. Now why not take the reins and enter the chaordic moment?

Palmer, P. (2011). Healing the Heart of Democracy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

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.