School & District Management Opinion

Buy-in or Commitment? A Leader’s Question

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — July 24, 2016 5 min read
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We have been working with leaders in multiple districts this summer as they look forward to the opening of the next school year. We always end a day with something we have learned or something new to consider. Often they become blogs. Here’s one...

We recently spent a day in a district with a highly experienced and motivated leadership team. They were exploring an interest in a district wide STEAM shift. On the team was a young, newly appointed elementary principal. With the simplicity of a beginner’s eye, she asked us to clarify the difference between buy-in and commitment. It gave us reason to pause. We answered in the moment but the question has stayed with us. In educational change efforts, we frequently talk about...and seek...buy-in from our various constituencies. But there is a vast difference between buy-in and commitment. What if we sought commitment instead?

Often, we even hear organizational leaders boast that buy-in was achieved for one change or another. Buy-in means accepting and maybe it includes agreement. It is a decision of the head after weighing the alternatives and the rationale. Commitment is more emotionally impelled. It is more of a whole being act from both head and heart to support or join something or someone. The difference between the two might make all the difference in our success.

Exhausted From Tinkering
We have not yet reached the tipping point we desire. We have not yet become truly responsive to and successful with today’s children. We have exhausted ourselves with changes that amount to tinkering at the edges. We have exhausted the capacity of our systems; they can no longer handle adding one more program. We argue that it is time to begin letting go of the familiar and shift the system to allow for teaching and learning in a different way. But, these big decisions cannot happen without those within the system, and the community that supports it, as engaged, active partners.

Buy-in Not Our Best Launching Pad
Buy-in is a good thing. It means that those who are invited into or affected by a decision are convinced that it is necessary or even good. They agree to do what is needed, learn what is needed, and change what is needed. We have seen examples of this with the move to whole language, or Singapore Math, or cooperative learning, or homework, or grading, or implementing a new discipline policy. Once buy-in is attained, the work can be implemented more smoothly and easily. It will not be haunted by grievances or appeals or resistance. Managerially, we often settle for this good place. But, leaders may want to consider what the young principal knew intuitively. There is a place beyond buy-in. Settling for buy-in and moving on, although a regular practice, is simply not our best leadership launching pad.

There is an urgent call for the educational community to make sense of the needs of a century now sixteen years old. Young people are attached to devices constantly. They world view is centered on them. Core values such as respect for each other seem to be eroding. Policy makers want graduates who are college and career ready yet they don’t trust localities to make the decisions or create the programs that will result in those graduates so we are regulated to the point where creativity goes into hiding. In New York, for example, a series of courses and accompanying Regents Exams must be mastered before graduation. It is an age-old practice. These have become the scaffolding that defines and supports our work. Have folks bought into the practice or does it fall into the realm of “we always did it this way”? The status quo is a powerful force.

There are several reasons why today’s work invites leaders to aspire to commitment from their colleagues, teachers and the community. The first is that today’s work demands shifts in beliefs and practice. We cannot serve students well by trying to mold them into the boxes of the last century. The world they inhabit is new evidenced by communication, information, and relationships with much fewer limitations. Their world is one of daily violence and of games in their hands. Yet, as leaders, we seek to receive these young people with inclusion and empathy and create an environment in which they can all learn and grow safely. This is not he work of buy-in; it is the work of commitment. If our hearts aren’t in this, we won’t make the difference that inspires every child.

Shifts can best take place in a culture that welcomes risk taking, supports open and honest communication, and is set on a foundation of trust. This trust reflects the leader’s integrity and lays the groundwork for others to become trustworthy partners. But there is much more to come.

Today’s Schools Require a Shift
We believe it is time for systems to shift into a new way of doing things and this, without question, requires a heavy lift. Boundaries will become penetrable, definitions will become amorphous, and constraints of past practices can be swept away. If this can happen, there will be space opened for innovation and for educational creativity. In 11 minutes 40 seconds, this this RSA Animate was adapted from a talk given at the RSA by Sir Ken Robinson, world-renowned education and creativity expert and recipient of the RSA’s Benjamin Franklin award. Sir Ken Robinson explains, with stunning clarity, reveals why innovative change is essential. He focuses on the students we serve and the world they are living in. It is a call for us to embark on deep change; we call it a shift.


Buy-in served us well for changes sized to the last century. But, it is no longer be enough. It will contribute to an already exhausted system of people trying to change incrementally while continuing to obtain the same outcomes. Focusing on the world of school from the perspective of the children can appeal to both head and heart of educators and of the community alike. It is commitment that is required if one is to lead people on a systemic shifting journey. This is a herculean effort bringing together insiders and outsiders to explore new ways of teaching and learning where children are engaged in solving real world problems, where new partners are discovered, and the affects upon children are profound and tangible. This calls for far more than buy-in. We now know buy-in is fundamentally an act of compliance. Compliance thinking is never capacity building and it rarely allows for creativity.

Powerful and Meaningful Bonds Mobilize
So, let’s learn from this new young leader. There is a profound difference between buy-in and commitment. Think for a moment of the commitments you have made in your life. They are powerful, meaningful bonds that mobilize you into a journey and they form the guide posts so you stay on course. They endure over time and survive through troubled waters. For the shifts this century will demand from us, we need a few strong commitments in place. And we need to share them with those who are on the journey with us. Then, shifts can happen. Then, in Sir Ken’s language, we can abandon the production line and begin anew.

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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.