Lead the change

How do leaders best manage change?

You may like to read this page alongside the two pages on bringing about school improvement, because improving always means changing things.

Creating deep change in an organization requires the leadership to engage in deep personal change (Quinn, R.Deep Change).

If teachers don't believe that their principal or other school leaders are willing to question how they carry out their job, why should they be asked to engage in difficult and fundamental questioning of their own practice?

School leaders need to manage change in ways that staff can cope with it. The leader therefore has a responsibility to facilitate and enable change, and to help people understand reasons for it, aims of it, and ways of responding to it. Increasingly the leaders' role is to communicate and enable change to happen and not to instruct or impose, since rarely do people respond to the later well. Key leadership attributes required are empathy and facilitative capability.

In his research article Managing the Unmanageable?:Coping with Complex Educational Change, Mike Wallace describes the leader as the orchestrator of complex change processes, Orchestration is evolutionary and unobtrusive, "characterized by behind-the-scenes string pulling". Orchestrators attend to momentum to make sure that the set course is followed. It is about making new things happen and keeping things on track. Orchestration is about monitoring others' practice relating to the change, channeling their energies in the right direction through encouragement and incentives. He suggests that the leader as orchestrator:

  • Flexibly plans what needs to be done by managers at different system levels.
  • Builds and communicates a 'culture of acceptance' for their vision and planned change
  • Provides differentiated support to people - this could be in terms of resource, time, training, counseling etc.

Change implies new experiences and new learning.There is always the possibility of ambiguity when bringing about change. It raises the possibility of unintended consequences of leaders and managers' actions. Change does not happen in isolation but affects the whole system around it and all people are therefore touched by it. It is therefore necessary for the school leadership to attend to all the aspects of the changes. The page on Change Management Tools provides ways in which you can do this. The following hints and tips will try to limit some of the ambiguity around change management.

Getting 'buy in' for the change

“Never in the history of the world has anyone ever washed a rental” (car)”

(Friedman, T. (2016). Thank you for being late)

Activity 1 - Tips for changing culture in a school

Read the following article written by Julian H Jefferys when he was IB Coordinator and Assistant Head responsible for preparing the school to introduce the Diploma Programme in Canberra, Australia.

  • Individually or as a group review the paper and then:

    highlight a sentence that helped you understand the paper and contains the 'big idea'
    underline a phrase that resonated with you - in a meaningful or provoking way
    circle a word that stood out to you and captured your attention
  • Each person or group shares their thoughts with each other. What is highlighted? What is at the heart of the paper?
  • What are the key lessons for you?

Hints and Tips

  • Sponsor the change - the leader needs to be leading on the change and taking responsibility for it. However, do not 'sell' change to people as a way of accelerating the process of implementation. You need to take people along with you.
  • Gain buy-in for the changes especially by those most affected by them, directly or indirectly.
  • Involve the appropriate people in both the design and implementation of the changes.
  • Invest in the ability of staff - work with them.
  • Assess and address the impact of the changes on the people most affected.Change can be unsettling for people (see 'Understanding the challenges of bring about change' below). The leader therefore needs to be the settling influence.
  • Clearly communicate throughout the process, especially to those most affected and do so in a personal face-to-face manner. Use workshops to achieve understanding and involvement in the plans in order to gain commitment.
  • Get people ready to adapt to the changes by ensuring that those most affected have the right information, support and training.
  • Use bottom-up as well as top-down change efforts.

Understanding the challenges of bringing about change

How can leaders manage change and sustainable development in a constantly changing environment?

What does it feel like to experience change? We have all experienced change situations where we have gone from a feeling of comfortable stability into a feeling of panic. It is useful for anyone who is leading change in an organization to remember when it happened to them and understand those feelings. In their book The Dance of Change Peter Senge et. al. speak of three potential zones:

  • The comfort zone is where some people are happy to stay. This could be a way of thinking or working. In this zone there is a sense of belonging and things feel comfortable and competent; the work is controllable and predictable and there is no threat to self-esteem or identity. However, in the comfort zone people generally don’t need to learn new things and therefore don’t change.
  • The panic zone is the place many are forced into when confronted with a change that they do not agree with. It is when people have been forced into the panic zone that they will most likely feel a whole range of negative emotions: stress, worry, fear, irritation, annoyance, inadequacy and frustration. Here people freeze, they certainly don’t change and they won’t learn.
  • As a leader, the best strategy is to help people out of their comfort zone but not into a panic zone by encouraging them into the discomfort zone. It is in the discomfort zone that people are most likely to change and learn how to do things differently.

The Dance of Change is structured around ten challenges that profound change will ultimately force the school and its leaders to face. Each challenge grows from distinct limits of learning and change. Although they are a natural part of change processes they can stop innovation cold unless leaders and managers at all levels learn to anticipate them and recognize the hidden rewards in each challenge and the potential to spur further growth.

As the authors say: “The fundamental flaw in most innovators’ strategies is that they focus on their innovation – on what they are trying to do – rather than understanding how the larger culture, structures, and norms will react to your efforts.”

If leaders are to manage change and sustainable development in a constantly changing environment they should understand the limits and challenges they may face and develop systemic strategies for sustaining profound change.

The first group of challenges occur when you initiate change, when people are being asked to work in unfamiliar ways. These challenges should be confronted at the outset:

  • 'We don't have time for this stuff!' This is the challenge of control over one's time. People involved in change initiatives need enough flexibility to devote time to reflection and practice.
  • 'We have no help!' The challenge of inadequate coaching, guidance and support for innovating groups.
  • 'This stuff isn't relevant!' The challenge of relevance: how to make a case for change, articulate an appropriate business focus, and show why new efforts, such as developing learning abilities, are relevant for business goals.
  • 'They're not walking the talk!' The challenge of management clarity and consistency: dealing with the mismatch between behaviour and espoused values, especially for those championing change.

The second group of challenges are concerned with sustaining momentum of the change and occur after some progress has been achieved:

  • 'This stuff is ______ .' The challenge of fear and anxiety: concerns about exposure, vulnerability, and inadequacy.
  • 'This stuff isn't working!' How to overcome negative assessment of progress stemming from the gap between the organizations' traditional way of measuring success and the achievements of a pilot group.
  • 'We have the right way!' or 'They don't understand us!' The challenge of isolation and arrogance, which appears when the 'true believers' within the pilot group confront their non-believer counterparts outside the group; the pilot group and the rest of the organization consistently misinterpret each other.

The last set of challenges occur when change initiatives gain broader credibility and confront the established internal infrastructure and practices of the organization. These may be present from the start but tend to show themselves as obvious impediments after some success has been achieved:

  • 'Who's in charge of this stuff?' The challenge of the prevailing governance structure; conflicts between pilot groups seeking greater autonomy and managers concerned about autonomy, leading to chaos and internal fragmentation.
  • 'We keep reinventing the wheel!' The challenge of the inability to transfer knowledge across organizational boundaries, making it difficult for people around the organization to build upon each other's successes.
  • 'Where are we going?' and 'What are we here for?' The challenge of organizational strategy and purpose: revitalizing and rethinking the organizations' business focus, its contribution to its community, and its identity.

Activity 2: What challenges do we face?

Use the following questions to reflect on a change you are bringing about in your school and the challenges you may be facing:

  1. Do I identify with one or more of the challenges in my situation? Am I aware of the forces that might be working counter to my efforts (and which might be invisible at first)?
  1. Do I understand the nature of the challenge? How do I tend to see it? Can I see it differently? How do others see me when this challenge is encountered? We need to develop an attitude of inquiry toward developments that we might otherwise only see as barriers blocking our path. Blaming 'barriers' tends to evoke our most habitual, not our most creative, response.
  1. Who can best help me in understanding and dealing with this challenge? How might we help each other? Rather than acting alone, we can operate much more effectively by sharing our efforts with colleagues who are part of the same 'system', or whose abilities and interests complement our own.
  1. What would constitute effective action in dealing with this challenge? What capabilities might we want to develop? i.e. look strategically at your actions over the next several years rather than just reacting to circumstances.
  1. How will I know if I am making progress? All courses of action need to be continually assessed but most people when acting stop paying attention to what is going on around them. Don't lose sight of the effects you are having, including those on the periphery of your attention.


Dig deeper

When Leadership Spells Danger, Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky


The authors have learned from their work with superintendents, principals, and teachers that educators often fail to appreciate how dangerous and difficult it can be to lead meaningful change. They explain that true leadership is dangerous because it involves challenging people to accept new realities and move beyond their traditional values and beliefs. Leadership is difficult because it requires that we meet adaptive challenges—those that require changing our values, beliefs, habits, ways of working, and ways of life. In order to exercise leadership and survive professionally, leaders need to put relationships first and think politically. The authors describe essential aspects of thinking politically, including forming partnerships, staying in touch with the opposition, making allies of those in the middle by acknowledging the difficulty of change, and acknowledging your own need to change.

Leading meaningful change in education takes courage, commitment, and political savvy.

For the past 25 years, we have worked with thousands of professionals around the globe—including many school superintendents, principals, and teachers—who seek to exercise leadership. We have listened to their stories, to their successes and failures, in an effort to understand the essential components of successful leadership. In the process, we have learned that educators often fail to appreciate how dangerous and difficult it can be to lead on behalf of what they care about most.

Leadership in education means mobilizing schools, families, and communities to deal with some difficult issues—issues that people often prefer to sweep under the rug. The challenges of student achievement, health, and civic development generate real but thorny opportunities for each of us to demonstrate leadership every day in our roles as parents, teachers, administrators, or citizens in the community.

Leadership often involves challenging people to live up to their words, to close the gap between their espoused values and their actual behavior. It may mean pointing out the elephant sitting on the table at a meeting – the unspoken issue that everyone sees but no one wants to mention. It often requires helping groups make difficult choices and give up something they value on behalf of something they care about more.  Leadership often entails finding ways to enable people to face up to frustrating realities, such as budget cuts, low achievement scores, high dropout rates, or the gap between the revolutionary aspiration of leaving no child behind and the programmatic design and funding of NCLB.

Most of us, most of the time, pass up these daily opportunities to exercise leadership. We stay within our area of experience and opt to affirm our primary loyalties. Doing otherwise would be personally difficult and professionally dangerous.

Why Leadership is Dangerous

We often confuse leadership with authority. We look to people in high positions and bemoan their lack of leadership. But opportunities for exercising leadership do not depend on position. Leadership can come from any place within or even outside an organization. And the more authority you have, the more you risk when you exercise leadership. Leadership is dangerous because you are rarely authorized to lead.

Every one of us operates within a scope of authority in our professional, civic, and even family roles. Whether you are president of the United States, the principle of a middle school, or a teacher in a classroom, the people around you expect you to follow a set of behaviors. As long as you do just that – meet their expectations and stay within your scope of authority – you will receive praise and support. In other words, your scope of authority is a contract for services, whether by improving student test scores or by maintaining a quiet classroom, you will be rewarded.

Ironically we often call people who stick to their scope of authority “leaders”. For example, a Missouri district superintendent, under pressure from teachers in one of his primary schools to do something about their hard-driving and sometimes abrasive principal, found a way to promote the principal out of her job. He believed that he had exercised leadership because he had eliminated the complaints and restored equilibrium. But he had also removed a principal to operate beyond their current norms and expertise.

Leadership often means challenging your authorization. When you do that, you often meet resistance. Sometimes that resistance takes the form of social isolation or personal attacks. In the most extreme cases, some leaders like Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin, have been assassinated because they challenged the norms and values of their communities.

People will often go to extremes to silence the frustrating voices of reality. If leadership were about giving people good news, the job would be easy. If Sadat and Rabin had distributed money to their people, or told them that they would not have to change their ways, they might have lived longer. People do not resist change, as such. People resist loss.

You may appear dangerous to people when you question their values, beliefs, or habits of a lifetime. You place yourself on the line when you tell people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. Although you may see with clarity and passion a promising future of progress and gain, other people will see with equal passion the losses you are asking them to sustain.

Why leadership is Difficult

One of the classic myths about leadership is that it means having the knowledge and expertise to provide the answers we need to resolve the tough problems we face.

For many challenges in our lives, experts or authorities can solve our problems and thereby meet our needs. We look to doctors to make us healthy, mechanics to fix our cars, parents to teach us appropriate behavior, and bosses to resolve personnel disputes. We give these people power, authorizing them to find solutions – and often they can deliver.

Problems that we can solve through the knowledge of experts or senior authorities are technical challenges. The problems may be complex, such as a broken arm or a broken carburetor, but experts know exactly how to fix them.

In contrast, the problems that require leadership are those that the experts cannot solve. We call these adaptive challenges. The solutions lie not in technical answers, but rather in people themselves. The mechanic can fix your brake linings, but he cannot stop your 80-year-old father from riding the brake pedal because he is afraid of driving too fast. The surgeon can fix your son’s broken arm, but she cannot prevent your son from rollerblading without elbow pads. The dietician can recommend a weight loss program, but she cannot curb your love of chocolate chip cookies.

Most social problems are adaptive. They are not resolved with a logical argument. We know that eating lots of chocolate chip cookies will not help us lose weight. We’d like an anti-chocolate chip cookie pill. Organizations, communities and individuals would prefer to treat adaptive problems as technical ones. That way, we could solve the problem without changing, taking a loss, or giving up anything.

Technical problems reside in the head; solving them requires an appeal to the mind, to logic, and to the intellect. Adaptive challenges lie in the stomach and the heart. To solve them, we must change people’s values, beliefs, habits, ways of working, or ways of life. For teachers to learn a new set of competencies to help them leave fewer children behind in their classrooms, they must have to endure a temporary loss of confidence as they face the gap between the demands of performance and their current practices. And developing this competence will probably require the school to make adaptive changes as well, adopting new norms of supervision, experimentation, and collaboration.

Most problems do not come cleanly bundled as technical or adaptive. They include elements of each. Losing weight is a combination of the technical aspect of getting a dieticians’ recommendation and adaptive challenge of following it.

Most people would rather have the person in authority take the work off their shoulders, protect them from disorienting chance, and meet challenges on their behalf. But the real work of leadership usually involves giving the work back to the people who must adapt, and mobilizing them to do so.

Tactics for Survival and Success

Successful leaders in any field tend to emphasize personal relationships. His principle is especially true for those in elective office. Political people give great care to creating and nurturing networks of people whom they can call on, work with, and engage in addressing the issue in hand. Able politicians know well from hard experience that in everyday personal and professional life, the quality of human relationships is more important than almost any other factor in determining results.

For educators, however, thinking politically often presents a challenge. They enjoy autonomy in the classroom and often beyond. Moreover, educators often are linear people, used to argument, logic, and relying on the merits of the case. Sometimes educators believe so deeply in the rightness of their cause that they have difficulty seeing the values at stake among those who hold opposing perspectives.

If you have difficulty keeping relationships central in your efforts toward change, consider how the following five essential aspects of political thinking can help you exercise adaptive leadership.

Don’t Do It Alone

Find partners. This task is sometimes easier said than done. Even those who agree with your goals may hesitate to share the risks, preferring to wait and see how secure the footing is before they take action. In addition, personal considerations may make you reluctant to join forces with others. After all, partners might push their own ideas compromising yours. Connecting with then takes time, slowing you down. And working with a group might dilute your visibility – a drawback if you want to reassure yourself and others of your competence.

But partners can strengthen both you and your initiatives. By enlisting partners you build political power on the basis of personal relationships, instead of simply relying on the logical power of your evidence and arguments. Further, the content of your ideas improves when you take other viewpoints into account – especially if you can incorporate the views of those who disagree markedly with you. Forming partnerships that include diverse viewpoints is especially crucial when you are advancing a difficult issue or confronting a conflict of values.

It is a mistake to go it alone. By creating alliances before your initiative becomes public, you can increase the probability that both you and your ideas will succeed. For the next meeting personally make the advance phone calls, test the waters, refine your approach, and line up supporters. In the process, find out what you are asking of your potential partners. Know their existing alliances and loyalties so that you realize how far you are asking them to stretch to collaborate with you.

Keep the Opposition Close

To exercise leadership, you must work as closely with your opponents as you do with your supporters. Most of us cringe at spending time with – and especially taking abuse from – people who do not share our vision or passion. Too often we take the easy road, ignoring our opponents and concentrating on building an affirmative coalition. But rather than simply recognizing your own anxiety about dealing with your opponents and ploughing ahead, you need to read this anxiety both a sign of vulnerability on your part and as a signal about the threat you represent to opposing groups.

Keeping your opposition close also connects you with your diagnostic job. The people whose perspectives you most need to understand are those most upset by your agenda. The opposition has more to lose, and therefore they deserve more attention.

As you attend to your allies and opponents in advancing your issue, do not forget the uncommitted and wary people in the middle – the people who will often determine your success. These people may resist change merely because it will disrupt their lives and make their futures uncertain. Beyond the security of familiarity, they have little substantive stake in the status quo – both don’t underestimate the power of familiarity.

Acknowledge Their Loss

Remember that when you ask people to participate in adaptive change, you are asking a lot. You may be asking them to choose between two values, both important to the way they understand themselves. Any divorced parent understands how difficult this choice is. Most of us shudder at the prospect of having to choose between our own happiness and what’s best for our children.

You may be asking people to close the distance between their espoused values and their actual behaviour. Martin Luther King Jr., challenged Americans in this way during the civil rights movement. The abhorrent treatment that he and his allies received during marches and demonstrations dramatized the gap between the values of freedom, fairness, and tolerance, on the one hand, and the reality of life for African Americans on the other. King forced many of us, self-satisfied that we were good people living in a good country, to come face-to-face with the gulf between our values and our behaviour. Once we confronted that gulf, we had to act. The pain of ignoring our own hypocrisy hurt us more than giving up the status quo. The country changed.

Participating in adaptive change often demands some disloyalty to our roots. To tell someone that he should stop being prejudiced is really to tell him that some of the lessons of his loving grandfather were wrong. To tell a teacher that she has to begin measuring her success by how well she raises student test scores or teaches the “unteachable” students may challenge a great deal of what she was taught about her job.

You need to respect and acknowledge the loss that people suffer when you ask them to leave behind something they have lived with for years. It is not enough to point to a hopeful future. People need to know that you realize that the change you are asking them to make is difficult and that what you are asking them to give up has real value to them.

Accept Casualties

Any significant adaptive change that benefits the organization as a whole may clearly and tangibly hurt some of those who thrived under the status quo. If people simply cannot or will not go along with change, then they will become casualties. You must choose between keeping these people and making progress. For those who find taking casualties almost too painful to endure, this part of leadership presents a special dilemma. But it often goes with the territory.

If you signal your unwillingness to sustain casualties, you invite people to ignore your goals. Without the pinch of reality, why should they make sacrifices and change their ways of doing business? Your ability to accept the harsh reality of losses sends a clear message about your courage and commitment to seeing through the adaptive challenge. Understanding that successful change will likely cause casualties will enable you to focus on your priorities – and be more mindful about helping those people who get left behind to move on to their next position.

Accept responsibility for Your Piece of the Mess

Taking the initiative to address important issues in your school or district does not release you of your share of responsibility for these problems. If you have been in a senior role for a while, you almost certainly had some part in creating any existing problem and in failing to address that problem in the past. Even if you are new, or outside the organization, you need to identify the behaviors you practice or values you embody that could stifle the very change you want to advance. You need to identify and accept responsibility for your contributions to the current situation even as you try to move others to a different, better place.

In our teaching, training and consulting, we often ask people to write or deliver orally a short version of a leadership challenge that they currently face in their professional, personal, or civic lives. Over the years we have read and heard thousands of such challenges. Most often, in the first iteration of the story, the author is nowhere to be found. The storyteller implies, “If only other people would shape up, I could make progress here.”

When you are too quick to lay blame on others, you risk misdiagnosing the situation. And you also risk making yourself a target by denying that you, too, need to change. Instead of setting up a dynamic of you versus them, accept your share of the responsibility and face the problem together.

Acknowledging your piece of the mess is both a success strategy and a survival strategy. After all, if you can identify and fix your piece of the problem, you will have made some progress on it. Further, you will send a strong signal to others that you are willing to do your share of adaptive work as well.

Needed: Adaptive Leadership

The adaptive challenges facing education communities today are as sacred in their importance as they are difficult. At times they may seem intractable. The competition for scarce resources has been further intensified by the new demands for security and expenses of the war on terrorism. Policymakers are demanding performance accountability measures for students and educators that bring into question deeply held notions of good teaching, good learning, and success in the classroom; these accountability measures also force us to face our long-standing acceptance of the wide gaps in achievement between rich and poor students and between white and minority students.

We will not meet our current challenges by waiting for higher authorities, such as the state commissioner, the governor, or the federal government, to figure out the answers. Although many important new insights are generalizable across education contexts, each school district, school, and classroom must discover the adaptions that will succeed in its environment, for its students and their families. The kind of leadership than can fashion new and better responses to those local realities needs to come from many places within classrooms, districts, and communities. In this complex environment, it is more important than ever that educators at all levels exercise adaptive leadership.

Ronald A Heifetz and Marty Linsky are Principals of Cambridge Leadership Associates. They are also on the faculty of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

'When leadership spells danger', Heifitz, R.A., and Linksy, M. (2004), Educational Leadership 61:7, ASCD 33-37. Click here to access it. A discussion on why leading educational change within a school takes courage, commitment and political savvy.

Dig deeper

Teacher Toolkit has a very help summary of how to bring about change. Click here to access their 5 minute change plan.

The change curve is a model introduced by Swiss-American psychiatrist Kubler-Ross back in 1969. It describes the levels of emotions experienced by people as they deal with change. Managing Change - The Change Curve, by Aaron Lim, March 2019 is written from an HR perspective.

Appreciative Inquiry: What does it mean to approach leadership and organizational change from a stance of Appreciative Inquiry? This is the inquiry Orr and Cleveland-Inns address in Appreciative Leadership: Supporting Education Innovation. “Appreciative Leadership is unique among leadership theories both past and present. This uniqueness includes its strength-based practice, search for the positive in people and organizations, and the role this plays in organizational innovation and transformation.”

Immunity to change: Leaders focus too much on changing policies, and not enough on changing minds. “The most effective transformation begins with what’s going on inside people. What most organizations typically overlook is the internal shift — what people think and feel — which has to occur in order to bring the strategy to life. This is where resistance tends to arise — cognitively in the form of fixed beliefs, deeply held assumptions and blind spots; and emotionally, in the form of the fear and insecurity that change engenders. All of this rolls up into our mindset, which reflects how we see the world, what we believe and how that makes us feel….Great strategy remains foundational to transformation, but successful execution also requires surfacing and continuously addressing the invisible reasons that people and cultures so often resist changing, even when the way they’re working isn’t working.” (Tony Schwartz, Harvard Business Review, June 2018)

Choosing strategies for change,  John P. Kotter and Leonard A. Schlesinger, Harvard Business Review, explores why people resist change.

Research: To Get People to Embrace Change, Emphasize What Will Stay the Same, Merlijn Venus, Daan Stam and Daan van Knippenberg, Harvard Business Review, August 15, 2018

Walker, B. & Soule, S.A., Changing Company Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate, HBR June 20, 2017: This is a useful article about how leaders can bring about change.  “Culture change can’t be achieved through top-down mandate. It lives in the collective hearts and habits of people and their shared perception of “how things are done around here. In terms of organizational culture change, simply explaining the need for change won’t cut it. … Creating a sense of urgency is helpful, but can be short-lived. To harness people’s full, lasting commitment, they must feel a deep desire, and even responsibility, to change. A leader can do this by framing change within the organization’s purpose — the “why we exist” question.”

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