Leaders lead

I had the privilege of hearing Scott McLeod speak at our CORE Breakfast yesterday morning here in Christchurch.

Scott provided a provocative and informative session, sharing his perspectives on how educators worldwide are struggling to adapt to the digital, global era in which we live. As co-creator of the wildly popular video series, “Did You Know? (Shift Happens)”, Scott used many of the concepts in that video in his presentation – making effective use of data from the NZ context to provide a compelling picture of how the ideas are impacting us here.

Through the session he provided many opportunities for feedback and reflection – and while the engagement was high, there were the predictable concerns about the many ‘barriers’ in our system, including the impact of government policy, limited funding, lack of access to resources etc.

At the end of his address Scott summed up with a simple challenge (my recollection of the essence of what he said below):

Leaders lead! They don’t follow. They aren’t simply reactive (to government policy, constraints of policy, funding etc). They lead. They are compelled by a vision of what can be, and work with the resources available to them to achieve that.

The statement brought the session to an ‘energised’, yet sobering end. The challenge is that it’s not enough to be be ‘titilated’ by hearing these sorts of messages (i.e. ‘Shift Happens’). If we believe these are the challenges we (and our students) are facing for the future, we must act. And this requires leadership.

Sadly, in many instances today leadership is lacking – at all levels of our education system. There is a pre-occupation with doing things right (management) instead of doing the right things (leadership).  Our bureaucracy operates under the mantra of ‘risk avoidance‘, and compliance requirements dominate the processes of getting things done.

We do have some great leaders in our schools and in our system – but the system can often strangle their efforts to lead. It takes courage, the ability to think outside the box, to take risks and be prepared for failure. Sadly these are all qualities that aren’t rewarded in our current system – so it takes even more resolve to exercise these qualities. I agree whole-heartedly with Scott. Leaders lead!


Scott McLeod is an Associate Professor in the Educational Administration program at Iowa State University and Director of the UCEA Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE), the only academic center in the United States dedicated to the technology needs of school administrators, and was a  He blogs regularly about technology leadership issues at dangerouslyirrelevant.org and occasionally at The Huffington Post.

Scott is in New Zealand at the moment as a visiting fellow at the University of Canterbury. Next week he’ll be a keynote speaker at the Learning@School conference in Rotorua which provide an opportunity for over 1100 NZ educators to hear his thoughts on education in the third millennium.

11 thoughts on “Leaders lead

  1. Thanks for extending the conversation here, Derek. I’m so glad you picked up on the significance of my last comment.

    It was great meeting you and others at the CORE breakfast. I’m looking forward to the Learning@School conference next week!

  2. I haven’t had the chance to listen to the talk. Commenting on the summary only.

    I personally think that this approach is highly detrimental and greatly contributes to the formal educational system being left behind, evolving and adapting to changes much more slowly than other fields.

    The dominant model in education is too often one where there is a poor guy who accepts to carry on the flag and fight against the system while others, for many very valid reasons, prefer to swim with the current. Change in education then tends to happen predominantly within a context of conflict, rebellion against the system.

    This doesn’t need to be. This was pretty much the only option in the 20th century because of the strong hierarchical structure. Not anymore in the 21st century where new ways of gaining influence have emerged. Rather than fight against the level above you, you can decide to try and influence people at the same level as you. Lateral connections rather than top-down ones.

    It is not that you need to grow one or two new national leaders. What education badly needs is to start to grow a more powerful community of practice. As this community emerges, new leaders will naturally emerge. What is needed is for a larger number of educators to take responsibility for micro-leadership. Micro-leadership doesn’t require you to take a stand against the system. All it requires is for you to write a blog, a wiki, a slideshare, give a presentation to your fellow teachers, share your learning at national and international conferences. Simply spread knowledge about your work and your practices outside of the school walls.

  3. Hi Marielle

    thanks for your considered response – frankly, I don’t disagree with any of it. Apart from to say that I think you have mis-interpreted the intent of my post. I certainly am not advocating growing one or two national leaders as the (only) way forward. What I am arguing is that those who are in leadership positions – nationally, regionally, locally, within micro-contexts even – anywhere that leadership responsibilities exist- need to lead, not simply manage. The biggest drawback in our system today is that we have people at all levels who are pre-occupied with management, attending to the myriad of compliance tasks or consumed with avoiding risk etc. Even at the micro-leadership level, as you call it, there is a tendancy for the motivation to come from a dissatisfaction with the status quo, rather than an energised view of what the future could be like, with a commitment to something more aspirational and egalitarian.

    I’m interested in much of the literature and experience that is emerging from what you refer to as ‘micro-leadership’, and am convinced there’s strength in this approach. What we’re seeing right now in the Middle East, and in places like China where citizen reporting is contributing to large scale social upheaval and change may be regarded as an example of what you’re talking about. It could be argued then that teachers could bring about a transformation in education by becoming more active in the ways you suggest – perhaps if that happened we’d see more happening in terms of the debate on standards, and actions taken to counter the oppressive constraints of timetables, exams, subject silos etc. All well and good – but I’m not sure if that in and of itself is the complete answer. Like the political regimes, at the end of the upheaval, the chaos and the social disorder, there comes a time where collective harmony is required, and with a prevailing force of entropy at work in our society, it requires determined leadership – focusing on the aspirational vision to which everyone (or at least a majority) subscribe. You note “micro-leadership doesn’t require you to take a stand against the system”, yet I’d argue that any sharing of ideas or knowledge becomes, implicitly, a ‘stand’, no matter how small.

    Certainly a good debate to continue. We’re in such early days of seeing how the democratisation of the web can impact on the bastions of bureaucracy and government – I’m sure we’ll be looking at it all quite differently in another decade. As Albert Einstein once observed, ‘we’ll never solve the complex problems we face if we approach them with the same level of thinking we used when we created them!”

  4. I did pick up that the point was about leading rather than managing. But even so, that’s about some persons taking on a lot of responsibility for the community. If you truly believe in the video “shift happens”, we have to prepare kids for jobs that don’t exist yet. Putting too much importance on the requirement for people for “aspirational vision” to lead the way means that you keep preparing the kids for the vision you have today, with the knowledge available to you today. If your vision is too strong, it cannot be adapted easily.

    If you look at other fields that successfully adapt to very rapid change, you will find out that leadership was not the answer. Evidence from other fields, like the software development one that has been evolving tremendously over the last 5 years, suggests that it pays off to distribute it.

    This is expressed better than I could in this article http://radar.oreilly.com/2010/09/education-as-a-platform.html:

    “my own experience in leading large software organizations suggests that traditional hierarchical, silo’d human systems are inefficient and resistant to change, but that they improve dramatically when restructured to support self-organizing teams. Self-organizing teams are the organizational equivalent of “simple systems” — they evolve to support complex work with extraordinary capacity and adaptability. One key to self-organizing teams is to set goals (or in the language of emergence, “simple rules”) that drive positive feedback loops — such as “be the school everyone wants to transfer to”. Another is to remove constraints from the systems and allow for greater autonomy and innovation on the part of each member of the team. In industry, a classic example is to reward people on the basis of outcomes rather than seat time (great code doesn’t care if it was written in a suit from 9-5 or in pajamas at midnight.) What if students could advance based on outcomes rather than seat time in the classroom, and teachers were rewarded for many dimensions of student achievement and professional contribution?”

    Ultimately, that’s about strategies that are most likely to bring a culture where change is more likely to happen. There is some good literature on this in the area of software development / business management. For instance, a book that I read not that long ago, “Changing Software Development”, which is about changing development teams to make them Agile, a way of functioning that is diametrically different from traditional software development practices.

    My own on this are certainly influenced by my experience of agile practices in my work as a software developer. One of the drivers for Agile processes is the idea that software developers are primarily knowledge workers. Educators very much are so as well. The job is different, though, and it is not clear how each specific practice can be translated to the education world. However the ideas expressed in the extract above “set goals (or in the language of emergence, “simple rules”) that drive positive feedback loop” and “[a]nother is to remove constraints from the systems and allow for greater autonomy and innovation on the part of each member of the team” very much sum up what Agile tries to do.

    Agreed, sharing knowledge can be seen as a moral stand. A belief in the notion of personal responsibility. But ultimately, that’s about strategies that are most likely to bring the changes that people crave for. The advantage of micro-leadership over traditional leadership this is that you create a situation that makes it a lot easier on your principal (or other authorities). Rather than to harass your principal to try and convince you to give you a chance to try this new approach you really believe in, you can start writing about it, add evidence of the impact it had in classrooms where they tried it. A good principal will take the time to skim through blogs and he may find come back to you and tell you, I read about this blog post, sounds interesting. Tell me more about it. How do you reckon we could go about implementing these ideas given the constraints imposed from higher up? The situation created is one of collaboration rather than competition. A situation where we are working together towards a common goal (which is really the strength of agile processes when managed well).

    Again, if you look at the changes that have taken place in the field of software development, you will notice that there has been an emergence of self-organizing communities, with no prevalent leaders. The leaders are the ones who provided to tools that allow for communities to self-organize. But they keep to the shadows. They let the tools do their work. One of the best example I know of is http://stackoverflow.com/ or the more general model of http://stackexchange.com/. This is a good illustration of how things can work without “determined leadership – focusing on the aspirational vision to which everyone (or at least a majority) subscribe.” Things will emerge without a need for an aspirational vision (other than you can trust the community to self-organize itself).

    Self-organization, emergence, is a very different way of thinking. It is quite abstract. Difficult to understand with our current frame of mind. It is easier to see the value once you experience it… which makes it difficult to convince authority to try. Where the democratisation of the web is making a huge difference is that you don’t have to convince a hierarchy. You can use the abundance of web 2.0 tools around and start to do it.

    I personally think that education would be better prepared for the changes that happen if a website ala stackexchange was created for educators rather than a few leaders taking a stand. Oddly, there are stackexchanges for pretty much anything, from software development, to maths (http://math.stackexchange.com/) to cooking (http://cooking.stackexchange.com/). But none that I know of for education.

    There should be!

    “Want to create a Stack Exchange community? Propose it! If your idea gets sufficient support from a community of dedicated users, then it gets created. It’s that simple.” See http://blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/04/changes-to-stack-exchange/

  5. Just in case, self-organization doesn’t mean that you don’t need any type of leadership. Companies still have CEO. Agile teams still have team leaders. It just means that leaders don’t have to take responsibility for absolutely everything. Some of the responsibility can be distributed with members of the team or even delegated to the “wisdow of the crowds”.

    Running a web search on self-organization and education, I bumped into this: Higher Education and the Forces
    of Self-Organization: An Interview with Margaret Wheatley http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/CEM9716.pdf

    I like this quote “leaders need to see themselves not as the people who give the organization its vision, or its structures, or even its focus, really. I believe the primary role of the leader is to make sure that the organization has this deep inner integrity, this deep, shared under- standing of who we are. To get that clarity requires experimenting with different processes, bringing the whole system of the university together—having a kind of a roving conversation on campus about who we are, what we serve, what we think is possible with the resources we have, who we could be. These conversations are very easy to engage people in, but the leader has to create the space for it, then let the process evolve, to have some sense of patience”

    Back to the sector of software development, there is a nice article “How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Relinquish Control” http://www.adaptivepath.com/ideas/essays/archives/000501.php . Another one on “4 ways to relinquish control” http://www.pr-squared.com/index.php/2009/01/4_ways_to_relinquish_control

  6. “there comes a time where collective harmony is required, and with a prevailing force of entropy at work in our society, it requires determined leadership”

    The truth is, I don’t know of any evidence that the best way to reach collective harmony is through a strong leadership of the type you describe. If, in addition to looking at other sectors, you also look at other systems, determinism (control, vision, predefined mechanisms, rules) is not necessarily the best response to the need there is in our modern society to be more adaptable and responsive to change. Entropy itself is a measure, of the uncertainty of information (information systems) or the energy not available for useful work in a thermodynamic process (thermodynamics). At least in thermodynanics systems, the usual view is that particles tend to attempt to go to equlibrium. There is an abundant literature over various fields (from thermodynamics to philosophy, via neurosciences). I am personally fond of Ilya Prigogine. He published a book “The End of Certainty “. A somewhat introductory article: http://www.thaiscience.info/journals/Article/Prigogine%20is%20perspective%20on%20nature.pdf

    Food for thoughts 🙂

  7. As a side note. I have been reading Scott McLeod’s blog. http://bigthink.com/ideas/30721. Which brings an important point on leadership vs micro-leadership. The ones that earn respect as micro-leaders are the ones that show me what they do, not the ones that tell what to think.

    I gave Allanah blog as a great example of leadership. Dan Meyer – http://blog.mrmeyer.com/ is another fantastic example. They show what they do.

    Scott talk was about telling what to do. Leaders lead! To be honest, I couln’t figure out what type of leadership was being promoted from your summary. I couldn’t figure out what specific recommendation were made, if any. I only read half-baked ideas mixed with some buzz-words and populist statements with no explanation or context. His blog didn’t help either.

    That’s a worrying trend in education. Especially here in NZ. Too much influence is given to persons who try and suggest that they are a lot bigger and a lot more influential than they are. On his blog, he presents himself as the “co-creator of the wildly popular video, Did You Know? (Shift Happens).” http://bigthink.com/ideas/30721. Yeah, right. If you check the facts. http://thefischbowl.blogspot.com/2006/08/did-you-know.html, http://www.lps.k12.co.us/schools/arapahoe/fisch/didyouknow/didyouknowtext.pdf you will see that his “co-creation” consisted of removing 8 slides that presented facts that were school specific and one slide added on myspace. The true leader was Karl Fisch and the humility of his post is in sharp contrast with the bragging in Scott’s ones.

    For some unknown reasons, quieter leaders, the ones who develop expertise rather than brag about it, are given a lot less visibility within the system.

    My personal analysis is that the type of leadership promoted by Scott McLeod, the example he set, is in fact the very thing that contributes to Education being left behind.

    For education to start to catch up, we need more opportunities to hear the voice of the like of Allanah and Dan Meyer… and less the ones of the like of Scott McLeod.

    Organisms like Core have a critical role to play in this.

  8. Other article on this:

    Today we have organizations that are well-connected both hierarchically and between individual workers. In most cases, anyone can be contacted in the organization. However, the central authority retains control, as shown in the first figure.

    The model we need for an agile organization with autonomous workers doesn’t look like a pyramid. In fact, it’s the opposite. When there is no normal (and no best practices to follow) then the central authority’s role is to support with a gentle hand. Inverting the organizational pyramid clearly shows the new non-directive role of the central authority. That doesn’t mean there is no leadership, just less control and greater autonomy for workers.

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