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Renegade Leadership: Making Change Realistic

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Today's guest post is written by author and Minnesota principal Brad Gustafson. 

I was recently eating lunch with a few educators who I had not met before at a CUE conference in California. We were talking about one of our morning conference sessions when another person joined us. After we introduced ourselves and welcomed him to our table he asked a question that really got me thinking.

One of the first things he asked about the session we were discussing was, "Is it realistic?"  

It seemed our entire table was excited about the innovative ideas being shared at the conference, but after he uttered those words we all knew exactly what he meant. Being enthusiastic about change doesn't make it any more realistic.    

Over the course of lunch and the rest of the conference, I proceeded to reflect upon what makes new ideas doable. (I have even had the chance to circle back with my conference comrades on the question of realistic change since flying back to Minnesota).  Every time we connect on the topic my thinking evolves, but I think I've landed on two keys to making change realistic:

1.     Is this something I can convince myself to do?

2.     Is this something I can convince others to do?

Although my thinking is still very much formative, I'll expand upon each of the keys above and unpack some of the things I continue to think about since our original conversation at the CUE conference.

"Is this something I can convince myself to do?"

Leading meaningful change requires individual ownership that extends beyond memos and mandates. The vision must be lived-out as a priority.  Let's face it, if a change is not a priority to the leader, it will ultimately find its way to the pasture. The heavy-lifting of any given change should be personally experienced by the leader(s) before it is purported as important enough to implement.

Time and resources are too scarce for school leaders to skip the step of modeling change.  (This goes beyond convincing ourselves because it actually entails doing.) When school leaders walk the walk we essentially put our personal stamp of approval on a proposed change by living it first. Modeling makes the change realistic because when we do something different we make that change undeniable to others. 

Based upon a leader's unique role, it may not always be possible to personally live-out a change before bringing others onboard. This is okay because, in most instances, it is critical to engage in collaborative conversations with constituents to better understand a change while it is still being developed. It's easy to convince ourselves to do something different when the idea was conceived in a vacuum. Leaders who insulate themselves experience unnecessary pitfalls and other inefficiencies when it comes time to implement the change.

Convincing ourselves that something needs to change is only part of the equation. We must also consider the people who will be directly and indirectly impacted. The role of relationships is key to making change realistic.

"Is this something I can convince others to do?"

In the days following the conference, I continued to compile a list of questions that impact whether a change might be something others are willing to eventually champion themselves. I tend to believe that these are many of the same questions that teacher-leaders and high-functioning teams already ask themselves during ideation and implementation of any change. 

Several of the questions that follow will have already been considered if the process we used for 'convincing ourselves' was collaborative. (I don't know about you, but I'm always much happier at what I've convinced myself of when the process included the voices of the students, staff, and families I serve). It is amazing how much wisdom and experience we can inject into our own leadership simply by listening and learning from others.

Reflective Questions:

  • How might this potential change impact our students?
  • What will our students miss out on if we do not adopt this change?
  • What are the holes or blind spots?
  • Can I articulate the 'how and why' to colleagues in a clear and compelling manner?
  • Do I have the credibility, evidence, trust, and relationship that will give this new idea a fighting chance?
  • Do others have the time, shared commitment, capacity, or support needed to sustain the change?
  • Is the culture conducive?  Why or why not?
  • Will the idea build upon the important contributions others have already made?
  • Can I convince others do something differently with integrity? (If the answer is "no," stop immediately.)

It's important to note that the word "convince" is not intended to be a derivative of salesmanship. In all of the contexts above, the word "convince" is more about learning, establishing priorities, and following-through. All of these considerations eventually boil down to the two umbrellas. Making change realistic means that we must be able to convince ourselves and others it's a priority.  

Each time I reflect on realistic change, I'm reminded that no change or innovation can exist apart from people's current beliefs and practices. Our students are NOT well-served when we try to separate change from the teachers who have dedicated the better part of their lives in the classroom. I've come to believe that innovation is one of the most human endeavors I've ever known.

I write about the topic of relationships and change in my new book, Renegade Leadership. I created the quadrant diagram below to conceptualize how we can apply innovation to the best practices already taking place in our schools. The quadrants from the book show how we can meet people where they are and create realistic change together. (Taking the important work that we are currently doing and making it incrementally better feels doable to most people.)


Moving towards amplified learning is possible when we carefully consider the actual people involved in the process.  To achieve traction, we must be willing and able to convince ourselves and others that a change is realistic. Otherwise, that conversation, idea, or conference conversation will evaporate.

Brad is the author of Renegade Leadership: Creating Innovative Schools for Digital-Age Learners.   

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