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Leadership from the inside out

Eric Jensen is a former teacher and educational leader who grew up in San Diego, Calif. For more than two decades, he has synthesized brain research and developed practical applications for educators. Jensen has authored more than 29 books, including Teaching with Poverty in Mind; Tools for Engagement; Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind; Turnaround Tools for the Teenage Brain; Poor Students, Rich Teaching; and Different Brains, Different Learners. Jensen is a member of the invitation-only Society for Neuroscience, the President's Club at Salk Institute of Biological Studies, and the New York Academy of Sciences. He received his MA in organizational development and his Ph.D in human development.

Q. What matters most when leading change?

Many things are valuable, but there is no guarantee of success. Near the top of the list, we might include leadership with the “Big 5” traits -- trustworthy, access to resources, empathic, supportive, with clear, measurable and high expectations.

Q. What are some reasons staff members may -- or may not -- want to make changes?

There are dozens of reasons why change fails. Here, I will mention just three of them. Once leadership and staff understand themselves better, they have a better shot at putting energy into what hurts progress and what matters for acceleration.

The first reason for stalled change is inappropriate personal assumptions such as:

  • “If I know about it, I’ll do it.” (yeah, right)
  • “I have the willingness and motivation to do this, so it will happen.” (yeah, right)
  • “I don’t need help or support; I can do it.” (ha!)
  • “Poverty effects are impossible to overcome in school.” (and the reason other schools succeed is…?)
  • “I won’t get distracted or discouraged.” (ha!)
  • “If this is important, I know I’ll do it.” (right!)
  • “Our students are below grade level, lack parental support and they misbehave and are lazy.” (and what you’re doing to help them is…?)

Each of these impacts a school’s change process. They can also impact one’s sense of self, strategy and effort that one is willing to put forth. Change the assumptions through gentle questioning and helping staff draft a new personal story.

The second is there are no clear paths for change. Staff is trying to make it up as they go along with little or no help from leadership. School and district change systems are often missing or impractical. These impact both social motivation and ability. Your schools must collaborate to create a posted, working path for commonly occurring events and objectives.

The third (of many) reasons change does not happen is emotional issues. Staff often feel overworked, underappreciated, angry, shameful and cynical. Some have given up trying. Many staff experience chronic stress and burnout. Yet chronic stress inhibits both personal and professional change. Leadership must acknowledge the staff’s inner world and ensure the needed changes are made. You cannot move forward when half your staff is bleeding from the “cuts” from a thousand razor blades.

Q. How can leaders ensure change works?

Every school needs an identity and a plan. The school identity is the “brand” in the same way that “Apple” is a brand. The brand must symbolize the best and highest intentions of the school.

Leadership must foster replicable pathways for activating change. This should happen with data-driven, no excuse high-performance teams. Every plan must align with district goals and school goals.

Leaders must understand and care about the emotional well-being of staff. Help your staff with stress-reducing tools, increase their sense of control and foster a greater sense of meaning. These impact your ability, energy and effort.

Q. Why should leaders use what you call the FRAME -- flexible, reliable, authentic, measurable and exciting -- model?

An easy way to understand any model is to ask what the opposite would be.

Leaders will need to be “flexible,” but not dogmatic and rigid. Leaders must embody “reliable,” or he or she will not be trusted. Leaders must always come from the heart and be authentic, since deception will always undermine the change process. What is being done must be measurable, since that is what gives the staff actionable feedback on progress. Finally, leaders will get more staff on board when the change is exciting. Boring leaders rarely bring out the passion, effort or energy in staff.

Right now my research is looking hard at the “drivers” of human change. It turns out that we have two types of drivers: short term (surface) and long term (deep).

In the short haul, we can use drivers like matching the desired school program up with the school’s identity (brand). We can also do a free trial offer to keep the risk low. In the long run, successful programs will have to tap into deep drivers such as autonomy, social status, mastery, freedom and security.

Leaders that use BOTH types will be able to move a school forward with much more velocity. What the research tells us is that if you did these two things, your change process will go pretty far.

First, foster a staff culture of collective efficacy (“Together we can overcome any obstacle”). Second focus on team-building so that the teams are data-driven focusing on both personalizing and improving instruction with deliberate practice.

Melissa Greenwood is the education content director at SmartBrief.

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