• Allan J. Mucerino


Updated: Mar 22, 2018

If it is not, change is likely to fail. Many of my readers are aware of the lead boldly message that I regularly deliver to my education leadership students while developing them as leaders.

CSUF’s mission to grow innovative and transformative leaders who advance just, equitable, and inclusive education drives the leadership development work that I do with my students (and with my colleagues as a superintendent). Transformational change is difficult because it triggers emotional responses brought on by its nonlinear and chaotic nature.  It evokes feelings of uncertainty and fear in people.

Leaders who are tasked to transform a school or district must be prepared for resistance.

True transformational change represents a radical shift of structure, systems, and processes that are significant enough to redirect an organization. In successful cases of transformational change, ultimately the culture of the organization was shifted. Sustainability is dependent on the emergent culture replacing the culture that was responsible for the organization to require transformational change in the first place. In other words, the force to change was greater than the force to stay the same.

Kurt Lewin, the father of change theory is well known for saying, “You cannot understand a system until you try to change it.”  Lewin's three-phase model of unfreezing, changing, and refreezing, serves as a foundation for most of the change models that have come after him. Michael Fullan, who has been a constant in the education change literature for decades, contends that leading change requires the change agent to produce enthusiasm, hope, and energy. A moral purpose helps to transform resistance into capacity, sometimes one relationship at a time. T. R. Harvey, believes that change is in response to a catalyst or a stimulus. It could be poor student achievement results or financial calamity. Harvey and his colleagues developed a systematic 20-step checklist for change.  

John Kotter identified eight common errors that undermine transformational change efforts. These errors became the eight stages of the change process framework that he contends can produce successful change of any size in any organization. Similar to Lewin’s three-phase model, there are three overarching components of Kotter’s model: defrost, introduce new practices, and ground the changes in the corporate culture. The eight errors that leaders make are not left to novice leaders only. I’ve seen many veteran leaders make the same mistakes. Here are the eight errors:

Allowing too much complacency

  1. Failing to create a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition

  2. Underestimating the power of vision

  3. Under communicating the vision by a factor of 10

  4. Permitting obstacles to block the new vision

  5. Failing to create short-term wins

  6. Declaring victory too soon

  7. Neglecting to anchor changes firmly in the corporate culture

Among the exercises we do to study change is to use Kotter’s list to grade a change effort that we have been engaged in first hand.  Kotter’s framework becomes the lens that is used to study the transformation. If these common errors are not addressed it is more likely than not that the initiatives ultimately will not produce the desired result.

My personal experiences leading change first-hand as a principal, assistant superintendent, and superintendent have led me to conclude that second order change (as it is referred to the PLC literature) is where transformations occurs. Beyond altering existing practices, transformation requires a new way of thinking and acting. A radical shift from the expected way educational change occurs. That’s why it met with so much resistance, particularly from establishment people and those with political or personal agendas. According to Marzano, this order of change is significant enough to change the organizational culture.

When second-order change proves to be ineffective, organizational change of the highest order must be initiated. This type of change is best studied through the lens of Fullan’s educational change model. As a general principle of the highest order of change, an organization’s tendency to continue on its current trajectory has to be stemmed and ultimately reversed. It is referred to as organizational inertia and it is recognizable by extreme cases of resource and routine rigidity. In my upcoming Resource Allocation course, we will study this common tendency in failing school districts. Students will find other common threads among the graveyard of school reform, including the most pervasive, outside-in reform.

Successful reform leaders know the most effective reform is from the inside-out, led by teacher leaders. 

In the meantime, I want to leave you with another leadership challenge (my most recent leadership challenge to Dr. Boulton remains remarkably unchallenged). Read the list of pronouncements that over the course of the last couple of centuries have proven to have been better left unsaid. Can you think of similar pronouncements in education that would have been best left unsaid:

1830: Dr. Dionysius Lardner declared that rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breath, would die of asphyxia.

1876: Western Union declared that the telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.

1880: Henry Morton, the president of the Stevens Institute of Technology, declared that everyone acquainted with the light bulb will recognize it as a conspicuous failure.

1800’s: Napolean Bonaparte declared that no ship can sail against the wind and current by lighting a bonfire under its deck.  Robert Fulton and his steamboat proved Napolean wrong.

1878: Oxford professor and intellectual luminary Erasmus Wilson declared that when the Paris Exhibition closes, electric light will close with it and no more will be heard of it.

1883: Lord Kelvin, the distinguished President of the Royal Society, declared that X-rays will prove to be a hoax.

1903: Michigan Saving Bank advising Henry Ford: The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty. A fad.

1936: The New York Times wrote that a rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.

1943: Thomas Watson, the Chairman of IBM, infamously declared that there is a world market for maybe five computers.

1946: Movie producer Darryl Zanuck declared that TV won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every nght.

1954: The National Cancer Institute declared that if excessive smoking plays a role in the production of lung cancer, it seems to be a minor one.

1955: Variety Magazine declared that Rock n’ Roll will be gone by June.

1959: IBM declared that the world potential market for copying machines is 5,000 at most after learning that Xerox was founded.

1962: Decca Recording Company rejected the Beatles. They declared that their sound and guitar music is on the way out.

1921: David Sarnoff on radio: The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to no one in particular?

1977: The Chairman of Digital Equipment Corporation declared that these is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home. 

Most of these people or organizations were well known.  Some of the people were considered great leaders and even iconic figures. Were they clinging on and protecting what was known and owned and the security that it provided? Were they jealous because the ideas were not their own?  Or, while they made it to a position of leadership and authority, were they not visionary leaders capable of absorbing the slings and arrows that come with innovation and new ideas – particularly in institutional settings. What do you think?