Tag Archives: Malcolm Gladwell

5 Characteristics of a Change Agent

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by visualpanic

(change agents) – People who act as catalysts for change…

In my work through school and organization visits, I have been fascinated to see the correlation between the speed of change and an individual who is “leading” the charge.  The schools that have someone (or a group of people) helping to push the boundaries of what can be done in schools seem to move a lot quicker with a larger amount of “buy-in” through the process.

As Malcom Gladwell describes in his book, “The Tipping Point“, he states:

The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.

Although Gladwell talks about the “Law of the Few” (connectors, mavens, salesman), I do not believe change is solely dependent upon their skills, but also the culture in which they exist.  You cannot be a connector if you are in an environment where people do not want to come together.  So although a change agent can trigger growth in an organization, the culture in which they exist or are brought into has a huge bearing on their success.  If a school embodies itself as a true learning organization, change will happen much quicker.

With that being said, I have noticed that the individuals that are really successful in helping to be a catalyst for change certainly embody some similar characteristics.  Below is a list of what I have seen consistently.

1.  Clear Vision – As mentioned above, a “change agent” does not have to be the person in authority, but they do however have to have a clear vision and be able to communicate that clearly with others.  Where people can be frustrated is if they feel that someone is all over the place on what they see as important and tend to change their vision often.  This will scare away others as they are not sure when they are on a sinking ship and start to looking for ways out.  It is essential to note that a clear vision does not mean that there is one way to do things; in fact, it is essential to tap into the strengths of the people you work with and help them see that there are many ways to work toward a common purpose.

2. Patient yet persistent – Change does not happen overnight and most people know that.  To have sustainable change that is meaningful to people, it is something that they will have to embrace and see importance.  Most people need to experience something before they really understand that, and that is especially true in schools.  With that being said, many can get frustrated that change does not happen fast enough and they tend to push people further away from the vision, then closer.  The persistence comes in that you will take opportunities to help people get a step closer often when they are ready, not just giving up on them after the first try.  I have said continuously that schools have to move people from their point ‘A’ to their point ‘B’not have everyone move at the same pace. Every step forward is a step closer to a goal; change agents just help to make sure that people are moving ahead.

3. Asks tough questions – It would be easy for someone to come in and tell you how things should be, but again that is someone else’s solution.  When that solution is someone else’s, there is no accountability to see it through.  It is when people feel an emotional connection to something is when they will truly move ahead.  Asking questions focusing on, “What is best for kids?”, and helping people come to their own conclusions based on their experience is when you will see people have ownership in what they are doing.  Keep asking questions to help people think, don’t alleviate that by telling them what to do.

4.  Knowledgeable and leads by example – Stephen Covey talked about the notion that leaders have “character and credibility”; they are not just seen as good people but that they are also knowledgeable in what they are speaking about.  Too many times, educators feel like their administrators have “lost touch” with what is happening in the classroom, and many times they are right.  Someone who stays active in not necessarily teaching, but active in learning and working with learners and can show by example what learning can look like now will have much more credibility with others.  If you want to create “change”, you have to not only be able to articulate what that looks like, but show it to others. I have sat frustrated often listening to many talk about “how kids learn today” but upon closer look, the same speakers do not put themselves in the situation where they are actually immersing themselves in that type of learning.  How can you really know how “kids learn” or if something works if you have never experienced it?

5. Strong relationships built on trust – All of the above, means nothing if you do not have solid relationships with the people that you serve.  People will not want to grow if they do not trust the person that is pushing the change.  The change agents I have seen are extremely approachable and reliable.  You should never be afraid to approach that individual based on their “authority” and usually  they will go out of their way to connect with you.

That doesn’t mean that they aren’t willing to have tough conversations though; that also builds trust.  Trust is also built when you know someone will deal with things and not be afraid to do what is right, even if it is uncomfortable.  Sometimes trust is built when you choose to do what is right for your community or organization, as long as it is always done in a respectful way.

Should every school/district administrator have these qualities?  Probably.  But with that being said, positive change is not reserved to be the responsibility of any position.  The best leaders may have all of these qualities but also empower others to be those “change agents” as well to build a culture of leadership and learning.  I can think of many people that I have encountered who have helped pushed their organizations ahead that have no formal “authority” over any individual.  That being said, some of them do it in spite of their principal or superintendent and often feel that they are in constant conflict.  Things would obviously move a lot quicker if they had the support of their leader.  With that support, change can happen in an organization quickly, but if the leader does not “clear the path”, improvement will take a lot longer than it should.

What is important to note is that being a “charismatic leader” is not something that is essential.  Often, charismatic leaders lack many of these qualities that I have listed above and although they can seemingly lead change, it is not sustainable and does not permeate throughout the school or organization; it becomes too dependent upon one person.  For example, was Steve Jobs a change agent, or a charismatic leader?  Apple is not doing as well since he has passed away and their innovation has seem to slow down.  Steve Jobs was known for being notoriously tough to deal with and the trust that is essential to building a strong culture was probably lacking to some degree.  I believe that change agents will help to create more leaders, not more followers.

What qualities from this list did I miss?  Do you think that there has to be at least one person or group to help permeate change and growth in an organization?


Gladwell and Innovative Leadership

One of the school boards that I spoke to this year (Sir Wilfrid Laurier), has an interesting focus on the objective of “Leadership and Innovation”.  The description is below:


1. To promote, support, and increase the implementation of innovative approaches in teaching, learning, and problem solving through leadership

2. To recognize and celebrate innovative approaches

The first point to me is imperative, as in my travels I have come to believe that innovative schools or districts are a reflection of leadership.  If the “leader” is not innovative or does not believe in challenging the way things “have always been done”, the ceiling for innovation is much lower.  If leaders are not comfortable with the inherent risk that comes with “innovation”, that will be reflected in organizational practices.

As to what “innovation” is, I love the definition provided by Notter and Grant in their book “Humanize” (one of my favourite books I have read this year):

Definitions of innovation vary by guru, but they revolve around two words: change and new. Innovation implies change and doing things differently, but it has to achieve some new level of performance, or create some kind of new value. It is not enough just to be different; it has to be better. It is about creation, not copying.

As I talked about this notion with Jesse McLean as his school undertook “Innovation Week“, I thought back to Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point“, and thought about some of the key people that he describes that push forward “social epidemics”, I wondered how they fit into our notion of innovative leadership in schools.  The three people listed by Gladwell’s “Law of the Few”, as described in this Wikipedia article, are described below:

Connectors, are the people in a community who know large numbers of people and who are in the habit of making introductions. A connector is essentially the social equivalent of a computer network hub. They usually know people across an array of social, cultural, professional, and economic circles, and make a habit of introducing people who work or live in different circles. They are people who “link us up with the world … people with a special gift for bringing the world together.”

Mavens are “information specialists”, or “people we rely upon to connect us with new information.”[4] They accumulate knowledge, especially about the marketplace, and know how to share it with others. Gladwell cites Mark Alpert as a prototypical Maven who is “almost pathologically helpful”, further adding, “he can’t help himself”.

Salesmen are “persuaders”, charismatic people with powerful negotiation skills. They tend to have an indefinable trait that goes beyond what they say, which makes others want to agree with them.

As we are seemingly are at the “tipping point” in school reform, I wonder if leadership has to not only possess one of these characteristics, but essentially all three?  If we are actually moving to a place where people don’t just accept change but embrace it (as change is always the constant), I see all three of those elements being crucial in school leadership.  To effectively “promote, support, and increase the implementation of innovative approaches in teaching, learning, and problem solving through leadership”, those characteristics would be essential.

Thoughts?  Obviously there are other essential characteristics that make a good leader (value on relationships and building trust being the most important), but where do Gladwell’s “Law of the Few” now fit in where a world is more social than ever?

6 Leadership Lessons From Australia

Spending the last two weeks in Australia, I have seen a lot of different schools, teachers, students, and cultures, and it was when Stephen Gwilliam actually asked me over lunch about my learning, did I really think about what i picked up from my experience presenting and facilitating workshops.

Below are some thoughts that I have from my experience that I believe are important considerations for myself as I further my own leadership.

1. People matter, but “stuff” sometimes matters to those people.  Make sure that stuff works.

Being in Australia for the third time in the last 12 months, I feel the pain of many teachers that have to go through “proxy” settings to get some type of filtered Internet.  It rarely, if ever works for teachers, and there is often frustration and a subversive culture often being created.  It is also often a killer of innovation.

Coming from a very open environment, one of the teachers that was extremely forward thinking was actually surprised by what we are able to do in our own school division.  The comment she had made was, “we had no idea of the thing that were even possible until you showed us things that we are not able to have access to.  We never try a lot of the things that you show because we are so used to an environment where things don’t work.”

I am hoping that the South Australia department is listening to this message. If they are, I am sure that many other systems would be more than willing to open their schools and classrooms to show you the possibilities of an “open” Internet.  Yes we still have filters (pornography and gambling) but you need to start looking at what kids access on their phone and preparing them for the world they live in.

(I highly suggest this Dan Haesler article on driving and social media. Are we doing our job?)

2. Get the right people on the “bus”, but make sure that you know where the bus is going.

The “bus” analogy is one that is often used in leadership circles and I have loved the analogy, but where is it going?  I know that many organizations put a lot of time into creating mission and vision statements, but how often do we ask questions such as, “What is the purpose of school?” or, “What does that mission statement look like in the context of schools?”, and get some answers.

If leaders cannot define those things, then a mission statement is just fancy words on a piece of paper.  People want to do good but they are often unclear of what “good” could look like or, worse, they are not included in the conversation at all.  It is time to take those mission statements and think of what they look like for kids and teachers.

I believe that there are not only one answer for these questions, but I also see many teachers thinking that having kids sit quietly in rows by themselves is good teaching because they have not been told anything else.  As a teacher myself, I would teach way better when I wasn’t being evaluated because it was more focused on “learning”, yet when my principal would come in, I would focus more on “teaching”.  It was not until I had heard what my principal (specifically) was looking for, did I feel that I was able to really push the former.

Do we have a vision, and if we do, is it clear to others?

3.  Kids and adults should be learning in the same room more.  Way more.

One of my presentations, meant for high school students actually had more adults in the room.  I had decided to change what I was doing on the fly and make it something applicable to both and the conversation that had come out of the afternoon was amazing.  I was abe to facilitate conversations where students said things such as, “We should be allowed to bring in devices to the classroom”, where I agreed but the asked them, “How will  you use it for learning if this happens?”  Simply allowing kids to bring devices into classroom will not get your school to the transformative level, but both students and teachers should think of ways they can use this technology in meaningful ways.

What came out of this day was seemingly more accountability on both parts.  Having someone talk about the possibilities for moving classrooms ahead, and the roles that we all play, put ownership on all parties to move forward, including the students. It also allowed students to share what they want to do in their classrooms and how it can change with someone facilitating the conversation and also helping staff know how to get there.

Let’s face it, if a teacher is not comfortable with mobile devices in the classroom and one day allows students to use them without taking a hard look at their own pedagogy, do you think kids would just immediately stop texting?  I know I wouldn’t.  These conversations should happen together WAY more often.

This was my first time doing this type of conversation and it seemed to be very successful with a lot of possible upsides.

4. Use your voice.

I have stated this before to many people that I have connected with.

“Don’t complain about something you don’t have if you have never asked for it.”

Teachers need to come together and keep asking questions and focus conversations on, “What is best for kids.”  Many that I encountered felt that there voice was not valued yet also did not often speak to the right people.  Your voice is important but if you are in a culture where you find out it isn’t, maybe it is time to move on.  As the Edcamp motto goes, “People will talk with their feet.”

Ask questions and share what you want to do what is best for kids.  Focus all conversations on that point, but, start the conversation.

5.  “Connecting” is a HUGE part of leadership and we need to recognize this.

When I was a kid growing up, the principal seemed to be the person with all the answers.  Now (and probably back then), this is impossible because there are far too many questions.  A school administrator should be a facilitator of leadership and that means sometimes deferring to others and helping to not only build leadership capacity, but also relationships in the building.  It does not make sense to be the “last stop” for information, but also a conduit to others.  A leader creates other leaders not more followers.  Connecting people to those leaders is an essential.

Malcolm Gladwell refers to “connectors” in his book The Tipping Point and  that they have a unique knack, “to span many different worlds is a function of something intrinsic to their personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability, and energy.”  If we are at a “tipping point” in education, will those who are “connectors” become vital to the success of schools?

To become a connector, it is important to know that this takes a decrease in  “ego” but an increase in confidence.  To be able to say “someone is better at this than I am” is essential for a leader.  Strong leaders get this and are comfortable with it.

6. Resilience

To my many Australian friends who are moving towards innovative schools and classrooms and dealing with things that they see as roadblocks, don’t give up.  Nothing worth doing is easy and I know that many great schools did not happen overnight.  There is a lot of work to be done, but technology issues, resources, and changed mindsets can happen over time with patience and hard work.  That being said, I believe that “change” does not need to take as long to happen and stick in a school anymore.  With the effective use of technology to share amazing things happening in the classroom through social media, great practice that happens in isolated classrooms does not take as long to be visible to others.  Instead of waiting to share something once a month at a professional development day does not have to happen anymore.  You can share it as it happens or at least soon after through the effective use of social media.  It is essential to do that.

You want to think how quickly things can move in our world right now?  Do you know any Korean singers?  Exactly.  Things can happen faster now in our world and Stephen Johnson refers to this connection being essential to innovation:

“Figure out a way to create systems that allow those hunches to come together.”

Thank you to all the new acquaintances and old friends from Australia that made for a great learning experience!  I hope to see you all again soon :)


Close to the tipping point?

cc licensed ( BY SD ) flickr photo shared by iliveisl

“The Law of the Few says that there are exceptional people out there who are capable of starting epidemics. All you have to do is find them.” Malcolm Gladwell from the Tipping Point

Sitting down with a professor at a conference last spring in Calgary, we were talking about education reform.  He told me he was in his late 60’s, and I thought to ask him, “How long have you been talking about this ‘reform’ for?”.  He said he could not remember a time when he wasn’t having the conversation.  That scared me.

Thinking about so many things that we know are right about practice (smart assessment practices that focus on each child, personalized education, connected learning, and so on), I thought “will these practices ever become the standard?”  Soon after though, I thought about how many things we now see in many classrooms, must have become the standard at some point.  I don’t know when, but they did.  That actually gave me hope.

This is in no sense saying that I have all the answers.  I don’t think anyone in education is saying that.  I do however know that the more I connect to others, the clearer some answers are becoming.  It is their expertise that I am tapping into and helping me improve my own practice.

As we have started the 2011-2012 school year here in Parkland, I have seen something hugely different from years prior.  It is not that these things weren’t there, but I am now seeing people connect across the division to share and truly become teachers of our division, as opposed to only their school.

Here is a little snippet from the Parkland School Division website:

Serving over 58,000 residents in an area of over 3,995 square kilometers, our division operates 21 schools and several alternate sites.

No matter the unique planning that you could do for the division, it is near impossible for our entire staff in this area to meet face-to-face for any amount of time that would really push the envelope forward, but even more importantly, create solid relationships in such a large geographical area.

I really believe that the ability to bring people together begins with leadership.  Our Superintendent, Tim Monds, started off our year by having a wonderful speech discussing the path that lies ahead while sharing how :

As we learn together in PSD, we will continue to focus on literacy and numeracy and prepare our children to be critical thinkers who are connected to one another more than we can imagine.  We will model this for our students. I recently set up a blog for our Lead Team.  It was new for me and I was not ready to go beyond the Lead Team at that time.  I am now.  I was learning and needed to feel comfortable with blogging.  In July, our Future Planning Team attended a 21st Century Learning conference in Niagara Falls.  At that conference I began tweeting.  Me – tweeting?  I’m a busy guy.  Who has time for that?  However, I have been following a few people and looking up recommended articles and I am realizing the connections are making me a better educator.

His words set the tone for our division to not only learn openly, but connect with one another.  I watched as people shared their renewed excitement for teaching, blogged about listening to their students, and shared their exuberance for their first days as a new teacher. Our Deputy Superintendent, one of the people that I have been lucky to connect with so often, blogged for the first time.  Her work has always impacted me and now it can go to a much wider audience:

It’s a wonderful feeling for parents to walk away from our schools trusting that their children are in good hands – that they will be cared for, well beyond their academic needs.  Every interaction, every day with every child needs to reinforce the value that we place on students. Many times it is the little things that make the biggest difference.

No one is talking about technology, but they are all using it to connect their learning. Pretty powerful stuff.

Recently reading “The Power of Pull”, John Seely Brown talks about the “spike”, and how people go to the places where they are most likely to be successful in their career paths (go to Hollywood if you want to be an actor, Nashville if you want to be a country singer, etc.).  He talks about the impact on individuals when they find this “spike”:

In a world of intensifying competition, people seem to be seeking out environments where they can get better faster. These geographic spikes offer a wealth of employment options where ambitious and passionate employees can quickly change jobs and find employers more willing than the previous one to develop their talent. These cities also become geographic gathering spots for specialized service providers and other resources that can help talented people become even more successful.

Our (educator) spike is not in any one city or area.  In fact, with a profession so traditionally isolating, it would be incredibly hard to create this.  Our spike however can now be easily created through the means of social media.  This is not only talking about educators connecting throughout the entire world, but within our school division.  The really powerful thing is that we are not limiting the conversation to only our educators.  We are open to the world to help us along this journey, along with parents, and most importantly, our kids.  As mentioned earlier, Jesse McLean talked about getting students involved in the conversation, but when we use “closed” portals, are we really giving them that chance?  Yes, schools do surveys and ask kids for their feedback, but do we really create opportunities for our kids to be in on the conversation?  By openly communicating, sharing, and getting more people in on the conversation, how could we not improve our practice while making the world of education smaller and less isolated?

I am feeling we are on the edge of something big and I know if we can continue this momentum and make this sharing practice a habit, best practices can become standard.  Some are stuck on the idea that this is only about tweeting, blogging, and google apps.  If they are willing to look, there is so much more.  This is about connecting, sharing, and learning together in a meaningful way.  It is about bringing people together behind a vision and helping them find purpose, their why, as we move forward.  It is about sharing the expertise of people and getting better because of it.

We need to take advantage.