To lead or not to lead? That is the question. How radical can you be? That’s also a question. How much change is too much? That’s another question. To find our professional equilibrium we need to find the answers to these questions.
So why am I writing this post?
My colleague, and at work sanity saver, Marcus Elliott is leaving us at the end of this week. As he prepares to move on he has been considering his approach at his new institution in his post Singing along, but I don’t know the words.
If I went full ‘Marcus Mode’ from the beginning, instead of inspiring a throng of revolutionary educational change agents, I would probably scare people into their offices and they’d lock their doors. Marcus Elliott (2016)
He’s certainly not wrong, people on the whole have a tendency to avoid change. So this post contains my thoughts and advice on the subject of change and leadership.
To lead or not to lead?
Here I will defer to someone far more knowledgeable than myself. What Lawrie Phipps doesn’t know about change and leadership is not worth knowing. He has watched, advised on and been involved in hundreds of change projects in HE. His opinion is one I treat with deep reverence.
He recently directed me to a post he had written earlier this year, Leading Change in Libraries: A keynote for UXLibs 2 in which he talks about effective change and leadership.
One of the lessons that I have learnt from working in HE is that a lot of people abstain from leadership. Lawrie Phipps (2016)
He talks about the barriers we often cite as the reason for our not leading and completing our projects. I would call this phenomena the “them” effect. It’s very easy to use the “them” or the “that wouldn’t work here” excuse. I’ve said it. We’ve all said it. Sometimes there might be a tiny grain of truth in it.
We, understandably, often see barriers as ‘Them’. Lawrie Phipps (2016)
The one thing I have learned is if you can’t get it done, try doing it differently. If you’ve tried one angle, then try another until you find the right one. Find something that resonates with as many people as possible. Get them on board. Create what Lawrie calls a collective movement. After-all, if enough people agree with you (even better if they are ‘important’ people) then how can anyone argue with you?
This allows for leadership to be a collective movement, spreading and enabling a commitment to change projects. Lawrie Phipps (2016)
How radical can I be?
Marcus describes it as “full ‘Marcus mode'”. I rather enjoy full Marcus mode. His passion, his vision for education and his dedication to making education better are the things I respect most about him. He has shaped my views of education and is the major reason I no longer see myself as a passive member of the institution. I can and should want to make this a better place. Thankfully Marcus knows he is not alone. There are many like us out there who want to do good.
It is a reassuring feeling that “I’m not the only one”. Marcus Elliott (2016)
Amy Collier puts it perfectly in her post Chapter 3 WMTRBW #HortonFreire #OpenEd16. See also: The immorality of service organizations. The post resonated with me, it was like reading your own thoughts.
This is what keeps me up at night. I worry that too many people I admire because they broke the mold and too many centers for teaching who transformed themselves to be more critical, those people are either being squeezed out, or their groups are folding or centering because our campuses are hostile to critical approaches. Amy Collier (2016)
This is my worry, Marcus’s worry and the worry of so many others. If I push too hard, will I be pushed out? Its not an irrational fear. I have seen it happen. In trying to do good, to do the right thing, we somehow manage to annoy people and are told to simmer down or asked politely to leave. It’s totally illogical but people fear change, even if it’s for the right reasons, and they most definitely dislike anyone “sticking their noses” in.
How much change is too much?
That will depend on what you are trying to do, the people you need to involve and the institution that you work at. Surface change, as in change that on the surface looks like change but in reality will change nothing long term, always goes down well. Usually because it’s quick, easy, cheap and satisfies someones vanity. Real fundamental change is hard, takes time and commitment. Unfortunately, the stuff that will really make a difference is usually the stuff that gets enthusiastic nods in meetings but never actually happens. Lawrie cites an inspired analogy from Amber Thomas to explain it. I won’t ruin it for you, read his post.
So what is the answer? I’ll go on to describe a few things I do to keep myself sane.
Learn as much as you can
This is another piece of sage Lawrie Phipps advice. Find out as much as you can about the institution. Information is power. If you understand your institution, if you know all the players and you know all the history, you can make much more informed decisions. Your approach will be adapted to be most successful and you’ll know what you can and can’t get away with.
Working in isolation, from your colleagues, from your managers, and especially from the institutional aspirations and strategy will not create widespread change, in any context. It’s just another dead bird. Lawrie Phipps (2016)
Trying to instigate change without knowing anything is a lot like running in the dark. You can’t see where your going, you can’t see the detail of the topography and you will most likely end up running in to a lamppost. My advice is don’t just go running in with your great ideas and expect people to rally round. Take your time. time is something you have, buy-in is what you need.
Find a balance that will keep you sane
You cannot simply put aside your ideas or your ambition. You will end up frustrated and dissatisfied. What you must do is find something that will allow you to scratch that itch. It might not be the all singing all dancing project you imagined but it’s something and something is better than nothing. Little projects, that contribute to a larger goal, will help keep you sane.
Find a way to channel your energy
In a way this relates to my point above. If you can’t go big, channel your energy in to smaller, but nonetheless worthwhile, change projects. My advice for Marcus would be to continue to write. Become an advocate. His ideas are ones that should be shared, they are worth hearing and should never be locked away to die. Of course action is more satisfying but sometimes we have to work within our confines. Writing your ideas down is cathartic. It will help.
Play the long game
You might not be able to get what you want done in a week. That is a fact of life. Sometimes you have to accept that change will take time. Not only is this due to the slowness of change in HE but also because incremental change is often more effective.
you need to remember that Incremental, Cumulative change is also Transformative. Lawrie Phipps (2016)
Little things add up. Little things make a difference. Sometimes we have to put our egos aside to get things done.
Never give up
Most importantly I would ask you never to give up on what you want to achieve. You might have to put it aside for a while. You might have to scale it down. You might have to change it slightly to work. You might even have to chip away at it a little at a time. But the minute you give up “they” have won and you will feel rotten for it. Be dogged, be ambitious but most importantly be clever. You can do it, don’t give up.
You will note the feature image for this post. Will you chose the red door or a grey door? I’m more inclined to go for the red…