The process of leading change in education is complex and challenging.  John Kotter is recognized as an expert on the topic of leadership and change.  He wrote Leading Change in 1996, which Time magazine selected as one of the 25 most influential business management books ever written.  Kotter’s work has been adopted by many graduate schools of education.

The use of business strategies when training future educational leaders can be problematic.  We should be cautious when extending the values of business to the field of education.  Not all business practices translate well to teaching and school leadership.  Schools exist to serve children and families.  We should never look at students in the proprietary way that businesses do their products.

Many would argue that the seminal work on leading change in education has yet to be written.  Until that happens, let’s consider Kotter’s 8-step process for leading change and apply it to education.  Can his business-based ideas on change leadership be translated to education?

1. Establishing a Sense of Urgency

Our children don’t have time for us to decide to act on their behalf.  Urgency should be a catalyst for the change needed in our schools.  Urgency, however, should never lead to people feeling like they have been run over.  New leaders have to assess what is truly urgent versus what can be done over time through partnering and collaboration.

2. Creating a Guiding Coalition

Team-building is an essential skill for the modern school leader.  Not much will be accomplished if stakeholders are not part of the change process.  School leaders will have to possess strong skills when assembling their team.  Unlike businesses, however, schools need to be inclusive in their team-building efforts.  Without a broad base of support, change efforts are less likely to succeed.

3.  Developing A Change Vision

For Kotter, vision is the product of an individual.  You possess the vision and then you share it.  In education, vision should be the product of collaborative efforts.  The model of a heroic leader swooping in and saving a school diminishes any prior efforts made toward improvement.  When vision is developed collaboratively it is also more comprehensive.

4.  Communicating the Vision for Buy-In

The concept of “selling” a vision is a business-like approach that leaves others out of the equation.  If we develop the vision together, then no one needs to sell it to me.  I am already in.  The more people included in the development of the vision, the more who will learn about it through word-of-mouth.  A cooperatively developed vision sells itself.

5.  Empowering Broad-based Action

Kotter’s views on empowering action blend well with current school reform efforts.  Once the vision is set, school leaders need to work to remove any of the obstacles that stand in the way of progress.  They should create structures that foster the vision while encouraging risk-taking and “no box” thinking among their teachers.

6.  Generating Short-term Wins

Short-term victories are important in education, especially when they lead to long-term wins.  School leaders should celebrate their short-term wins while continuing to articulate the long-term goals.  Celebration is even more important in education than in business.  Sometimes, celebration is the only positive our teachers experience, particularly in these times of fiscal austerity.

7.  Never Letting Up

Education is the one profession that renews itself every year.  A new school year brings with it great hope.  For schools with a clear long-term vision, the new school year is also an opportunity to continue focusing on key initiatives.  If schools are truly seeking to improve, their plans and strategies must focus on enduring goals.  “Dripping water hollows out a stone…”

8.  Incorporating Change Into the Culture

School leaders rarely stay in one place for very long.  Is the change that you are fostering dependent on you?  If you left your school today, what would continue?  These are questions you should ask yourself every time you consider new initiatives.  If the change you are seeking is dependent solely upon your leadership, then it might not be as important as you think.  Change for the sake of change undermines effective school reform efforts.  Developing a culture of change and innovation leaves your school with a natural succession plan.  Isn’t that what change leadership is all about?