THE CHANGE LEADER
By Michael Fullan, Ph.D.
Effective school leaders are key to large-scale, sustainable
education reform. For some time, educators have believed that
principals must be instructional leaders if they are to be the
effective leaders needed for sustained innovation. Newmann, King,
and Youngs (2000), for example, found that school capacity is
the crucial variable affecting instructional quality and corresponding
student achievement. And at the heart of school capacity are
principals focused on the development of teachers' knowledge
and skills, professional community, program coherence, and technical
Fink and Resnick (2001) examined school districts' efforts to
develop principals into instructional leaders who could achieve
a large-scale turnaround in literacy and numeracy. They described
some core strategies for developing the role of the principal
as instructional leader, including five mutually reinforcing
sets of strategic activities: nested learning communities, principal
institutes, leadership for instruction, peer learning, and individual
Characterizing instructional leadership as the principal's central
role has been a valuable first step in increasing student learning,
but it does not go far enough. Literacy and mathematics improvements
are only the beginning. To ensure deeper learning - to encourage
problem solving and thinking skills and to develop and nurture
highly motivated and engaged learners, for example - requires
mobilizing the energy and capacities of teachers. In turn, to
mobilize teachers, we must improve teachers' working conditions
and morale. Thus, we need leaders who can create a fundamental
transformation in the learning cultures of schools and of the
teaching profession itself. The role of the principal as instructional
leader is too narrow a concept to carry the weight of the kinds
of reforms that will create the schools that we need for the
Principals Who Lead Cultural Change
Leaders have a deeper and more lasting influence on organizations
and provide more comprehensive leadership if their focus extends
beyond maintaining high standards. Collins (2001) examined
11 businesses with a minimum of 15 years of sustained economic
performance each. The study identified the effective leader,
who "catalyzes commitment to a compelling vision and higher
performance standards, "as well as the executive leader, who
goes beyond performance standards and "builds enduring greatness" (p.
20). The best examples of school system success represent accomplishments
at the effective level - high performance standards with corresponding
results. These accomplishments may be impressive, but they
do not represent the kinds of deep, lasting reforms implemented
by executive leaders, who establish the conditions for "enduring
When the goal is sustainable change in a knowledge society,
business and education leaders increasingly have more in common.
Like the business leader, the principal of the future - the Cultural
Change Principal - must be attuned to the big picture, a sophisticated
conceptual thinker who transforms the organization through people
and teams (Fullan, 2001). Cultural Change Principals display
palpable energy, enthusiasm, and hope. In addition, five essential
components characterize leaders in the knowledge society: moral
purpose, an understanding of the change process, the ability
to improve relationships, knowledge creation and sharing, and
Moral purpose is social responsibility to others and the environment.
School leaders with moral purpose seek to make a difference
in the lives of students. They are concerned about closing
the gap between high-performing and lower-performing schools
and raising the achievement of - and closing the gap between
- high-performing and lower-performing students. They act with
the intention of making a positive difference in their own
schools as well as improving the environment in other district
Let me be clear: If the goal is systemic improvement
- to improve all schools in the district - then principals should
be nearly as concerned about the success of other schools in
the district as they are about their own school. Sustained improvement
of schools is not possible unless the whole system is moving
Student learning is paramount to the Cultural Change Principal.
This principal involves teachers in explicitly monitoring student
learning. But the Cultural Change Principal is also concerned
with the bigger picture and continually asks, Ho well are other
schools in the district doing? What is the role of public schools
in a democracy? Are we reducing the gap between high-performing
and lower-performing students in this school? District? State?
Nation? The Cultural Change Principal treats students, teachers,
parents, and others in the school well. Such a principal also
works to develop other leaders in the school to prepare the school
to sustain and even advance reform after he or she departs. In
short, the Cultural Change Principal displays explicit, deep,
comprehensive moral purpose.
Having innovative ideas and understanding the change process
are not the same thing. Indeed, the case can be made that those
firmly committed to their own ideas are not necessarily good
change agents because being a change agent involves getting
commitment from others who might not like one's ideas. I offer
the following guidelines for understanding change:
- The goal is not to innovate the most. Innovating selectively
with coherence is better.
- Having the best ideas is not enough. Leaders help others
assess and find collective meaning and commitment to new ways.
- Appreciate the implementation dip. Leaders can't avoid the
inevitable early difficulties of trying something new. They
should know, for example, that no mater how much they plan
for the change, the first six months or so of implementation
will be bumpy.
- Redefine resistance. Successful leaders don't mind when
naysayers rock the boat. In fact, doubters sometimes have important
points. Leaders look for ways to address those concerns.
- Reculturing is the name of the game. Much change is structural
and superficial. Transforming culture - changing what people
in the organization value and how they work together to accomplish
it - leads to deep, lasting change.
- Never a checklist, always complexity. There is no step-by-step
shortcut to transformation; it involves the hard, day-to-day
work of reculturing.
The Cultural Change Principal knows the difference between being
an expert in a given content innovation and being an expert in
managing the process of change. This principal does not make
the mistake of assuming that the best ideas will carry the day.
Instead, the Cultural Change Principal provides opportunities
for people to visit sites that are using new ideas, invites questions
and even dissent, and expects the change process to proceed in
fits and starts during the first few months of implementation.
Nevertheless, such a principal forges ahead and expects progress
within a year because he or she has nurtured the conditions that
yield results sooner rather than later.
The single factor common to successful change is that relationships
improve. If relationships improve, schools get better. If relationships
remain the same or get worse, ground is lost. Thus, leaders
build relationships with diverse people and groups - especially
with people who think differently. In complex times, emotional
intelligence is a must. Emotionally intelligent leaders are
able to build relationships because they are aware of their
own emotional makeup and are sensitive and inspiring to others
(Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002).
The Cultural Change Principal knows that building relationships
and teams is the most difficult skill for both business and education
leaders (Hay Management Consultants, 200). This leader works
hard to develop the full range of emotional intelligence domains,
especially self-management of emotions and empathy toward others
(Goleman et al., 2002). Focusing on relationships isn't just
a matter of boosting achievement scores for next year, but rather
a means of laying the foundation for year two and beyond. The
Cultural Change Principal's efforts to motivate and energize
disaffected teachers and forge relationships among otherwise
disconnected teachers can have a profound effect on the overall
climate of the organization. Well-established relationships are
the resource that keeps on giving.
Knowledge Creation and Sharing
Creating and sharing knowledge is central to effective leadership.
Information, of which we have a glut, only becomes knowledge
through a social process. For this reason, relationships
and professional learning communities are essential. Organizations
must foster knowledge giving as well as knowledge seeking.
We endorse continual learning when we say that individuals
should constantly add to their knowledge base - but there will
be little to add if people are not sharing. A norm of sharing
one's knowledge with others is the key to continual growth
The Cultural Change Principal appreciates that teaching is both
an intellectual and a moral profession. This principal constantly
reminds teachers that they are engaged in practicing, studying,
and refining the craft of teaching. The Cultural Change Principal
is the lead learner in the school and models lifelong learning
by sharing what he or she has read lately, engaging in and encouraging
action research, and implementing inquiry groups among the staff.
Teachers who work with the Cultural Change Principal know that
they are engaged in scientific discovery and the refinement of
the teaching knowledge base. Knowledge creation and sharing fuels
moral purpose in schools led by Cultural Change Principals.
Because complex societies inherently generate overload and fragmentation,
effective leaders must be coherence-makers (Fullan, 1999, 2001).
The other characteristics of the change leader - moral purpose,
an understanding of the change process, the ability to build
relationships, and the creation and sharing of knowledge -
help forge coherence through the checks and balances embedded
in their interaction. Leaders with deep moral purpose provide
guidance, but they can also have blinders if their ideas are
not challenged through the dynamics of change, the give-and-take
of relationships, and the ideas generated by new knowledge.
Coherence is an essential component of complexity and yet can
never be completely achieved.
Principals not attuned to leading in a culture of change make
the mistake of seeking external innovations and taking on too
may projects. Cultural Change Principals, by contrast, concentrate
on student learning as the central focus of reform and keep an
eye out for external ideas that further the thinking and vision
of the school. They realize that overload and fragmentation are
natural tendencies of complex systems. They appreciate the creative
potential of diverse ideas, but they strive to focus energy and
achieve greater alignment. They also look to the future and strive
to create a culture that has the capacity not to settle for the
solution of the day. Cultural Change Principals value the tensions
inherent in addressing hard-to-solve problems because that is
where the greatest accomplishments lie.
Leadership and Sustainability
To develop and support Cultural Change Principals, we must turn
our attention to sustainability - the likelihood that the overall
system can regenerate itself toward improvement. Key components
of sustainability are developing the social environment, learning
in context, cultivating leaders at many levels (and ensuring
leadership succession), and enhancing the teaching profession.
Developing the Social Environment
Those concerned about he depletion of resources in the physical
environment were the first to discuss the issue of sustainability.
Our concern is the depletion of resources in the social and
moral environment (Hargreaves, in press). In the social and
moral environment of the school, we need the resources to close
the achievement gap between high and low performers, to develop
all schools in the system, and to connect schools to the strength
of democracy in society. Further, if school leaders do not
concern themselves with the development of the social and moral
environment of the entire district (in addition to he development
of the environment within their own school), then not only
will the school system deteriorate, but eventually their own
school will also fail.
Learning in Context
Recruiting top-performing principals and rewarding good principal
performance are both important. Providing strong principal
training is useful, too. But as Elmore (2000) points out,
What's missing in this view [of focusing on talented individuals]
is any recognition that improvement is more a function of learning
to do the right thing in the setting where you work [my
emphasis]. (p. 25)
Learning at work - learning in context - occurs, for example,
when principals are members of a district's intervisitation study
team for which they examine real problems - and the solutions
they have devised - in their own systems. Learning out of context
takes place when principals go to a workshop or conference. Such
learning can be valuable for further development, but it is not
the kind of applied learning that really makes a difference.
Learning in context has the greatest potential payoff because
it is more specific, situational, and social (it develops shared
and collective knowledge and commitments). This kind of learning
is designed to improve the organization and its social
and moral context. Learning in context also establishes conditions
conducive to continual development, including opportunities to
learn from others on the job, the daily fostering of current
and future leaders, the selective retention of good ideas and
best practices, and the explicit monitoring of performance.
Cultivating Leaders at Many Levels
An organization cannot flourish - at least, not for long - on
the actions of the top leader alone. Schools and districts
need many leaders at many levels. Learning in context helps
produce such leaders. Further, for leaders to be able to deal
with complex problems, they need many years of experience and
professional development on the job. To a certain extent, a
school leader's effectiveness in creating a culture of sustained
change will be determined by the leaders he or she leaves behind.
Also crucial to sustained improvement is the effective succession
of leaders. Leadership succession is more likely if there are
many leaders at many levels. Organizations must set their sights
on continual improvement at all levels, and for that they must
nurture, cultivate, and appoint successive leaders who are moving
in a sustained direction.
The good news for most of us is that charismatic leaders are
actually a liability for sustained improvement. Collins (2001)
compared 11 companies with long-term, positive financial performance
profiles (a minimum of 15 consecutive years) with other companies
that made short-term shifts from good to great, but failed to
sustain their gains. Collins suggests that leaders who build
enduring greatness are not high-profile, flashy performers but
rather "individuals who blend extreme personal humility with
intense professional will" (p. 21). Sustainability depends on
many leaders - thus, the qualities of leadership must be attainable
by many, not just a few.
Enhancing the Teaching Profession
We will not have a large pool of quality principals until we
have a large pool of quality teachers because quality teachers
form the ranks of the quality principal pipeline. Individualistic
strategies - signing bonuses, pay hikes - will not work to
boost the ranks of quality teachers: the conditions of
teacher work must be conducive to continual development and
proud accomplishment. And this is certainly not the case now.
In 2001, PriceWaterhouseCoopers published the results of a teacher
workload study they had conducted in England and Wales. The researchers
concluded that if the government is to transform the teaching
An essential strand will be to reduce teacher workload, foster
increased teacher ownership, and create the capacity to manage
change in a sustainable way that can lay the foundation for
improved school and pupil performance in the future. (p. 2)
Principal-leaders should work to transform teachers' working
conditions. From the standpoint of sustainability, the principalship
itself benefits form these improved conditions: We will only
get quality principals when we have quality teachers.
The role of the principal as instructional leader has taken
us only so far in the quest for continual school improvement.
We now must raise our sights and focus on principals as leaders
in a culture of change. School improvement depends on principals
who can foster the conditions necessary for sustained education
reform in a complex, rapidly changing society. Never has the
time been riper for change leaders than right now.
Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make
the leap...and others don't. New York: Harper-Collins.
Elmore, R. (2000). Building a new structure for school leadership. Washington,
DC: The Albert Shanker Institute.
Fink, E., & Resnick, L. (2001, April). Developing principals
as instructional leaders. Phi Delta Kappan, 82, 598-606.
Fullan, M. (1999). Change forces: The sequel. London:
Taylor & Francis/Falmer.
Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San
Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee,
A. (2002). Primal
leadership. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Hargreaves, A. (in press). Teaching in the knowledge society. New
York: Teachers College Press.
Hay Management Consultants. (2000). The lessons of leadership. London:
Newmann, F., King, B., & Youngs,
P. (2000, April). Professional
development that addresses school capacity. Paper presented
at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research
Association, New Orleans, LA.
PriceWaterhouseCoopers. (2001). Teacher workload study. London:
Department for Education and Skills.
Copyright © 2002 Michael Fullan.
Reprinted with permission of the author.