A school, business, or organization articulates its mission and vision to guide their work and purpose for existence. In much the same way, as a leader, having a “why” or moral purpose is significant because it not only drives you to pursue the best outcome possible, it can also sustain you and give you focus and resolve when you are faced with obstacles, setbacks, and resistance to change. A moral purpose does not define what field of work you pursue but rather it is a guiding principle about how you believe the work should be done and how individuals or groups will be positively impacted as a result of that effort. Even in a particular school, staff and teachers could have varying motivations for working with students or in education; those “whys” will probably even change over time as they learn the work and gain deeper understanding of students’ needs and interests (not to mention the life change and transitions that each individual experiences).
I wrote my three-page philosophy of teaching and learning many years ago with the understanding that it would change over time; as I would change as an educator, students and their learning environments would change, and the education world would evolve. However, I struggled early on in my career, to find a good fit professionally because I hadn’t been able to hone in on my own “why” that applied to the larger question of what I wanted to do with my life – what was my moral purpose for doing what I do? When I look at the choices I have made, the places I choose to work, and the type of work I find most gratifying, it’s easier for me now to identify and justify my “why”. My moral purpose in my work is to empower others; that’s my mantra, my compass when I’m trying to figure out the best course of action – is what I’m doing going to empower others or will I create or contribute to a system or process that simply enables them or even inhibits them from being successful.
A moral purpose is powerful when it comes from within, when it is a fundamental principle within your worldview and not simply an accepted or common perspective within your field of work. Mourkogiannis (2005) writes a great article about choosing a moral purpose in business that is meaningful to everyone involved (employees and customers alike). Adopting a meaningful company moral purpose is important because it “provides a unifying theme that allows its people to understand and facilitate the complex fit among its actions, assets, and strategic position” (Mourkogiannis, 2005, para 10):
“It contributes to morale by establishing a sense of community and common meaning, grounded in mutual respect…”
“It fosters innovation by sensitizing people to market conditions and opportunities…”
“In providing a degree of emotional certainty, it counters the natural risk aversion of a large company, which might otherwise hold back innovation.”
“It inspires people to search out solutions to problems, to not give up, to keep on trying.”
I agree with Fullan’s (2014) assertion that “leaders who combine a commitment to moral purpose with a healthy respect for the complexities of the change process not only will be more successful but also will unearth deeper moral purpose” (p. 5). The physical environment around us demonstrates that change is constant and often unpredictable. The social and emotional changes we experience as we meet new people and gain knowledge and experience, also tells us that change is constant and we cannot script how it takes place within and around us.
Institutional and systems change processes are just as complex; even if you assume shared customs, values, beliefs, and traditions within an organization, the individuals within and the external factors surrounding that organization create a complex web of forces that push and propel change both planned and unplanned. In addition to that, Hinshaw (2015) suggests that organizations could experience both “mandated” and “proactive” changes. “The latter is easier and can be less emotional than the former. Yet, the lines often blur between the two. Frequently because proactive change launched by one group is perceived as mandated change by another” (Hinshaw, 2015, para 2). This power dynamic that exists when change occurs must also be taken into consideration when implementing organizational or systemic change.
Leaders need the ability to recognize and comprehend these competing factors or priorities on a larger scale in order to implement change; yet this puts enormous responsibility on their shoulders to skillfully guide and steer the change process while also mitigating barriers, resistance, and setbacks. Basically, our expectation of leaders is that they serve as salesperson, project manager, motivator, mediator, consensus builder, visionary, fixer, and yes, even scapegoat. Personally, I get it; I accept that the change process is complex and that hindsight will always reveal other choices that could have been made. But while understanding the change process is an ongoing pursuit, part of the fundamental issue with the change process is timing. On one hand, there is never enough time to plan for implementation and yet, the longer you take, the more likely that your process will be ineffective or irrelevant because the issue or situation has evolved. If you move too fast, stakeholders might not have enough time to feel comfortable or invested in your process; if you ignore external factors or do not understand how individuals feel about the process, you may have a great idea and plan for change but bad timing will derail your process.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the change process is that individuals or groups of people are involved. This is where the third component of leadership is needed – relationship building is necessary for a thriving culture of change in any school, business, or organization. The institutional systems and processes are only as effective as the people involved, and leaders must not only build but cultivate relationships with and among their staff or employees.
Sometimes when a company or organization has branded its mission and vision and their identity embraces a culture of change or innovation, they easily can attract like-minded stakeholders (employees and customers alike) who will embrace the moral purpose behind their work. As they experience change and evolve, there can be a healthy debate about decision-making and priorities because the culture of change and change process is relatively agreed upon or understood by everyone involved. A Great Place to Work is a company that researches workplace culture and job satisfaction. This year, Google, Inc. topped their list of best companies to work for based on employee surveys; according to their data, the top six ratings by employees were for great challenges, great atmosphere, great rewards, great pride, great communication, and great bosses. “Google looks for smart, team-oriented leaders who can get things done and are full of Googleyness” (Great Place to Work, 2015). There is a quality and leadership identity that is required and expected at Google. They are not necessarily in the business of training employees to be certain type of Googley leaders but rather choose to cultivate a workplace culture that motivates and supports leaders as well as individuals within work teams. If you can set aside your personal objections (and possibly misconceptions) to corporate environments, there is something to learn from Google’s example.
Successful and effective leaders absolutely need to be able to build and nurture relationships with and among their staff; they need to understand how individuals work within the group and channel and support the the group’s focus and motivation to fulfill the overall mission and vision of the work. But more importantly, leaders need to understand what their staff need and want from their work; what is their own moral purpose and reason for doing what they do, and what do they need in order to be successful – is it also great challenges, great atmosphere, great rewards, great pride, great communication, and great bosses?
Fullan’s (2014) last two components of leadership are connected but also heavily influenced by a moral purpose, understanding change, and relationship building. Knowledge creation and sharing might be more complex than ever before, but technology also makes this possible on a significantly larger scale. Knowledge creation and sharing certainly can exist within a school but access to information and resources is expanded through digital and online tools. Teachers are now able and expected to continue building their knowledge and skills and contribute to their peer learning networks. Cultivating the peer learning network within the school is needed by each teacher, not just the “leaders” whether they are veteran teachers or the principal.
When I interviewed students who were interested in enrolling in my career exploration program, I often asked them, “What makes you special and what do you bring into a group?” I wanted them to understand that participation was not just a two-way street between me (the program) and the students, but an expectation from everyone to contribute in order for the group to be successful. This certainly required us to all acknowledge and recognize why each individual was interested in participating and how we could relate to and benefit from one another. As a leader, this is one of the hardest tasks that I have experienced – supporting individuals and groups to build relationships and invest in the creation and sharing of knowledge with others.
People have to choose to do this for their own moral purpose and as a leader, my understanding of these motivations and the change process within the group is crucial to their success in knowledge creation and sharing. On a good day, this can feel like herding cats, but making sense (coherence making) of what is happening during the organized chaos is what separates great leaders from the rest. Sometimes I get a glimpse in the moment that something is emerging from the chaos and sometimes it’s in the reflection and analysis after the fact that I am able to see where the connections were made. Sometimes the group appears to be progressing and an individual breakdown seems to set us all back. Sometimes I wrestle with the needs of an individual versus the group and sometimes, and these are the great times, the group takes off without me after a spark of inspiration and they go on to create something meaningful together.
Ultimately, I believe that developing and exercising these five components of leadership in a culture of change, must take place on a personal level in order for them to be effective in a professional environment. As leaders, we cannot ask others to do something we are not willing to do, and we cannot preach one thing at work but not practice those same things in our own lives.
Fullan, M. (2014). Leading in a Culture of Change. Somerset, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com
Google, Inc. review. (2015). Great Place to Work Institute. (2015). Retrieved from: http://reviews.greatplacetowork.com/google-inc
Hinshaw, K. (July 2, 2015). Organizational Alignment Is The Key To Managing Change [weblog]. Lead Change Group. Retrieved from: http://leadchangegroup.com/organizational-alignment-is-the-key-to-managing-change/
Mourkogiannis, N. (November 19, 2005). The Realist’s Guide to Moral Purpose. Strategy+Business, Winter 2005 (41). Retrieved from: http://www.strategy-business.com/article/05405?pg=0