7 Leadership Competencies for Whole-System Change

Leadership, Mission-Driven Work

There are leaders, and there are EdLeaders. Then there are leaders among EdLeaders–like Lyle Kirtman and Michael Fullan. This expert duo, applying decades of work in the field, recently came together to write and release a powerful guidebook for leading systemic (and sustainable) change.

Leadership: Key Competencies for Whole-System Change, published by Solution Tree (a Getting Smart advocacy partner), is an important contribution to the field for a number of reasons.

Kirtman & Fullan’s book is:

  • backed by research;
  • situated in the context of learning innovations;
  • supported by real stories from practicing leaders;
  • grounded in a whole-system approach to change;
  • intended to spark action; and
  • built to inspire.

Research-backed. The leadership framework they describe draws on Kirtman’s research with over 600 leaders nationally and a subsequent study with 200 principals, as well as data from several leadership self-assessments (DISC, Myers Briggs, and Workplace Personality Inventory).  The work aligns with Fullan’s body of work on leadership and represents observations and insights from both authors gleaned from work with practicing leaders for more than three decades.

Innovative. Readers will find a refreshing perspective on whole-system change in the context of shifting learning environments–an innovative perspective often lacking from traditional “change” literature. As Kirtman and Fullan explain, “The leadership we advocate is perfect for 21st century education, as it is made for conditions of uncertainty, which provide more elbow room, but also demand action.”  Throughout the book, the authors speak to the importance of courage to challenge the status quo as well as the traditions and assumptions that thwart innovation. They explain that their book “builds the case for expanding leadership at the local and regional levels with the support of leaders who realize there is a different way to do things. These local leaders spark system breakthroughs and point the way to completely new and more effective ways to achieve widespread improvement on a deep level.”

Practical. Readers will appreciate that Leadership: Key Competencies for Whole-System Change isn’t yet another book on education leadership that espouses a set of abstract (and often unrealistic) theories without offering real-life applications to practice. The authors ensure readers, “Everything we are involved in is grounded in doing. There is nothing distant, abstract, or theoretical about our work. The material in this book arises from the work we have done in partnership with many districts and states across the United States and Canada where we set out together to cause positive change—both in the big picture and at the school and community levels.”

Systemic. Kirtman and Fullan call for a systemic approach to change that acknowledges the various leadership roles from the classroom to the statehouse, with much-welcomed nods to teacher leaders, leadership teams and networks. In order to build a cadre of innovative leaders, the authors envision a system of talent development that moves beyond traditional hiring and professional development practices (a theme we explored in Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning).  In keeping with Fullan’s trademark emphasis, readers are left with a clear understanding of how changing the school culture is essential to changing the system.

Actionable.  The book is built upon two organizing principles based on the authors’ shared belief that “the road to success involves a combination of (a) using the right drivers for system success, and (b) developing core competencies for continuous improvement. Building off of a compelling conversation finding the right drivers, a key focus of the book is the description of the seven key competencies that give the book its title.

These Seven Key Competencies for Whole-System Change “delineate the traits, characteristics, values, and behaviors of leaders who can focus on their own improvement, build capacity in others, and focus outwardly on the future trends in education.” A leader equipped to create and sustain systemic change:

  1. Challenges the status quo;
  2. Builds trust through clear communication and expectations;
  3. Creates a commonly owned plan for success;
  4. Focuses on team over self;
  5. Has a high sense of urgency for change and sustainable results in improving student achievement;
  6. Has a commitment to continuous improvement for self and organization; and
  7. Builds external networks and partnerships.

Inspiring. One of the biggest takeaways from the book is the feeling that leaders come away with while reading. There are examples and vignettes that allow leaders to see themselves on the pages of the book. There are reminders from the authors to be courageous and to operate with conviction. There’s a trust built between authors and readers that leaves the latter feeling confident and optimistic –  like they can close the book and get to work to change the system immediately.

As Kirtman and Fullan explain, the book “gives leaders the tools to take action regardless of what level of the system they operate from” because “the model is based on the premise that you have to be your own change agent and cause ripple effects by mastering the seven competencies as you lead change in your own jurisdiction and beyond.”  

Eager for specifics? Download a free sample chapter or find out more about the book and order it here

Share your thoughts about the leadership competencies required to lead whole-system change or add your own experiences and resources to the conversation on social media using #7LeadershipCompetencies.

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Carri Schneider

Carri Schneider

Carri Schneider is Director of Knowledge Design at Getting Smart. Find Carri on Twitter, @CarriSchneider.

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