Reflections on Leadership and Proximity

At the beginning of this course, we looked at leadership traits. What attributes lend themselves to good leadership? Many of these attributes, drawn from Kouzes and Posner’s (2011) characteristics of admired leaders, related to supportiveness, trust, cooperation, and communication. Reflecting on the readings and discussions throughout this course, I’d like to add one more item to this list: proximity. I don’t mean physical proximity, although that has certainly been at the forefront of the past several weeks. Proximity to me, as a quality of leadership, works hand-in-hand with other attributes and modifies their effectiveness and authenticity.

The language a leader chooses to use conveys proximity through their communication. Does a leader choose language that includes them in the larger group, such as “we,” or do they distance themselves through “you” and “they”? Proximity, in this way, can be seen as a facet of reflective leadership, by cultivating an awareness of the behaviours and language that brings a leader closer to their team (Castelli, 2016). In remote communication—as many of us have experienced these past weeks and months—the responsiveness of a leader can also convey a strong sense of proximity. Timely, frequent updates create a sense of leadership being close to the issue at hand.

Emotional proximity also shines through in authentic leadership. Closing the distance between the team and its leader can be a matter of word choice: perhaps a personal anecdote or a vulnerable moment. Self-awareness and mindfulness are essential to reflective leadership (Castelli, 2016), and enable leaders to build closer emotional proximity to their team. Leaders need to be able to share the same burdens of stress, express the same frustrations, and celebrate the same small wins as their team.

Proximity is also integral to change and project management. Does a leader set a directive into motion from afar and expect it to waterfall down the hierarchy as each person plays their role, or do they move with the project at each step of the way? A leader who has proximity to a project can support more effectively through direct observation. Rather than asking, “how is the project going?” they have a close-up view of the project and can ask meaningful questions, such as “how was the response to your presentation in the meeting on Monday?”

Looking to the future, I’d like to cultivate a leadership style of proximity. In projects that I lead, I’d like to remain close to the issues and close to the team members so I can support them from a first-hand perspective. How can I cultivate this leadership style? It likely involves aspects of adaptive leadership to remain close to individual needs and goals (Khan, 2017). It may involve qualities of values-based leadership to help people see their goals and help them achieve what they cannot do by themselves (O’Toole, 2008). Importantly, it should involve developing the leadership capacity in others (Huggins, 2017). Maintaining proximity enables leaders to see and support the qualities that allow others to do their best work.

I recognize that not every leader has the ability to maintain close proximity to each person or project they lead, but overall an awareness of proximity may help them remain closer than they would otherwise be. It can be easy to become distant from delegated tasks, but as a leader, it is essential to remain close enough to retain a clear perspective. Change cannot be expected to happen blindly with an initial burst of energy: it must be guided down a well-defined path.

Proximity, now in its most tangible sense, is something many of us have been deprived of in the past weeks and months. However, as we move forward into the uncertain weeks ahead, we can look to find different ways to express our proximity and support each other from afar.

 
References

Castelli, P. A. (2016). Reflective leadership review: a framework for improving organisational performance. Journal of Management Development, 35(2), 217–236. https://doi.org/10.1108/JMD-08-2015-0112

Huggins, K. S. (2017). Developing Leadership Capacity in Others: An Examination of High School Principals’ Personal Capacities for Fostering Leadership. International Journal of Education Policy and Leadership, 12(1), 1–15. https://doi.org/10.22230/ijepl.2017v12n1a670

Khan, N. (2017). Adaptive or transactional leadership in current higher education: A brief comparison. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 18(3), 178–183. https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v18i3.3294

Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (2011). The characteristics of admired leaders. In Credibility: How leaders gain and lose it, why people demand it. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass. Retrieved from Books 24×7 e-book database.

O’Toole, J. (2008). Notes Toward a Definition of Values-Based Leadership. The Journal of Values-Based Leadership, 1(1). Retrieved from https://scholar.valpo.edu/jvbl/vol1/iss1/10

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Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Change as a Reactive Force

Not all change is planned for. When my school went online-only for the first time on February 3, 2020, we needed to implement a wide-scale change on short notice. All instruction—from kindergarten to grade 12—was to move to online learning platforms until further notice. Unlike projects that can be planned months in advance, our shift to online learning needed to happen with a single week’s notice, occurring over a holiday when many people were travelling. Compounding the issue was the uncertainty of not knowing when classes would resume: we are now headed into our tenth week of campus closure, with initial expectations of only a week or two. Nevertheless, change happens. Project plans were put into place as well as continuously adjusted. In this kind of reactive change, concepts like organizational readiness can only be assessed in hindsight. Yet, I believe there are valuable lessons to be learned from the on-the-fly project planning that occurred in our situation.

Despite an unprecedented scenario unfolding, it was not chaos. Early on, leadership set a clear objective that our school would continue to deliver high-quality education online to the best of our abilities. From a systems theory perspective, the shift to online learning was a change that affected every stakeholder in the school: from our teachers, students, and parents to our support staff, office administrators, IT technicians, and cleaning staff. To put this plan into action, we needed a high degree of communication and collaboration, all online and all on short notice. The project life-cycle of initiation, planning, implementation, and closing still occurred (Watt, 2014), albeit condensed into a matter of days and hours.

Uncertainty was the first and most poignant barrier we encountered. Leadership was in a difficult position: people look to leaders to make decisions, yet faced with measures beyond their control, there were few absolutes to be offered. Leadership could not give definite return dates for school, they could only provide plans pegged to milestones a week or two in advance. Aspects of reflective leadership became essential: school admin needed to be highly tuned to the emotional and behavioural situation of their community (Castelli, 2016),

Distance was also a barrier. Throughout the first month of this situation, our school leaders were spread throughout various countries and timezones. In this situation, adaptive leadership helped our admin respond to a complex situation where environmental, cultural, and societal factors were involved (Khan, 2017). Having a strong adaptive leadership style helped our admin rely on each other and on teachers to gather data make informed decisions.

As the weeks wore on, a new barrier emerged: student stress was on the rise, motivation was dwindling, and parent involvement was highly variable. Online learning relies heavily on organization skills and self-motivation, but not all students are strong in these areas, and many were in struggling with emotional stress. This situation required an evolving needs analysis, and involved adapting and reducing the workload for students, as well as connecting students with staff to help support their mental and physical health.

As the campus closure continued, teacher workload and stress was also mounting. It’s not easy to transform lessons that were intended to be delivered in-person to an online-only format. Teachers worked hard to connect with students through a variety of platforms, but the workload was often well beyond a regular school day. Change management as a reactive force was essential. We did not have broad sweeping plans in place, nevertheless aspects of change managment occurred. Leadership needed to consolidate improvements and create short term wins (Kotter, 1996). They also needed to create a shared vision of what online learning looked like for teachers, to ensure teachers did not feel pressured to work beyond expectations. Incidentally, in reactive change management, a sense of urgency is already well established.

There is clarity in hindsight. Under scrutiny, hindsight can find flaws in even the most polished plan. However, I think it’s fair to say our leadership made sound decisions with the information they had. I think one lesson that can be learned from this situation is pace: a reactive change does not have to be a frenetic change. The stages of change management and project planning can still occur, but they have to be progressive—in smaller steps—to leave room for adaptation. New technologies can be adopted, but not all of them, and not all at once.

Our campus closures are not over and our online learning continues as we go into week ten. As the rest of the world begins school closures on their continents, it is inspiring to see so many educators sharing their ideas and best practices. There is much to be learned from change as a reactive force, and I think leaders around the world would be wise to listen to the voices from educators who are learning on-the-fly and sharing their experiences.

 
References

Castelli, P. A. (2016). Reflective leadership review: a framework for improving organisational performance. Journal of Management Development, 35(2), 217–236. https://doi.org/10.1108/JMD-08-2015-0112

Khan, N. (2017). Adaptive or transactional leadership in current higher education: A brief comparison. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 18(3), 178–183. https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v18i3.3294

Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Watt, A. (2014). Project Management. Victoria, BC: BCcampus. Retrieved from https://opentextbc.ca/projectmanagement/

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Leading Change in Digital Learning Environments

Leading Change in Digital Learning Environments
Leading Change in Digital Learning Environments (Kuipers, 2020) – Click to view full size

 

Change is interconnected. Systems theory asserts that “a change in any part of the system creates change throughout the system” (Biech, 2007). This cascade of cause-and-effect suggests that for an organizational change to be successful, it needs to account for many interconnected elements. My infographic identifies six elements that I believe are essential for leading change in digital learning environments (Kuipers, 2020). On its own, this infographic is not a step-by-step model for change, but highlights valuable questions for leaders to consider when planning for change.

Before looking at how to implement change, leaders need to be able to answer why: Why change, why this change, and why now? Answering these questions can help leaders to shape an informational strategy for change (Biech, 2007). In my infographic, I’ve identified readiness and relevancy as the first gears to begin turning (Kuipers, 2020). Technology evolves in a continuous hype cycle (Gartner, n.d.), and digital learning environments are no exception. For the teachers and students within these environments to support a proposed change, they need to feel it is necessary and relevant (Weiner, 2009). “Problems arise when some feel committed to implementation but others do not” (p. 2). The first step for leading change should be to assess how ready an organization is to change.

A sense of personal relevancy is also essential for members of an organization to value a change and feel committed to it. When undergoing a fundamental shift in thinking, a colleague of mine noted the impact of running professional development to share the research and evidence for that change (R. Parker, personal communication, February 21, 2020). Sharing the underlying rationale gives people time to make personal connections to the evidence and discover how it is relevant to them. Building this sense of readiness and relevancy begins turning the gears towards a shared vision for change.

Leading change requires creating a vision and empowering others to act on it. This shared vision often involves a cultural shift and change in language, forming an attitudinal strategy for change (Biech, 2007). In my infographic, vision is the largest and most interconnected gear (Kuipers, 2020), which serves to illustrate the central role it plays in several models for change (Jick & Kanter, 1992; Kotter, 1998; Lecke, 2003; as cited in Al-Haddad & Kotnour, 2015). In an interview, a colleague expressed how a shift in language was essential for creating a shared vision (R. Parker, personal communication, February 21, 2020). Within his context, leadership took on the roles of thought-leader and provocateur, providing opportunities for staff to encounter and grapple with new perspectives. This form of attitudinal strategy aims to “change mindsets and, as a result, change behavior” (Biech, 2007).

Along with a shared vision, members of an organization need to be empowered to act on that vision (Kotter, 1996). In a digital learning environment, this may mean facilitative empowerment such as resources and technology (Biech, 2007), but also organizational empowerment through adaptive leadership to be a change-agent among peers (Khan, 2017). With a shared vision and empowerment within an organization, change can begin to pick up momentum.

Successful change requires time and the ability to gain momentum within an organization. Where vision and empowerment can create an attitudinal strategy for change, time and momentum can facilitate it. Creating this facilitative strategy “depends on a shared responsibility and the involvement of everyone in the organization” (Biech, 2007). When implementing a disruptive change to a school’s timetable, a colleague described how they gained momentum through in-person communication, both internal with staff and external with the community (M. Brown, February 21, 2020). In his context, leadership also needed to overcome resistance, which meant ensuring staff and students had resources and support to “pace [their] lessons, assignments and expectations” based on the changed timetable. In my interviews, colleagues often referred to this momentum as “buy-in”: a shared vision may get the gears turning, but without time and support, a change is unlikely to pick up momentum within an organization.

Managing successful change requires not only a plan but also an understanding of the interconnectedness of that plan. Can leaders create a shared vision without time? Will a new platform pick up momentum if it is irrelevant? By approaching change through a systems theory perspective, leaders can consider the people, technologies, and behaviours that are affected by their change (Biech, 2007). My infographic aims to provoke thought and ask questions, the answers to which may help leaders plan for more successful changes in their digital learning environments.

References

Al-Haddad, S., & Kotnour, T. (2015). Integrating the organizational change literature: A model for successful change. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 28(2), 234–262. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOCM-11-2013-0215

Biech, E. (2007). Models for Change. In Thriving Through Change: A Leader’s Practical Guide to Change Mastery. Alexandria, VA: American Society for Training and Development. Retrieved from https://ezproxy.royalroads.ca/sso/skillport?context=22651

Gartner. (n.d.). Gartner Hype Cycle | Hype Cycle Research Methodology [Website]. Retrieved from https://www.gartner.com/en/research/methodologies/gartner-hype-cycle

Khan, N. (2017). Adaptive or transactional leadership in current higher education: A brief comparison. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 18(3), 178–183. https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v18i3.3294

Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press. Kouzes, JM, & Posner, BZ (2002). The leadership challenge. San Francisco, CA.

Kuipers, S. (2020). Leading change in digital learning environments [Infographic]. Retrieved from https://malat-webspace.royalroads.ca/rru0128/wp-content/uploads/sites/158/2020/02/Assignment1-Visual.png

Weiner, B. J. (2009). A theory of organizational readiness for change. Implementation Science, 4(1), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1186/1748-5908-4-67

Leading Change Through Subtraction

Many changes in modern schools are driven by the imperative to introduce new technologies. However, not all improvements are made by adding. What does change look like when we consider the subtraction of technology from a school? One of the most thoughtful organizational changes I have read about recently was an article by Ross Parker (2020) regarding the evolving technology policy at International College Hong Kong (ICHK). In “Can We Stop Software From Eating School?,” Parker expresses a growing concern over device use in schools, and the decision to reclaim “some of the quiet space commandeered by digital technology” (para. 14). His article builds a narrative of why ICHK decided to restrict the use of devices on campus, and how leading this scale of change took careful consideration and planning.

Subtracting technology from modern schools is not an easy change, and it “swims upstream” from the prevailing trend. At ICHK, leadership “asked [them]selves how [they] could orchestrate a sea change, without coming across as a bunch of old, irrelevant reactionary Luddites” (Parker, 2020, para. 13). Applying Al-Haddad and Kotnour’s (2015) taxonomy, the change in technology policy at ICHK represents a large-scale long-term change, which required internal alignment of the change type and change methods employed. Although it’s not apparent if a specific change method was used, it is evident that this change was made through a holistic approach. Leadership spent “9 months of intense discussion, drafting, consultation, introspection and iterative improvement” (Parker, 2020, para. 13), which is congruent with Kotter’s focus on Leading Change through a shared vision and strategy (Kotter, 1996, as cited in Al-Haddad & Kotnour, 2015). The result was a conscientious cultural change in the school that focused on subtraction.

Organizations that see change as addition without subtraction may end up with a soup of educational technology, seasoned with policies and chunky add-ons. This soup is the is the exact situation that many digital learning platforms end up in. Feldstein (2017) shares a cautionary narrative of adding, adding, and adding features to educational apps. Particularly adding features that are redundant and overlap with other systems. He terms this effect “Feldstein’s Law: Any educational app that is actively developed for long enough and has a large enough user base will become indistinguishable from a badly designed LMS” (para. 19). As a software developer working with educational technology, I have seen this runaway addition of features in several projects. Faced with a “a sense of urgency as emerging technical practices … challenge the traditional academic processes” (Udas, 2008, para. 2) the response is often to continue adding one new idea to the next.

Change is not just addition. It can—and vitally, should—include subtraction. The direction of a change should be considered along side Al-Haddad and Kotnour’s (2015) change types of scale and duration. Leaders looking to make change in their organizations can make equally powerful impacts by subtracting rather than adding: perhaps phasing out a technology, scaling back on an initiative, or pruning an unwieldy policy.

References

Al-Haddad, S., & Kotnour, T. (2015). Integrating the organizational change literature: A model for successful change. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 28(2), 234–262. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOCM-11-2013-0215

Feldstein, M. (2017). A flexible, interoperable digital learning platform: Are we there yet? [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://eliterate.us/flexible-interoperable-digital-learning-platform-yet

Parker, R. (February 10, 2020). Can we stop software from eating school? [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@rossdotparker/can-we-stop-software-from-eating-school-640a0e05ec4c

Udas, K. (June 30, 2018). Distributed learning environments and OER: The change management challenge. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20160309200155

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels

Digital Leadership in Open Source

What does leadership look like when participation is voluntary? This question came to mind as I was recently reading about leadership attributes. In one of my professional contexts, I work as a maintainer and community leader for an open source school platform called Gibbon. In this open source context, the people who choose to contribute their time and expertise to build the project are there of their own volition. I wondered: what attributes of leadership are the most essential in this situation? Throughout my readings, I used this question as a lens to examine and consider digital leadership in an open source context.

Trust is a cornerstone of open source communities, since many members join the community as strangers. In a blog post about digital leadership, Sheninger (2014) states that “it all begins with trust” (para. 6). He urges digital leaders to “give up control” in order to “unleash creativity and passion” in others (para. 6). This can be a difficult yet essential step for open source leaders. At some point, there’s too much work to be done by one person, and a leader needs to share the load. However, since members there there voluntarily and many have never met in person, it can be a tricky position to trust them, and in turn be trusted by them. In this way, trust is a two-fold attribute: both trusting—the capacity to place belief and reliance in others, and trustworthiness—the “ability to be relied on as honest or truthful” (“Trustworthiness”, n.d.). Kouzes and Posner (2011) suggest “the simple truth is that trusting other people encourages them to trust you, and distrusting others makes them more likely to distrust you” (p. 78). With this leadership attribute in mind, it may not be possible to build an open source community without some fundamental level of trust.

Leadership in an open source context should also be adaptive and flexible. Khan (2017) highlights how adaptive leadership provides a greater responsiveness towards change and increased motivation in followers. Her research finds that adaptive leadership is beneficial “in complex situations where the leader-follower relationship is attended to, but so are all environmental, cultural, and societal factors that will affect leaders and followers” (p. 180). Open source communities are fundamentally complex: their members may be anywhere in the world, speak different languages, and have different values. Paying attention to the leader-follower relationship in an open source community is also crucial because the organization structure may not follow a standard top-down hierarchy. Transactional reward-based leadership may be less effective because community members are already participating voluntarily, and their motivation is likely to be intrinsic rather than extrinsic. Adaptive leadership, with its flexibility and responsiveness towards complex factors, becomes an essential approach for digital leadership in open source communities.

Transparency and communication may also be essential leadership attributes for situations where participation is voluntary. Sheninger (2014) numbers communication as the first of seven Pillars of Digital Leadership in Education. He states that “digital leadership is about engaging all stakeholders in two-way communication” (para. 9). I think two-way communication is a logical foundation for open source communities: leaders may not see much headway by giving directives or commands one-way. “Static, one-way methods such as newsletters and websites [no longer] suffice” (Sheninger, 2014, para. 9). Community members are there voluntarily, and their motivation to contribute is likely tied to their having a voice in the project. For open source leaders to build a thriving community, they may need to build channels of communication that foster active two-way participation in the project.

What other leadership attributes are essential to a context where community members are voluntary, distributed globally, and motivated intrinsically? As I continue to research leadership and change in this course I hope to revisit the ideas in this blog post, and I’m curious to hear what leadership attributes my cohort members might suggest adding to this list.

References

Khan, N. (2017). Adaptive or transactional leadership in current higher education: A brief comparison. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 18(3), 178–183. https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v18i3.3294

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2011). Engender Trust. In Credibility: How leaders gain and lose it, why people demand it. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass. Retrieved from https://ezproxy.royalroads.ca/sso/skillport?context=43184

Sheninger, E. (2014). Pillars of Digital Leadership. International Center for Leadership in Education, 4. Retrieved from http://www.leadered.com/pdf/LeadingintheDigitalAge_11.14.pdf

Trustworthiness. (n.d.). In Lexico by Oxford University Press (OUP). Retrieved from https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/trustworthiness

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