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The following text is inspired by Michael Fullan’s book: "Leading in a Culture of Change", published by Jossey-Bass in 2001. More information about the work of Michael Fullan can be found on his website: http://www.michaelfullan.ca/

Leading in complex situations

Moral purpose

The choice of what is right and wrong is a central issue in organisational decision-making and hence in leadership. The underlying question is that of the values that dictate the choice. Fullan talks of "moral purpose", but he is cautious not to be too explicit about what he means. For me, moral purpose sets decision-making in a framework of values that take the wider community and wider context into consideration, including the future context and the spiritual dimension. Schools and schooling have both explicit and implicit value systems, but the explicit values are not necessarily the guiding framework for action within schools. What's more, the narrowness of perspective of schools (bound up in their own system and partly cut off from the local community - especially in secondary schools) often precludes a value system that takes into consideration the wider context.

Value systems can also be a source of problem. In highly complex, fast-changing situations, fixed value systems tend to be too rigid. That doesn’t mean we need to do away with values, on the contrary. Rather, we need to adjust our notion of values. Confronted with complexity, values need to be more flexible, indicating the general direction in which we are to go. Values have a longer lifespan than goals or objectives. They reach out into the unknown, focussing attention on how we collectively see the future, channelling energy, guiding decisions. They also anchor our action in the past and make sense of the present. A part of values are necessarily transcendent, detached from mundane physical constraints.

Fullan equates moral purpose with commitment. Certainly, moral purpose goes hand in hand with commitment. The latter could be seen as the force that drives in the direction indicated by values. However, commitment itself need not be driven by moral good.

Understanding change

Fullan sees change in complex situations as a process that cannot be understood and handled simply in terms of cause and effect. Instead of managing such situations by applying local fixes, we need a "feel" for leading complex change, as Fullan puts it, and an approach that is developed and refined as an on-going process.

Fullan suggests a number of points of reference to help develop an on-going process of understanding change. One is "reculturing", transforming the culture of an organisation and changing the way things are done. New ways of doing things need to be in line with moral purpose, but also appropriate to collaboration and the building and testing of knowledge. He also stresses the importance of heeding the messages of those who resist change.

Understanding change implies also understanding the complexities of leadership. One of the perspectives on leadership proposed by Fullan is that of being "committed to certain values, but uncertain of the pathways" [pg. 48]. A difficult path in current culture! It is as hard for a leader to admit that he or she doesn't know which way to go forward as it is for teacher to admit to not knowing the answer to a pupil’s question. These two predicaments point to the persistence of roles that are ill fitted to modern-day complexity. If we follow Fullan’s suggestion then the leader is no longer the one who dictates the path for all to follow and the teacher is no longer a universal purveyor of knowledge. Both need to foster the conditions necessary for change and related learning to take place within the organisation in accordance with shared values.

Despite the fact that change seems to continually accelerate, understanding change and reaching decisions does not necessarily have to be quick. On the contrary, making sense of complexity is best done by more patient, less deliberate modes. Fast thinking implies quick closure, whereas handling complexity requires keeping options open.

Building relationships

Fullan's tenet is that change is a learning process that can only take place satisfactorily if it is a collective experience based on exchange and collaboration in real-life, pertinent situations. As such, it is a constructivist approach, applied to institutional learning rather than that of pupils. The importance of building relationships lies in the creation of a suitable context for collaborative learning.

Another way of looking at relationship building is as a response to complexity. In complex situations, everything exists in relationship to everything else and relationships are the organising principle. Change then emerges from interactions between actors and not as a result of the dictates of authority. However, interaction keyed to learning through communities doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the outcome will be appropriate. There needs to be focus to get things moving in the right direction. Note that one of the corollaries of this position is that individual training, out of context, is of little use when it comes to handling complex situations. Much teacher training is still centred on the individual and a lot of it takes place out of the school context.

Fullan puts considerable emphasis on emotional intelligence as a form of knowledge necessary for relationship building in complex, often emotional situations.

Knowledge building

In talking about knowledge building, Fullan makes a distinction between information and knowledge. Knowledge is rooted in people and is closely related to emotions, aspirations, hopes and intentions. He points to the fact that most institutions have invested heavily in information technology and possibly training, but neglect the creation and sharing of knowledge. One of the major roles of leaders is to create the context (and culture) conducive to sharing and creating knowledge. Much valuable knowledge is tied up in people in the form of so-called tacit knowledge. Capitalising on these individual riches requires a culture that fosters exchange and collaboration. At the same time, new ideas and new approaches are produced when multiple perspectives and differing cultures meet. Such sharing of knowledge and experience requires mutual trust, underscoring the importance of solid relationships and emotional intelligence as mentioned above. With good relationships, people feel safe to explore unknown territories. In fact, as Fullan points out, a learning culture springs naturally from sharing ideas about issues we see as important.

A key ingredient to knowledge building is the assessment, the sorting and the reorganising of experience. This is a delicate process, especially in schools where the overriding judgemental approach could cancel out any positive effects of efforts to build trustful relationships. In this process, leaders need to give people room to explore and discover. This is why Fullan puts much emphasis on an approach to leadership that is confident in the process underway and doesn’t continually need to interfere. As he puts it, the approach is more enabling than controlling. He also stresses the need for learning to take place in context with other members of the organisation.

Coherence making

Complexity tends to generate stress, confusion and other negative emotions. Fragmentation is one way people attempt to handle complexity. They try to master the situation by sealing off a part from the whole. Unfortunately, in complex situations all parts are interrelated and cannot meaningfully be isolated. Persistently concentrating on a part of the situation only heightens the negative emotions.

Another response to complexity is control, but complexity doesn’t let itself be so easily controlled. In approaching complexity in organisations, Fullan draws a parallel between living organisms and human organisations. Complex living systems are known to “self-organise”, that is to say, new forms and new ways of working emerge spontaneously from the complexity of the system. Living systems cannot be constrained to follow linear paths. That they may appear to do so is due to the limited, short-term perspective we adopt. Unforeseen consequences are inevitable. In organisations, excessive control will hamper the spontaneous emergence of new forms from complex situations. What Fullan calls “coherence making” involves seeking a balance between letting go and even encouraging “disturbance” on the one hand and building coherence, sense and direction on the other. This is the main challenge, as Fullan puts it quoting Pascale, Millemann and Gioja: disturbing the system in such a way "that approximates to the desired outcome". [pg. 108]

Organisations, as we are used to them, are designed to foster stability and coherence with specific goals in mind. As such, change is always a threat. In his book about leadership, Fullan puts forward a more appropriate form of organisation for the complexity of modern life. The aim of such an organisation is to learn and to improve, evolving new ways of doing things in the service of wider moral values. Such an organisation seeks to encourage change while providing a sense of direction that diminishes anxiety and stress (that spring from complexity and the unknown).

Alan McCluskey, Hoenderloo, The Netherlands

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Created: August 8th, 2004 - Last up-dated: August 8th, 2004