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President's Message

Leaders and Change

By Amy R. Smith

“Change is hard” may be both the understatement of all time and the most commonly used excuse of all time. It's not just that humans don't like change; we're literally hard wired to resist the stress that change brings and maintain our equilibrium. Change is constant in our environment and the stresses currently present in education are, for the most part, unavoidable. Is that why implementing successful, lasting change in our buildings and systems is so difficult? If we hope to be or hope to develop building leaders, we need to understand how to promote, implement, and manage change. School psychologists are in a unique position and have the skills needed to manage systems change and conduct this type of work.

Resistance to change—what Harvard researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey (2009) refer as immunity to change—is a firmly rooted response in adults. They cite a medical study that found that when doctors presented heart patients with the information that they would literally lose their lives if they didn't change their ways regarding their health, only one in seven were able to comply. If those unimpressive compliance rates were the result when the subjects' very lives were on the line, what can we reasonably expect from our colleagues when we look to address challenges and implement change in our schools, and what can we do to improve those odds?

Kegan and Lahey (2009) outline two broad types of challenges that building leaders typically face and must facilitate change in order to address: technical challenges and adaptive challenges. Technical challenges are straightforward; there is a problem and there are known solutions to address the problem. For example, a building has been given the directive from administration to conduct universal screenings for reading. It is the leader's job to choose a response, prepare the staff and materials, and then implement and monitor the solution they've chosen. This is the easier of the two challenges to manage.

The adaptive challenge is more complex. There is a problem, it does not have a clear answer, and the possible solutions must be sought and implemented while living with the problem. An example might be a building with high transiency and poverty rates and high teacher turnover that must improve their reading scores. There is no obvious solution. Most likely, multiple issues will need to be addressed using multiple strategies. All involved will need to cope with change and work in new ways as they seek and implement solutions that will solve the adaptive challenges. If the building leaders are not equipped to manage a complex process of change, the likelihood of long-term success is low. Successfully attempting adaptive change requires leaders who have the technical and personal skills needed to manage this type of process. Leading a building or team through adaptive challenges requires leaders to manage their own understanding of and resistance to change as well as that of others. These are skills that can be developed.

One method Kegan and Lahey (1990) use to implement change and address resistance is through the use of professional development. Professional development in education has had a history of being viewed as less productive … to put it mildly. Too often, it has been shallow, fad-driven, and without meaningful context or follow-through. However, Kegan and Lahey (1990) created a professional development framework that uses a different approach. They use professional development to enhance the person—to teach strategies that allow a leader to examine his or her own mindset and behavior as it relates to change. By developing these skills, leaders will be better able to manage their reactions to more complex issues and understand the reactions of their colleagues. School psychologists have the skills to use such a framework during team meetings or consultations to promote meaningful discussions regarding implementing change. In addition, we're in a unique position to support other leaders to learn and use this tool to improve their skills. We may also be in a position to use such a framework as a professional development tool and improve the ability of teams to confront and manage change as they work together.

By understanding the challenges that implementing change can cause and by learning to effectively address resistance to change, school psychologists can fill and support leadership roles. It is up to each of us to seek our own avenues that expand our presence, promote our value, and improve services for the children, schools, and families that we serve. Utilizing Kegan and Lahey's (2009) framework for understanding resistance to change is one example of the opportunities school psychologists have to use our unique skills and positions to fill the role of building leaders. For more information on Kegan and Lahey's work, see http://mindsatwork.com.


Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. (2009). Immunity to Change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Amy R. Smith is the president of the National Association of School Psychologists