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THE IMPROVISATIONAL ART OF LEADERSHIP

Updated: Oct 29, 2023

Essentially, leadership requires an uncanny ability to organize meaning where it may not exist. What heretofore has been implicit and remained unsaid is articulated in a way that brings definition to previously undefined conditions. Savvy leaders learn how to improvise to frame and mobilize meaning. The most effective leaders use metaphors, invent images, and create mental models to focus their organization’s attention where it is needed most: building the structural and behavioral capacity necessary to improve student outcomes through systemic coherence.

Stephen Covey created the image of the ladder of success. He framed it with the question of whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall. Leadership guru Warren Bennis compared leadership to beauty. He said, “It's hard to define, but you know it when you see it.” Author of Good to Great, Jim Collins, borrowed an ancient Greek parable: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” to frame the three circles of his hedgehog concept.


The lexicon of leadership leverages the rich repository of imagery from our shared vernacular. Leaders improvise to find the perfect language to create the perfect metaphor to leave the perfect impression, imprinting on people’s mind an indelible image that captures the essence of an idea, if not the idea itself.

Take a snow globe for example. If you have ever shaken a snow globe you know that the tiny snowflakes eventually sink to the bottom. The snowflakes drift in different ways and at different rates. In economics, snow-globe models find effects by "shaking" their model and watching the induced snow fall.

It’s a useful image as a mental model for organizations experiencing adaptive change, the hallmark of transformation. In contrast to technical change, while challenging can be solved with existing know-how and problem-solving processes, adaptive change presents a different set of challenges. Adaptive change is often resistant to existing know-how and problem-solving processes. It requires altering behaviors since the solutions lie with those behaviors.

The evidence suggests sustainable change is anchored by leaders who push for change but are context-sensitive. Disruptors beat to their own drum by working against the enduring rhythms of education, instead of working with them. I've worked with well-intended leaders who unwittingly created a culture of either/or by responding to adaptive challenges with a focus on technical fixes instead of adult dispositions.


Adaptive change agents disrupt by bringing to the surface the deeper issues of adult behaviors and their impact. In turnaround scenarios, change may require shaking an organization up, even turning it upside down. Studying how the “snow” falls, then, helps the leader learn about the organization. A useful metaphor for imagining group dynamics.


Kurt Lewin deepened our understanding of group dynamics. He argued that while people may come to a group with very different dispositions, they are likely to act together to achieve a goal if they share a common objective. The snow globe is the perfect metaphor to frame and mobilize the meaning for Lewin’s change theory model (Unfreeze-Change-Freeze). Lewin recognized that habits and routines, like snowflakes in a globe, naturally settle to a place they will remain until the globe gets shaken.

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