The Leading Way of Changing Meaning
By Sandra Sytsma
In studying leading as a way of changing meaning, this research documents a journey of inner exploration amongst five self-nominated leaders in education.
In contrast to change limited by outer dimensional structure, changing meaning in an inner dimension was seen as the necessary complement in creating real difference in educators and in educating.
Over a period of almost a year, the leaders participated in an online project, travelling together through email dialogue focused around leading, changing and meaning. In this, they experiment with a changing way of researching, developing a personalised space of changing in which they could truth-test their thoughts and feelings about the multiple facts of leading and meaning. Such a space - interstitial to their outer working and inner personal lives, but deeply connective of both - was found useful in supporting coherent change processes in the participants leaders.
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Table of Contents
- Research Problem
- Rationale for Research
- Significance of Research
- Aims of Research
- Research Questions
- Limitations and Definitions of Research
- The Changing Way of Being
- Moments of participations
- The Changing Way of Relating
- The Changing Way of Knowing
- The Changing Way of Representing
- The Changing Way of Leading
- The Changing Way of Becoming
- The Leading Way of Changing Meaning
- The Changing Way of Researching
- The participative, socially constructed way of researching
- The open, generative way of researching
- The risking, vulnerable and trusting way of researching
- The truthful, valid way of researching
- The Changing Space of Researching
- The Virtual Space of Researching
Researching The Leading Way of Changing Meaning
- Design Considerations
- Project Implementation
- Data Processing
- Sources informing data shaping
- Changing form
- Reading the data
- Data summaries
- The changing way of being
- The changing way of relating
- The changing way of knowing
- The changing way of representing
- The changing way of meaning
- The changing way of leading
- The changing way of becoming
- The leading way of changing meaning
- The changing way of researching
- The changing spaced of researching
- The virtual space of researching
- Searching again
- Towards changing meaning in the leading way
Reviewer: William C Frick
Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, The University of Oklahoma, USA
Journal of Educational Administration
Vol 47 No 5 (August 2009)
There are various definitions for leadership, and depending on the particular sector in which leadership is found, appropriate definitions can be dramatically different from one another. What appears to be a constant both within and between sectors, with mass schooling as the sector of greatest interest in this discussion, is the inevitability of change. Sandra Sytsma's qualitative, empirically-oriented book The Leading Way of Changing Meaning investigates the phenomenon of leading in one of its important aspects - that of inspiring changing meaning. In fact, the notion of transformative leadership is advanced in this study by investigating the claims that leading is what inspires changing meaning in both intra- and interpersonal ways.
A purposeful sample of five (two male and three female) self-nominated leaders in education, all white middle class, experienced educators in mid-career, engaged in an approximate one year-long journey of inner exploration through a closed group dialogical encounter supported by email list serve correspondence. The researcher, and author of the book, assumed the role of participant observer within the dialogue group and loosely framed the nature and intent of the study for other participants who demonstrated both an interest in the study, per se, and an opportunity to experience a space of safety and creativity in exploring their personal and professional challenges with leadership and meaning-making. This is especially critical as those challenges related to the bureaucratic, structured, hurried and often-times impersonal nature of PK-12 education.
In many respects the five self-nominated leaders who engaged as participants in this study were invited and encouraged to be researchers themselves, searching and re-searching the nature of educational leadership as it relates to both external, systemic change and internal, personal change. Meaning was made by a commitment to reflective practice - engaging deeply in the research as practitioners committed to reflexivity and collective critical support in their own development by continuously articulating a vision of correspondence, harmony and holism between the outer and inner life of leadership. Clearly, this kind of organized, rigorous, reflective professional practice rarely occurs for those who lead for education, broadly speaking, and schooling in particular. Rather quite the opposite occurs. Change is mandated in structural and bureaucratic ways where conformity is expected and meaning-making is neglected.
The research study is comprised of introductory materials that give the reader a sense of the study and its purposes, a significant and expansive theoretical framework, a study design, relevant findings and implications for those who lead in any aspect of formal schooling. Much of Sytsma's book corresponds to one of the important aspects of contemporary educational leadership - attending to one's inner person as a leader (Speck 1999). The multidimensional roles of cultural workers in education - irrespective of formal position or leadership role within organizational structures - demands that attention be given to the inner life of leading. Attending to one's inner person addresses the author's central concern that change, more frequently than not, forces a (p.19) 'separated nature of doing and being in education'. In many respects 'the system' assumes that practitioners will move into change, framed and dictated from the outside, with confidence and certainty, when in fact this faulty assumption does not allow the very people who do the work of schooling and their varied experiences any real partnership in change.
This perspective hints at research and theory pertaining to professional learning and readiness (Concerns-Based Adoption Model) and builds on a model for change in individuals (National Academy of Sciences 2005). Change, manifested in new learning and innovation by way of external forces, without meaning-making at the level of the individual person, does not necessarily translate into valuing such change or assimilating it in any meaningful way (see Cohen & Levinthal 1990).
The tone of the study is clearly based in Eastern philosophical influences but adapts these viewpoints to the contemporary challenges of leading in schools by employing appropriate phenomenological-like methodology. Ultimately the goal of the study was that leading (both self and others) would (p.42) 'bring on the learning of meaning and the [creation] of new meaning to prompt different leading'. This goal seeks to provide a proposal for effective system change, a new reality of sorts whereby (p.52) 'the problems of outer structural change and the fiddling of external indicators, as evident in education at present' would be replaced with (p.52) 'the mindful and knowing participation of people who comprise systems [in order to] bring about more coherent processes of change'.
The tripartite intersection of leading, changing and meaning, as investigated in this study, brought forth valuable insights. And although the reader senses some frustration with the concessions made by Sytsma with the academy in order to conduct this research, her analysis and reporting of qualitative data is transparent and appears to be both rigorous and trustworthy. The book provides great detail about the author's particular worldview and research biases which in turn brings clarity and perspective for the reader.
Some significant findings, as reported, include:
- Participant discovery of an 'interstitial space' - a trusting place to bare all, take risks and be vulnerable in making meaning together about leading, change, leading for change, and leading for change by making meaning for oneself, and as a result encouraging the same in others
- Textual themes that indicated leaders need to productively engage in processing conflict rather than avoiding or downplaying its significance
- Examination (searching and re-searching [or searching again]) of one's values and the alignment or incongruence with systemic values as necessary in order to (p.163) 'find a more meaningful meeting such that changing [can be] driven from within people rather than by a system'
- As a leader, being is just as important as doing, and (p.176) 'those who would lead must go the journey of exploring self', and
- Leadership, a right and obligation of every person, is seeing the world differently and creating new realities that lead to self and social betterment.
Rather than a clear cause and effect study, the outcomes of this investigation are more subtle and nuanced. A synergy was formed within a collegial, virtual space that revealed much about what leaders need to be to be leaders of a certain kind. Leaders need to honor their (p.195) 'inner dimension to function well in the outer domain...[and] a lack of such connection [to an inner dimension]...has been the core problem with change in education'. As Fullan (1991) has suggested, more than a decade ago, real change must occur at a personal level, and this focus on the individual constitutes a central feature of a theory of organizational change.
Overall, the book is thought provoking, especially as it employs a juxtaposition of theoretical groundings, methodological features, and worldview orientation not commonly evidenced in formal academic research. There are continental differences in English prose that make the readability of the book, at points, a little challenging. With that said however, this reviewer highly recommends the book to researchers who are interested in dynamic forms of qualitative investigation and the use of melioration in expanding our collective knowledge within the field of education.
Cohen WM and Levinthal DA (1990) Absorptive capacity: A new perspective on learning and innovation. Administrative Science Quarterly 35: 128-152.
National Academy of Sciences (2005) The concerns-based adoption model (CBAM): A model for change in individuals. Retrieved 26 August 2008 from http://www.nas.edu/rise/backg4a.htm.
Speck M (1999) The principalship: Building a learning community, Upper Saddle River NJ, Prentice-Hall.
Sytsma S (2007) The leading way of changing meaning. Teneriffe QLD, Australia, Post Pressed.