Creating the Urgency to Lead Schools Forward

By Ronald Williamson

Much has been written about the need to accelerate school reform, to improve schools and teaching and student learning. But a fair amount of complacency remains about the pace of change or even the need to change.

School leaders are not immune from this complacency. Where most students are successful there is little incentive for change. Schools that are less successful often blame external factors like students, families, or society rather than their own practices.

We need to create urgency. Perhaps the best-known advocate for urgency is John Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor and author of Leading Change (2012) and A Sense of Urgency (2008). Kotter identified four strategies leaders can use to create urgency in their organization.

Strategy 1 – Break Down Barriers to the Outside

Most organizations devote their energy to sustaining current programs and practices. They promote from within, talk most frequently with one another, and rely on others in the organization for professional development.

Resistance to the idea that anyone from outside can, in any way, inform their work is often present. This internal focus limits thinking and can inhibit creativity and problem-solving. So, what does a school leader do? How do you respond?


► Recognize the Problem of Relying on an Internal Focus – Maintaining an internal focus means a school may miss opportunities for growth. It also means you may encounter hazards that will undermine your current program. Here’s what you can do.

  • Read widely from a variety of sources and gain insight into emerging social, economic and demographic trends. Most importantly read about trends with which you may disagree. Whether you like them or not, they will impact your school.
  • Share what you’ve read and learned with others in your school and district. Talk about the issues but focus on the possibilities not the threats. This will lessen the gap between inside and outside.

► Listen to Employees and Families – Create opportunities for candid conversation with employees and families about your school. Focus on listening and be authentic in your responses.

  • Hold a series of focus group or town hall meetings where you listen to what’s working and what isn’t. This can often be a tough conversation, but it is vital that you demonstrate your willingness to hear both the good and the bad. Take thorough notes and use them to develop a plan of action.
  • Be respectful of employees and families. It’s hard to engage either group when they feel distrusted or disrespected. Be candid and honest in all interactions.

► Share Uncomfortable or Troubling Data – When you see troubling data about your school or you learn uncomfortable information, be prepared to share it. Don’t shield employees from this information; doing so reinforces complacency. Never blame the data or those who provided it. Own it.

► Send People Out and Bring People In
– Kotter suggests that you send “scouts” out to visit other organizations and learn about what is going on.

  • Send teachers and other employees to conferences to learn about new trends and to visit schools that have implemented new programs. Expect them to return with an honest assessment of what they learned.
  • Invite an outside expert, or a team of teachers from an innovative school, to talk about the issues and to share what they’ve done. Be clear that every innovation has costs as well as benefits. Talk candidly about both. 

Strategy 2 – Act with Urgency Every Day

It’s always been true that what leaders pay attention to becomes important. Leaders are role models, and employees, families and students all note what the leader talks about, how the leader acts and what they pay attention to.

► Respond Promptly – When you respond promptly, you’re not hasty or acting in less thoughtful ways. Rather, you know your priorities and you respond quickly with a well thought out plan of action.

  • Respond quickly to issues involving priorities. A prompt response reinforces the importance of the issue.
  • In meetings, emails, and casual conversation talk about your priorities, ask questions about what is happening in classrooms, and use every interaction as an opportunity to signal what’s important.
  • If you’re attending a meeting, make active engagement a priority. Avoid interruptions and avoid leaving early. Never end the meeting without clarity about who will do what and how quickly tasks will be completed.

► Stop Doing Things That Aren’t Urgent – Every school falls into the trap of doing things the way they’ve been done in the past. To do so can telegraph messages about complacency. Change some of those behaviors and practices.

  • Organize meetings and other routine activities differently. Modify the agenda. Insist that cell phones and tablets be turned off. Find ways to gather input from all and listen to the voices of every participant.
  • Take control of your calendar. Purge low-priority items and projects. Delegate to assistants or teacher leaders. Create time to read and think deeply about the issues. Avoid unnecessary meetings but increase the time you visit classrooms and other places where students and teachers hang out. Talk with them but more importantly listen to what is being discussed.

► Be Visibly Urgent – Because people pay attention to the leader and their action it is critical that you be visible and clearly demonstrate urgency.

  • Be visible and accessible throughout the day. In addition to being seen, you also want to talk with teachers, other employees, students and families about a shared vision and how our initiatives will improve student learning.
  • Talk with passion about what our school can and must become. Be relentless in addressing the the need to adapt and respond to changing conditions. Identify examples of how these initiatives impact students and their success.

Strategy 3 – Embrace Crises

Crises are often seen as harmful or negative. That can be true. Leaders often try to avoid crises. But a crisis can also provide an opportunity to reexamine practices, to commit to new approaches, and to adapt your school to a new reality.

► Use a Crisis to Create Urgency – Following any crisis, take time to reflect and focus on what you, and your school, learned. Use that reflection to engage staff and families in an examination of beliefs and values, and to identify ways to respond that don’t threaten those values but rather reinforce their importance. Be mindful that a crisis doesn’t guarantee greater urgency.

► Create a Crisis – Only partially in jest do I suggest creating a crisis. You never want to do anything that might threaten your school or harm individuals. But you simply can’t fail to act. Use data to shape the crisis or set expectations so individuals are forced to respond. Just be clear in your own mind that manufactured crises must be about “real” problems and not used to distract from “real” issues or tough personnel decisions.

Strategy 4 – Deal with Naysayers

Every school has naysayers. They may be teachers or other employees, families, influential community members or members of the administrative team. While they can’t be ignored, neither can they be allowed to dominate the conversation or inhibit change.

Don’t confuse naysayers with skeptics. Skeptics ask questions, respond to data logically, and often seek additional information. While skeptics can be annoying and slow down decisions, they can make valuable contributions. Naysayers don’t appreciate data or information and often suggest that no action is needed.

► Don’t Waste Time Co-Opting a Naysayer – Naysayers try to stop action and have a tendency to disrupt conversation and delay action. They are often not inclined to listen and won’t welcome data or accept decisions. Avoid their involvement in study groups and other activities designed to create urgency.

► Never Ignore a Naysayer – On the other hand you can’t ignore them either. When ignored, a naysayer can create mischief. They are adept at raising questions that have an element of truth or overstate the problem. They often organize an active resistance, sometimes covertly, and sow dissension among members of the school community.

► Distract the Naysayers – If you can’t ignore them and you can’t co-opt them, what do you do? Kotter (2008) suggests you distract them. First, find a special assignment or task for your naysayer. Ideally, that assignment will take them away from the work on your initiative. Second, pair them with someone who understands their job is to keep the naysayer distracted. Third, give them so much work that there is little time to create disruption and dissension. They still may find ways to be disruptive, but that disruption may be minimized.

Final Thoughts

A sense of urgency is often needed to accelerate change and improve schools. Urgency is not created by a single event, or through a single conversation or presentation. Rather, urgency emerges when there is a systematic approach by the school leader to modify the culture of the school. It starts with the leader and the way the leader spends time, the things they talk about, and the priorities they set.


Kotter, J. P. (2008). A sense of urgency. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Kotter, J. P. (2012). Leading change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.


Ron Williamson is a professor of leadership and counseling at Eastern Michigan University. He was a middle grades teacher, principal and executive director of instruction in Ann Arbor, MI. He’s also served as executive director of the National Middle School Association (now AMLE) and as president of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform. Ron works with middle grades schools across the country and is the author of numerous books including The School Leader’s Guide to Social Media with J. Howard Johnston and the 2nd edition of The Principalship from A to Z, written with Barbara Blackburn.


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