Published on 2012/06/07

Great Leaders Change Results: Learning from the Past to Change the Future of Learning

Higher education leaders must take the wheel and drive towards more risk-taking, but higher reward ventures than are currently in practice. This is the only way to move the industry forward. Photo by Jennifer Grimes.

Globalization is about creating new and exciting learning paradigms given the many ill-defined things globalization presents. It has brought many things to the fore that have lingered for many years but never really getting the attention they needed. And because of the blatant disregard to some of these issues, the entire world has been launched into a global recession, something some considered more of a depression than a recession. It has brought many good attributes and many not so good ones, too. It has propelled the world into a tailspin of seeking new ways of learning and preparing for new workplace realities and life. It has transformed the way in which the world is presented, interpreted, and responded to and it has changed people’s threshold for inconsistencies.

Globalization is not only about change; it is mostly about learning new ways of being, of doing and responding to the realities around and The Protest was an example of a different response to an ongoing reality of feeling ignore in the economic realities. By feeling ignored, many people showed their disgust by staging massive protest. First in Wall Street and then in places like Rome, Sydney, Madrid, London, Frankfurt and Hong Kong (Gabbatt, Townsend, and O’Carroll (2011). The message sent is the message conveyed that people wanted change and was willing to change some things for themselves despite the risk involved.  It is this attitude that leaders must carry forward into the way higher education operates; more risk-taking for better outcomes.

Sit-in and other forms of protest have gotten the world’s attention to the point that Time Magazine made The Protest the 2011 Person of the Year because of the impact a group of ordinary global citizens made on the world’s stage. What was recognized in that protest is — leadership. People were sick and tire with the status quo. The status quo had cost them their livelihood, their homes, treasured familial and other relationships, their self-worth, the right to design their own future and they decided to do something to change and to shape the future the way they wanted to see it. They wanted to build a foundation for the future they wanted — for their children and grandchildren — regardless of the risk and consequence involved. They wanted change and they shock things up and changed things themselves. They are change agents.

Many are quick to say that change is not an easy thing, but what true about The Protestors is that they endured many inequalities for some time and they change those circumstances. They were able to mobilized people from every level of society globally toward a common cause and that is partly one of the high points of The Protest. It really makes one wonders where The Protestors got that inner strength from, but from a close inspection of the issues, it is clear that persons are learning from their surroundings and they are emulating what they are sensing and learning and that is the form of leadership that got them the Times Magazine’s 2011 Person of the Year recognition.

They are natural boundary spanners who are capitalizing on what they are learning to change circumstances for themselves, their families and communities all around the world. Knowledge leaders can learn a thing or two about change from these leaders. These as well as other leaders who have gone before and some of today’s more established leaders can impart importance lessons of how risk-taking can make change happen. By studying the transformation process of The Protest, higher education leaders can learn some important lessons to begin to change their processes, practices, systems and engagement paradigm to transform their institutions for the greater good of families, the institution, communities and the nation they serve.

The debates about leadership are many and especially in these ill-define times, leadership is second behind globalization in terms of what gets peoples’ attention. In fact, it is leadership many believed that will help change the socioeconomic, political and job readiness paradigm that have stalled us in the past. Without risk-taking leaders, many imagined that the old will stall and new leaders, ideas, systems, processes and practices will never emerge. If the latter path is taken, a paradigm shift in reverse only perpetuates mediocrity, nepotism, misaligned programs and curricula and prepare students for a life on the unemployment lines and put them in the underutilized class as early as the first day of graduation. To avoid a perpetual downward slide, change in the leadership posture is a necessity.

No one wants to take the needed risk that can launch major initiatives, produce mass resistance that will lead to understanding and then change, or on the worst end cement the status quo until the right leaders comes who will make the needed changes. Still, in some circles it is believed that change in a nebulous global socioeconomic and tenuous political environment required a particular kind of leader that is yet to be defined. In many circles different theories of leadership are being tried and reexamined for congruency with global changes. But although many societies are fad-driven, most of them are slow to latch on to any of the new models of leadership.

However, there are benchmarks of leadership of the past that people still associate with and use to ground how they lead. Some possible elements used for grounding leadership are established from practice, earlier theories and the various definitions of leadership. In fact, leadership has been defined in terms of a trait, a behavior, a style, a situation, a dyad, personality type, authenticity, a position, results, a group process and many more definers have been used to conceptualized leadership. Regardless, what is certain is that those who are considered great leaders are leaving something behind or have left potent legacies that continue to generate dialogue, ground policies and processes that are transforming people in the ordinariness of life for generations to come.

Leaders today can learn something from other leaders and must be intentional in this exercise. They may chart a course to leave a lasting legacy. They must become students of the law of multiplicity which suggests duplicating oneself in ways that transcends one situation to another. Given this, leaders must be intentional in grooming persons from within who will one day assume a leadership role while at the same time leaving knowledge, processes, practices and well-developed people behind to advance the entities long after the incumbent leaders is gone just like some well-known leaders of today and some who have gone on. For instance:

Justin Smith Morrill was instrumental in getting the Morrill Act of 1862 and 1890 passed that established what we call today, the Land Grant Colleges and Universities. These institutions hold very prominent places in many communities all across the United States. The lessons left by Justin Smith Morrill have immense implications for issues of parity, longevity, tenacity, seeding projects, perpetuity, research, purposeful learning, futuristic thinking, leadership and more. Higher education leaders must see their histories and learn and use the wisdom left by the originators of those histories for they provide many great lessons for the present moment, especially what it will take to move a misaligned educational model in the right direction and for a new model to emerge.

Then there is Mohandas Gandhi who established the non-violent civil disobedience approach to deal with social injustice. These techniques have been practices by Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela who used non-violent civil disobedience for different reasons. In the case of Martin Luther King he used these same non-violence methods to make a segregated South, less segregated and open the way for dialogue on race relations and parity among the races and gave voice to the voiceless in the process. Higher education leaders can emulate the ideas espoused in this model to chart a new course for the communities where they reside; make life more bearable for the residents; and open its doors so that those they have spoken for can learn to speak for themselves. This is what lifelong learning is about, it is about giving everyone a chance to learn, despite their level preparation and life content to become whatever is in them to become. What this said that all persons matters and have the capacity to contribute and will be given the right opportunities to contribute toward building their families, building their communities, building organizations and building nations. This is the fundamental mission of all higher education institutions regardless of their affiliation and it is important for higher education leaders to see the need to return to that fundamental mission. It is the way out of a recession/depression and a way forward towards building the strongest global economy even. Higher education did it before and it can do it again. Higher education leaders must recognize what the great histories and models of change they have at their disposal and use them.

Nelson Mandela used non-violent methods to bring about social change and transform Apartheid South African. Elements of the non-violent civil disobedience principles are still pronounced and are used in many circles to bring about change. Leaders can learn from these acts of leadership how to change many things in their institutions that have a perception of being unjust and it is the response to these issues that will lead to less resistance and greater inclination to embrace change that will create an equitable realities and a suitable future state from which to build many futures for generations to come. Higher education can no longer hide the obvious hindrances to their institutions’ success and issues that stalled them from attaining best-in-class status – they must be confronted. Leaders must change them; write about them; speak about them; and learn from them. This is a new era and leaders must adopt a posture of being change agents in order to reposition their institutions for a new reality in a global economy where learning is different; where learners are learning for life; where learners are more knowledgeable and less passive; were diversity abounds and conversations are varied and should be varied.

Then there are Plato, Socrates, Kant, Aristotle, Aquinas whose thoughts on right and wrong, parity, life, death and dying, learning, social and political issues, literature, ethics, law, government, education, people, work, leadership and much more continues to ground discourse and provide a strong basis for change and continuity. Policies, governance, teaching methods and practices are grounded in the philosophies of these leaders and must be revisited for congruency and fit for this current season of change.

Severn Suziki, and three of her friends at age 12 raised their own money to attend the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to challenge a group of grownups at that meeting to let their work match their words with regards to the environment (Green Living, October 21, 2009). These young ladies saw something wrong in global policy position, decisions-making and execution of these policies and voluntarily used their gifts, talents and financial resources to do something and create meaningful discourse about the blatant disregard for the environment and projected damage it will cause if a different policy direction is not taken. That day when Severn spoke, she just didn’t speak for herself and her friends, Michelle Quigg, Vanessa Suttie, and Morgan Geisler, but she spoke on behalf of the whole world. Higher educational leaders can do something similar for themselves and the communities they serve and are a part of. This is a different era where the collective is the engine that will take higher education forward and higher education leaders need to connect closer home as well as farther afield.

Then there are Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Elliot Zuckerberg who saw a need and responded. Today we have Apple computers and other derivative tools, Microsoft tools and Facebook which advanced social media and it derivatives that is forcing higher education to “react in change.” The common theme among Jobs, Gates and Zuckerberg is not so much that they dropped out of noteworthy higher education institutions, but that they used their creativity to create new products and services that have transformed lives without really knowing that was going to be the outcome. That is what taking risk is about; it is about entering unknown territory and doing something to improve humanity and higher education can take a few lessons from these gentlemen as they begin to challenge the status quo with greater intensity to create a new future state for their institutions and the communities they serve.

Risk-taking is the only way for change to happen in higher education. There is a rich history of resistance to anything different or interferes with a professor’s routine, not realizing that the noted change is to assist the institution better serve students – its number one constituent group. Something different is needed here and higher educational leaders need to put things in perspective and make change happen. The Protestors and other risk-takers earlier mentioned took risk and change happened and has been sustained in part for most situations.

Then there are James MacGregor Burns (transformational leadership);  Paulo Freire (socially just teaching and learning); John Dewey (student-centered teaching learning); Mary Wollstonecraft (humanist thoughts related to women); Viktor Frankl (individual freedom/man’s search for meaning); Kurt Lewin (process of change); B. F. Skinner (behavior is learned and can be unlearned); Maria Montessori (constructive teaching and learning); Abraham Maslow (understanding different needs); Carl Rogers (student-centered learning, national group conflict, understanding personality); Fritz and Laura Perls (awareness, feeling, perception); Henri Taifel and John Turner (social identity; in-group/out-group biases) and the many educational, psychologist, organizational, political, legal and other theorists. These theorists have all provided many benchmarks of risk-taking, knowledge creation, identity formation, strategies and methods for engaging others, human behavior, the capacity human spirit to rise out of adversity and how leadership can rise up and be used in the ordinariness of life. Many great lessons are embodied in the works of these creators of knowledge such as: how to create a more human-centric work and learning environments; the worth of the self and the collective; behavioral nuances and how to work with them and even change them; how to work with resistance and even leverage resistance; how to lead and manage people and prime them for change. The thing about these theorists and their theories is that they provide a basis for deepening leaders’ understanding about change, risk-taking and managing resistance with understanding, care, heart and resolve.

In today’s complex environment, there is nothing ordinary about life; everything is complex but not all complex situations require complex solutions, yet noting is really happening that is tangible, because there is a leadership vacuum that is taking a long to be filled.  However, what is common among all the people mentioned is the fact that they did something and left a legacy or will leave a legacy for generations to come because they risked many things and did something intended to improve humanity. Their actions have offered the world different kinds of knowledge about them personally and how they did what they did, but knowledge can only be viable if it is used, refined, reused and refined until it is perfected. The same is true with change: change cannot stop; people have changed, learning has improved, the environment is constantly being recharged and renewed and a changed culture has been formed. This is what is embodied in globalization – change and learning, too.



Gabbatt, A., Townsend, M. and O’Carroll, L. (2011). “Occupy” anti-capitalism protests spread around the world. Retrieved November 30, 2011 from

Green Living (October 21, 2009). The girl who silenced the world at the U.N. for 5 minutes. Retrieved May 10, 2012 from

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Readers Comments

Rhonda White 2012/06/07 at 8:42 am

Our leaders in higher education ABSOLUTELY need to be less risk-averse. The industry is changing and without taking some risks to keep up with the changes, our institutions are going to get left behind

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