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Leadership: choice and change

By Jane Hofmeyr

Choice is the keystone of independent education and the tides of change we have to cope with are tsunami-like, so two presentations on these topics at the American National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) annual Conference 2011 resonated powerfully with me.

As I have often done in previous articles, I decided to share their insights with you. While leadership and change is a common theme, I had never considered before the relationship between leadership and choice, so I was fascinated to see how Sheena Iyengar – the S.T. Lee Professor of Business at Columbia Business School, who has researched choice for two decades in cultures around the globe – would handle the topic.


Iyengar is a remarkable woman: so confidently and engagingly did she speak, that it was a while before we all realised that she was blind. Clearly, this was a woman who had chosen to make a success of her life despite her disability.

Her theme was that as leaders we are defined by our choices. She argued that, ultimately, choice is the only force – not birth, fate, luck or chance – that puts the control in our hands. It enables us to get from who we are today to what we want to become tomorrow. If we can harness the power of choice, then we can lead more effectively. According to Iyengar, the recurring recipe for successful leadership is the ability to see choice where others do not see it – and use those choices to empower themselves and their teams.

She identified four keys to leadership:

1. Control: Effective leaders distribute control and even sometimes relinquish it. Not only do they empower themselves with choice, they share control. An effective leader finds ways to give others control. We can empower people in simple ways, such as giving students choice over the order in which they want to complete their homework. Her research shows that even small choices can make a big difference in performance – up to 2.5 times better results for pupils.

2. Culture: This plays an integral role not only in our decisions, but also in how we perceive choice. The perception of how much choice we have varies by culture, as does what constitutes a meaningful choice. “The relationship between choice and control is more nuanced than we realise,” asserted Iyengar. Differences in perception matter because this impacts performance. Having a lot of choice could be very freeing and empowering, or you could feel that you lack focus and direction, and are buried in minutiae. Effective leaders match choices with employees’ needs.

3. Choice overload: If we have too many choices, we cannot compare and contrast those choices, we get frustrated and confused, and we are not happy with what we select. Choice has increased exponentially in our lives. Iyengar asked: “Have you ever jotted down how many choices you make in a week? How much time you spend on each choice?” One study found that CEOs make 139 different, discreet decisions in a week. Half are made in nine minutes or less; 12% take an hour or more. If we try to tackle all of the choices that come our way, at some point we are going to make a mistake, so Iyengar advises leaders to cross off all but the top choices and make these your priority. Delegate the other ones to someone who can make them his or her top priority.

4. Informed intuition: This skill involves recognising patterns and develops after thousands of hours of practice, plus feedback. It uses reason that becomes so internalised that it feels like gut. Chess masters are the epitome of informed intuition in action. An expert chess master sees the board in patterns and lines of attack, not as individual pieces with individual moves.

Good leaders simplify and categorise options so they can home in on the most relevant options. They have sharp vision; they know where they’re headed. “A great leader is a dedicated practitioner of effective choosing,” said Iyengar. Exercise control, question choices and explore new ways to meet your goals. It is about creating a better tomorrow by making informed choices.

In her final words, Iyengar advised that a leader should “identify the most meaningful choices so you don’t feel powerless… What is a leader, if not a dreamer with a plan? Regardless of what fate has in store for you, if you choose wisdom and compassion, you are on your way to mastering the art of choosing.”


Dan Heath, the co-author of Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, and another compelling speaker at the conference, illuminated the relationship between emotion and reason when it comes to change.

As he reminded us, people do not always embrace change. He asked how leaders in schools can ensure, as they roll out their strategic plans, that the staff, students and parents will embrace the changes involved. The answer, he argues, lies in a better understanding of the brain. A person wanting to go on a diet is the perfect example. The rational, conscious, deliberative system in our brains understands the need to go on a diet, yet it is the emotional, unconscious, automatic system that shouts in our ear as we return home from work that we need ice cream – in fact, we deserve ice cream after such a long, tough day! Anyone who has ever been on a diet knows which system wins in this fight.

As Heath pointed out, it is an unfair fight, a power imbalance, and he used the metaphor of an elephant (the emotional system) and a rider (the rational system) to illustrate this: although the rider might feel that he or she is in control, the elephant holds the real power. To bringabout significant changes, leaders must therefore appeal to the elephant.

Heath suggested a three-part framework. First, schools must “direct the rider by killing ambiguity and scripting critical moves”. The overall plan may be overwhelming, but if it is broken down into more approachable, achievable chunks, staff, parents and students will be more willing to embrace the change. Furthermore, what may look like resistance is often a need for clarity. A series of concrete steps needs to be spelt out. The second step is to motivate the elephant, because change comes from motivation, not information. Heath offered the example of the warning labels on cigarette boxes about associated health risks, which do not stop people from smoking. A Canadian campaign, however, pictured a limp cigarette with a warning that smoking causes impotency – far more effective, because it appealed to men’s emotions.

The last part of Heath’s framework is to “shape the path; create a culture that is conducive to change”. He quoted the story of a teacher who wanted to curb the bad behaviour of two boys in his class, who always came late and sat at the back. By bringing in two couches and placing them at the front of the class, he caused them not only to sit in the front of the class but also to arrive early because they wanted to commandeer the couches. He had manipulated the environment to change the boys’ behaviour.

Finally, Heath told the audience that his framework for change – direct the rider, motivate the elephant and shape the path – will only succeed if one accepts that failure is part of the deal. Parents don’t assume that their toddler will never walk when she falls again and again; falling is part of the process to learning to walk. This is the mindset that those spearheading change must adopt.


Education is one of the most traditionbound industries in the world, but it is being disrupted by technology, globalisation, financial austerity, shifting political power and social fragmentation. As a result, leaders of educational institutions confront the reality of steering their constituencies through significant changes and making thousands of choices.

The striking metaphors, rich insights and practical advice of the two speakers provide powerful frameworks for deliberation and action. Above all, they remind us that we always have a choice, even at our limits, and that we need to appeal to both the heart and head if we want to effect real change.


Category: Winter 2011

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