Part 6: Sustaining Leadership in Complex Times: An individual and System Solution

Updated: Jun 2, 2020

Fullan M. & Sharratt, L. (2007). Chapter 7 in Developing Sustainable Leadership. Brent Davies Editor. London UK: Sage Publications.

Although written some time ago, these thoughts by Fullan and Sharratt continue to be timely for today’s leadership challenges.

Leadership energy has recently received greater attention as people grapple with the complexity, not only of achieving substantial improvement under challenging circumstances, but also of maintaining organizational momentum for continuous improvement. (see Fullan, 2005,2006, Fullan, Hill, and Crevola, 2006, Hargreaves and Fink, 2006, and Loehr and Schwartz, 2003).

In this chapter we delve into the issues of leadership sustainability by examining a large school district with which we are associated. It is a particularly appropriate case for the topic, because the district has been intensively engaged in a district-wide reform for the past five years and has relied heavily on mobilizing leadership at all levels of the system. The question of interest is “under what conditions can leaders in the system sustain their efforts individually and collectively?”

We first provide some context in describing the district and the Literacy Collaborative (LC) model that has been the focus of reform. Second, we present the results up to this point. Third, we get into the substance of sustainability by drawing directly on data from school principals in the district. Finally we take up the implications for sustaining leadership presence as a continuous force for improvement, concluding that it is both an individual and a system responsibility. We note that if the latter two elements can operate in an interdependent manner the conditions for leadership energy, continuous renewal and sustainability have a greater chance of becoming embedded.

DISTRICT CONTEXT York Region District School Board (YRDSB) is a large multicultural district just north of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. It is rapidly growing with a diverse socio-cultural and linguistic population with over 100 different languages spoken in their schools. On average, the school board has been opening 5 elementary schools a year for the last five years and a secondary school every other year. There are a total of 140 elementary schools and 27 secondary schools with over 108,000 students and 8,000 teachers.

In 2000 when the district began its student achievement improvement strategy in earnest, Director of Education, Bill Hogarth, set out to develop the best possible model for reform drawing heavily on external ideas but developing a capacity from within the district to lead the reform with a critical mass of leaders at all levels of the district. The district decided the foundation for improving student achievement was to focus on improving literacy through a model which came to be known as the Literacy Collaborative (LC). Key features of the approach included:

  • Articulating a clear vision and commitment to a system literacy priority for all students which is continually communicated to everyone in the system;

  • Developing a system-wide comprehensive plan and framework for continuous improvement (SPCI);

  • Using data to drive instruction and determine resources;

  • Building administrator and teacher capacity to teach literacy for all students; and,

  • Establishing professional learning communities at all levels of the system and beyond the district.

The district developed a strong team of Curriculum Coordinators and Consultants, all focused on facilitating balanced literacy instruction. It also linked into external research development expertise, particularly with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT). Assessment of the effectiveness of the implementation was evaluated annually. Capacity-building focused on literacy assessment for learning, instructional strategies, and on change management. In this case, capacity-building means any strategy that develops the collective efficacy of a group to raise the bar and close the gap of student achievement through 1) new knowledge competencies and skills, 2) enhanced resources, and 3) greater motivation. The operative word is collective – what the group can do whether it is a given school or indeed the whole district to raise the bar and close the gap of student achievement.

The district has invested in on-going, systematic professional development in literacy, assessment literacy, knowledge of the learner, instructional intelligence, and, e-learning, as well as professional learning focusing on change knowledge (understanding the change process, dealing with resistance, building professional learning communities, leadership and facilitation skills, and the like). The full blown model is shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Literacy Collaborative Vision

The model may appear overwhelming and we do not intend to explain it in detail here. In fact, the model was developed over time and is presented and discussed on an ongoing basis within the system to clarify the overall vision and to continuously improve the approach. Our point here is that the model is explicit, evolutionary (open to refinement based on ongoing evidence) and comprehensive. It reflects and guides the work of the district and is used by instructional leaders at all levels of the system. More specifically, the Literacy Collaborative model involved developing and supporting school literacy teams, starting with an initial cohort in 2001-2002 and adding schools over a four year period until all schools in the district were involved, elementary and secondary. Each school team consisted of three people - the Principal, the Literacy Teacher (a leadership role typically released for .25 to .5 time to work along-side the principal and classroom teachers during the school day) and the Special Education Resource Teacher (SERT). Note: The funding of the Literacy Teacher is from the school district’s staffing using existing budget – not supported by provincial educational funding. The teams committed to participating in regional literacy professional development (PD) once a month and in change management sessions, led by Carol Rolheiser and Michael Fullan (OISE/UT) four times a year.

The cohorts joined LC, starting with the most disadvantaged elementary schools. In 2001-2002, 17 elementary schools formed the first cohort; 21 schools were added in 2002-2003; 45 in 2003-2004, and the remaining 57 schools joined in 2004-2005. Thus, by 2005 all schools were involved, including all 27 secondary schools. There is a longstanding saying in the change literature that “change is a process not an event”. Such a process was actualized in York Region District School Board, not just because the professional development sessions were continuous over multiple years, but also because the strategy required school teams, working with their staffs, to apply ideas in between sessions and to continually build them into everyday practice. It was what happened in the schools in between sessions that counted. Ideas were constantly applied and discussed as the district emphasized “learning in context” i.e. learning by applying new ideas, building on them, and being re-energized by the successes achieved.

In short, the model was based on best knowledge. Comprehensive in coverage, the model was constantly shared and refined with all stakeholders---the school teams, the curriculum coordinator/consultant staff, the community, school board trustees, and the system as a whole. Moreover there was a multi-year commitment funded at the Board table and outlined in a comprehensive System Plan for Continuous Improvement (SPCI) so that the district stayed on course with the strategy. There was no mistaking that LC was clearly the system priority.

Each June the district organizes a Literacy Learning Fair in which the literacy leadership teams from all schools present what they have accomplished and learned. Schools must report on the three goals of LC: to increase students’ Literacy achievement by:

  • using data to drive instruction and to select appropriate Literacy resources;

  • building administrators’ and teachers’ capacity for successful Literacy instruction; and,

  • establishing professional learning communities across the district. The Literacy Learning Fair is part celebration, part peer-pressure, and part peer-support to keep reaching new levels of achievement. By annually sharing every schools’ commitment to and accomplishment of increased student achievement, the four hundred participants contributed to organization and individual leadership energy renewal.


The intent here is not to explain the results in detail, but rather but to convey enough detail that it is clear that YRDSB is a district on the move (see Sharratt and Fullan, 2005 for a more in depth analysis of results). Our main question of interest in this chapter is what are the issues in sustaining improvement—what are the key leadership issues for the immediate future in a system that is already highly focused and intentional. Assessment of student achievement in reading, writing and mathematics for grade 3 and grade 6 children is conducted annually by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO). EQAO is an arms-length government agency charged with asse