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Leading in a Culture of Change - Book Review

1 August 2009
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

This book, "Leading in a Culture of Change," authored by Michael Fullan in 2001, is exceptional. It sets itself apart from conventional leadership books that either present a formula for success or narrate the life and work story of a charismatic leader who achieved success. Fullan, the author, dismisses the notion of ready-made recipes, emphasizing that such recipes do not exist—a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with. It's not about the world making complete sense or not making sense at all; it's about fitting in, an almost logical fit rather than an entirely logical one (quoted from Sarterton in Bernstein).

The role of charismatic leaders is called into question. While effective in the short term, propelling the organization forward, these leaders often depart, leaving the organization to grapple with sustaining momentum and success. So, what is the solution? Fullan proposes five qualities that, when embraced, equip individuals with the skills needed to navigate leadership challenges, particularly in an era like ours marked by constant change. These skills are illustrated through real cases drawn from business and educational realms (schools), showcasing Fullan's extensive experience.

The five crucial skills for leadership during change, along with their success coefficients, are:

  • Moral intent

  • Understanding changes

  • Relationships

  • Knowledge Building

  • Consistency

  • Success Promoters

Mastering these skills fosters employee commitment and yields positive outcomes while minimizing undesirable ones. The book's approach empowers leaders to influence the future, positively generating desired results. It is undeniably recommended for every manager and employee in the organization who feels a sense of belonging and aims to contribute to its advancement.

Moral intent

Much has been written about how good intentions, extending to social responsibility, contribute to the long-term advancement of organizations. Fullan presents a slightly different perspective: one doesn't need to be Mother Teresa to possess moral intent and become a leader. The moral intention essential for a leader involves both means and consequences: treating others properly is a prerequisite for effective leadership. Intention (means) and result (end) are crucial—leaders must aspire to take their organization or society somewhere different, reflecting the discussed intention. This moral intent may involve sacrifices or even create challenges (e.g., prioritizing one academic subject over others), but its validity isn't determined by universal goodness.

Moral intent isn't merely declarative; it must manifest in ideas, energies, and subsequent actions. Fullan adds some noteworthy points:

  • While moral intent may seem inherent, leaders must actively cultivate it within the organization.

  • In a global culture, moral intentions extend beyond the organizational boundaries.

  • It's a blend of egoistic and altruistic motives. Leaders with solely altruistic motives may struggle to progress over time; a combination of personal desires and altruism is often more effective.

  • A challenge those with moral intentions face is the tendency to powerfully articulate their ideas, sometimes neglecting to listen to others.

  • Another obstacle is the potential for moral intention to overshadow the pluralism needed for fostering inclusive change.

Moral intention doesn't stand alone as the sole leadership skill, but it undeniably possesses significant qualities in fostering employees' sense of belonging and inspiring them to follow the leader.

Understanding changes

To effectively lead, one must comprehend the intricacies of our ever-changing culture. It's a dynamic, non-linear world, not bound by orderly processes. Given the complexity of systems, anticipating specific actions and outcomes is unrealistic. Instead, leaders should engage in comprehensive forward-moving conduct, albeit not always as initially expected. Understanding the change process transcends mere innovation; it involves the capacity to innovate and create strategies, not adhering to a singular strategy but fostering the ability to devise strategies. Fullan emphasizes diverse methodologies for change management, asserting that organized recipes are absent. The approach is more about providing guidance and empowering leaders to independently discern the right course of action.

The six fundamental principles Fullan proposes for grasping change are as follows:

  1. The objective isn't maximum innovation at all times. Recognize when to pause and reflect, when to delve deeper, and when to expand.

  2. Having the best ideas isn't sufficient; selling those ideas, both internally and externally, is crucial. Different leadership styles are applicable in different situations, and effective managers understand when to employ each style to champion ideas.

  3. Acknowledge and prepare for performance decline during implementation. Determination, an authoritarian leadership style, and moral intent are essential to guide the organization through this phase.

  4. Redefine the concept of resistance; it isn't entirely detrimental. Divergent opinions can be beneficial, as agreement might lead to stagnation. Overcoming the challenge of listening is pivotal for leaders.

  5. Construct a renewed culture for change, distinct from mere structural restructuring. Incremental building of a culture that supports change is crucial for success.

  6. Avoid reliance on ready-made checklists for change. Recognize the system's complexity; the challenge lies in intervening with ongoing conduct to initiate change.


It is commonly stated that everything hinges on people. Pollan, however, nuances this notion by emphasizing the significance of connections with and between people. The concept of connection extends beyond its literal sense; it involves more than just a social network. Authenticity and care form the foundation of these connections. People desire to be part of something greater, per Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and contribute to the organization's transformation (moral intention). Through the attitude we convey, we can instill a sense of partnership. A high commitment to a shared goal and a positive approach to individuals inside and outside the organization leads to success. It is argued that a positive attitude distinguishes effective managers from merely competent ones. Pollan references various articles and books related to relationships and context, including those focusing on connections. People are inclined to follow leaders who inspire through:

  1. Thoughtful and selective sharing of vulnerabilities, showcasing humanity and vulnerability.

  2. Trusting intuition.

  3. Empathetic yet firm management (i.e., showing care while maintaining discipline).

  4. Highlighting the unique and diverse qualities among individuals.

So, how do these contexts manifest? They unfold in various directions:

  • Being authentic as a leader, acknowledging personal weaknesses, and employing emotional intelligence are pivotal tools.

  • Demonstrating concern and respect for employees and external individuals associated with the organization.

  • Facilitating the creation of social networks among employees within the organization.

However, there are some cautionary notes to consider:

  1. Avoid generalizations and be mindful of how relationships with employees are cultivated. Care should be taken to build relationships that withstand changes, ensuring the organization's overall well-being.

  2. Given connections' powerful and meaningful nature, exercise caution to avoid negative connections or misplacement.

  3. Recognize that not every social network constitutes a deep connection; weaker networks also serve a purpose. Nonetheless, these networks should be directed to extract maximum benefits (refer to the next chapter on Knowledge Building).

Knowledge Building

Pollan emphasizes the pivotal role of knowledge (distinct from mere information) in effectively leading an organization. Knowledge, rooted in social connections (the connections among those possessing knowledge), stands out as a significant success factor. Pollan delves into classic knowledge management literature (Nonka and Takauchi; Van Kruch, Ichijo, and Nonka; Davenport and Prosek) and explores two crucial aspects of leadership:

  1. Development of knowledge in the organization: Employee-driven knowledge development serves as the tool for progress and change, shaping the directions to be pursued. The leader plays a central role in fostering constant innovation and change.

  2. Sharing knowledge in the organization: Knowledge sharing is a process that cultivates a culture. Encouraging this process and nurturing a culture of sharing are equally important. At the foundational level, knowledge sharing grants access to necessary information for work and the creation of new knowledge. On a deeper level, it exposes tacit knowledge that cannot be accessed through other means.

Pollan provides practical examples of how sharing and development can be implemented:

  • Colleagues visit each other for professional purposes.

  • Peer networks.

  • Internal and external consultants share knowledge and contribute to employee development.

  • Knowledge fairs are where individuals showcase their achievements and share them with others.

  • Lessons learned, including After Action Review (AAR) sessions.

Relying on knowledge, especially tacit knowledge, nurtures organizational development and contributes to the organization's and its leadership's success.

Pollan identifies two critical conditions for knowledge sharing and development success: trust and collaborative knowledge work. Emphasizing the team's collective knowledge development, as opposed to individual efforts (as articulated by Van Kruch, Ichijo, and Nonka), aligns with Pollan's emphasis on connections and moral intent.


The realm of change is inherently paradoxical, characterized by non-linear complexities that pose challenges and risks. However, the potential for ideas, creativity, innovation, and change lies within this chaos. Navigating such intricate systems requires the ability to convey consistency and foster cohesion. While recognizing the importance of allowing chaos, there's an equal need to discern when to bring everyone together, preventing a descent into disorder.

Maintaining balance and avoiding stagnation is crucial in complex systems, as rigidity leads to demise. Opportunities arise from threats, mainly when operating on the edge of chaos, where enthusiasm for self-organization within systems generates innovation. Acknowledging that these systems, including organizations, don't operate linearly and can't be directed on a straightforward path is vital. Anticipating surprises and intervening holistically guides them toward a suitable trajectory.

Pollan critiques the tendency to pursue reforms and innovation projects independently, emphasizing the need for traceability and overall connection between activities. To foster consistency, Pollan suggests three tools:

  1. Encouraging self-organization through a bottom-up strategy: Despite the inherent risks, this approach involves exposing employees to a greater extent, emphasizing the leader's role in shaping and supporting employees rather than controlling the entire process.

  2. Encouraging a Strange attractor in the organization involves identifying experiences or factors that generate positive energy within the organization, such as non-standard visions or new traditions, contributing to employee commitment and organizational cohesion.

  3. Focus on goals and bottom lines: This seemingly straightforward principle requires practical implementation. Pollan suggests evaluating new ideas based on their benefits as a tangible way to actualize this focus.

Pollan's exploration delves into the delicate balance between disrupting fixation and embracing surprises to drive progress in desired directions—elements essential for fostering innovation.

Success Promoters

In the comprehensive exploration of the book, Pollan elucidates five skills pivotal for leading in an era of change, emphasizing their developmental aspect over preconceived recipes or checklists. The narrative draws inspiration from the parable of the rabbit and the turtle, highlighting the triumph of consistent hard work over sprint-like competitions.

To achieve success, Pollan advocates embracing several principles:

  1. Deliberate Thinking: The importance of thoughtful consideration is underscored. It involves avoiding rigid adherence to a single correct answer, fostering understanding, assimilation, and potential reevaluation until both the leader and the organization gain confidence. Paradoxically, this process need not be protracted but demands the necessary time without haste.

  2. Contextual Learning: The book underscores the significance of learning from experiences rather than solely relying on books or external advice. Embracing errors as part of the change journey is crucial, as are promoting continuous learning, extracting insights from mistakes, and refining models through imitation and adaptation. At the individual level, sharing knowledge is pivotal, while at the organizational level, facilitating knowledge sharing by removing barriers and rewarding contributors is vital.

  3. Leading Others to Lead: Beyond personal leadership, the book advocates the wisdom of guiding others to become leaders. This approach fosters more significant leadership, drives substantive changes, and propels lasting success. The culmination of these five skills and a few operational tools provides a framework for collective improvement in leading organizations and society toward a more distant and superior future.

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