Heroic change

Change is difficult. That’s why it’s important to use models explaining where we are, why we do what we do, and how to go about creating positive change.

Using the hero’s journey archetype to conceptualize change is powerful. 1 If you’ve seen or read The HobbitThe Hunger Games, or Star Wars, then you’re familiar with the hero’s journey. Here’s a short video that does an excellent job explaining it:

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It’s easy to compare the hero’s journey to many of the stories with which we’re familiar. Surprisingly, it’s also easy to apply this framework to the experience of growing as a teacher, school, or district. 2

Let’s compare this wheel to an educator’s experience: The teacher is in her classroom living the status quo, when suddenly she’s called on an adventure. (1:1 implementation, Project Based Learning, Personal Learning Plans… the list goes on.) She’ll need assistance (fellow teacher, TOSA, academic coach, principal, etc.) when she accepts the call. Then comes the departure (performing the new practice), and she’ll quickly encounter trials and approach a crisis (colleague or admin push back, disheartening initial results, physical and emotional fatigue). Through hard work and trusting her students, she’ll earn the treasure (student achievement), and the results will be shared when she returns to work in an enlightened state (new life). The resolution occurs, but it’s not necessarily “happily ever after”. The teacher is indeed changed by the powerful experience of student achievement, but colleagues and admin may not acknowledge the accomplishment of her journey. This is where the cycle begins again, only this time the teacher is the assistance–possibly for a fellow teacher, administrator, or an entire school.

It’s important to self-identify where you are on the hero’s journey before embarking on the change adventure. Perhaps you’re accepting the call. Perhaps you’re in the throes of a crisis. Perhaps you’ve returned a changed person, and you’re ready to provide assistance.

Let’s assume you’re in the assistance role. As a newly minted Gandalf, Obi-Wan, or Morpheus, it’s your job to change teachers and administrators for the better. Just explaining your heroic journey is not enough; you need to be strategic in your approach. This is where another circle–what Simon Sinek calls “The Golden Circle”–comes into play:

The message from the above video is clear: People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Take a look at the Golden Circle:

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As Sinek explains, you have to move from the inside/out. This means your WHY must be established before you can assist people. If you don’t have a WHY, you can’t be of service. (It’s easy to brush this off and assume your WHY has been identified, but I recommend writing down your WHY and taking a good hard look at it.)

Implementing technology in and of itself isn’t an effective WHY. It’s an outside/in approach to changing behavior. Also, providing facts, figures, and technology doesn’t change people’s gut feelings–especially if they’ve been teaching for decades. Instead, you need an inside/out approach. Sinek shares Apple’s WHY: “We believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.” Creating devices comes much later. Educational leaders must be provided a WHY that’s inspiring–because only then will change occur.

Once you develop your WHY, you then need a First Follower.

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In the above video, Derek Sivers makes the case the leader’s First Follower is extremely important. “(The First Follower) is an underestimated form of leadership in itself.” This means you–as a leader–must attract a First Follower with your WHY. If the WHY is solid, then it’s inevitable a second follower will show up. Then a third. Then a fourth. Momentum ensues, and eventually teachers who aren’t joining the movement will feel left out, meaning almost everyone will join in. This is when skin in the game is developed, and trust me, skin in the game is extremely important.

Sivers calls the accumulation of followers “creating a movement”, but it’s essentially the same as taking a group on the hero’s journey.

Let’s put this all together:

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In the above picture, we have the hero’s journey circle and the Golden Circle, which is pointing to “First Follower”. This is the foundation for change.

Here’s a quick recap:

  1. Identify where you or your institution is on the hero’s journey.
  2. Establish your WHY. Afterward, you can better determine and enact your HOW and WHAT.
  3. Attract your First Follower(s) and nurture their leadership. By nature of being a First Follower, they will join you as assistance along the hero’s journey.

As I stated at the outset, change is hard. Using the hero’s journey, the Golden Circle, and Sivers’s First Follower concept can help educators as they become more effective for the sake of students.


  1. Joseph Campbell popularized the hero’s journey archetype, but I learned about using this framework to conceptualize educational change at the CUE Rockstar Admin conference at Skywalker Ranch in September 2015. Jon Corippo and Ramsey Musallam developed and shared the idea; you can find out more about CUE Rockstar Admin here
  2. I used Canva to make the images in this post, but the hero’s journey and Golden Circle were not originally created by me. Joseph Campbell delineated the steps of the hero’s journey, and Simon Sinek developed the Golden Circle. The image at the end of this article is a synthesis of Campbell, Sinek, and Derek Sivers’s wonderful ideas. 
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