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:


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:


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.


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:


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. 

5 ways to increase student learning through leadership

Step One

Understand all teachers and administrators are on a hero’s journey:

Maybe they’ve just received the call to adventure to change students’ lives for the better. Maybe they’re in a crisis. Maybe they’ve been transformed by the adventure but are now back in the status quo. It’s important to recognize we’re all in different places.

Step Two

Determine your “Why”. Why do you do what you do? Not “How” or “What”, but “Why”?

Many institutions start with the “What?” Others have a large number of “Why’s”, and this results in a lot of implementations. When there’s no coherence between “Why’s”, things tend to get out of hand. The drivers for decision making become out of whack, and it’s possible the wrong drivers surreptitiously sneak into even the best well-intentioned program implementations.

The “Why” should lack boilerplate jargon and cliches. A great “Why” I heard from a colleague recently was: I want to teach every student as if he or she is my own child.

What a wonderful “Why”! It says so much in so few words. People understand what you mean when you say a “Why” like that. It means every decision is for the benefit of the child. All things will be done (or not done) because it’s good for the kids.

Step Three

Once the “Why” has been established, it’s time to spread the word. You need to find someone to follow you.

Notice how important the first follower is. The first follower is the person who turns what the “lone nut” is doing into a movement. This person is responsible for getting the “Why” adopted. Leaders must tell themselves the following statements:

  • My position of power does not guarantee followers.
  • My first follower will become just as important as me.
  • My authority may diminish as others are empowered.
  • Everything in the above bullet points is fine with me.

Step 4

OK, you have a “Why” and a following (or at least a first follower). How does the message spread? If the message is spreading fine on its own, what can you do to help refine it and move to the next level?

Tell your story (Why) in a simple, direct, and supercharged way.

Communication is important and frequently overlooked. Oftentimes, leaders believe there’s good communication when in fact there isn’t. I recommend telling your story (Why) over and over in a way that’s simple, direct, and supercharged.

Step 5

When everyone has an approximate visualization of where he or she is on the hero’s journey… when the “Why” has been established… when the first follower is attracting others to the tribe… and when the story is being told in a simple, direct, and supercharged kind of way… then capacity can be built.

Here’s the equation I believe will help a school or district build capacity:

Common “Why” + shared skill = Capacity

“Shared skills” is where coherence is so key–all members must understand the common tools and programs being used to help students learn. The only way this is possible is to have a small number of programs, simple systems (lowercase “s”, by the way), and an established way of teaching teachers and administrators.

Steve Jobs once said the following:

People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.

To be a leader, you must say no to a thousand programs, interventions, devices, apps, and philosophies before saying one “yes”. This sentiment, in conjunction with the five above steps, will create an outstanding leader in the field of education.