5 Characteristics of a Change Agent

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by visualpanic

(change agents) – People who act as catalysts for change…

In my work through school and organization visits, I have been fascinated to see the correlation between the speed of change and an individual who is “leading” the charge.  The schools that have someone (or a group of people) helping to push the boundaries of what can be done in schools seem to move a lot quicker with a larger amount of “buy-in” through the process.

As Malcom Gladwell describes in his book, “The Tipping Point“, he states:

The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.

Although Gladwell talks about the “Law of the Few” (connectors, mavens, salesman), I do not believe change is solely dependent upon their skills, but also the culture in which they exist.  You cannot be a connector if

you are in an environment where people do not want to come together.  So although a change agent can trigger growth in an organization, the culture in which they exist or are brought into has

a huge bearing on their success.  If a school embodies itself as a true learning organization, change will happen much quicker.

With that being said, I have noticed that the individuals that are really successful in helping to be a catalyst for change certainly embody some similar characteristics.  Below is a list of what I have seen consistently.

1.  Clear Vision – As mentioned

above, a “change agent” does not have to be the person in authority, but they do however have to have a clear vision and be able to communicate that clearly with others.  Where people can be frustrated is if they feel that someone is all over the place on what they see as important and tend to change their vision often.  This will scare away others as they are not sure when they are on a sinking ship and start to looking for ways out.  It is essential to note that a clear vision does not mean that there is one way to do things; in fact, it is essential to tap into the strengths of the people you work with and help them see that there are many ways to work toward a common purpose.

2. Patient yet persistent – Change does not happen overnight and most people know that.  To have sustainable change that is meaningful to people, it is something that they will have to embrace and see importance.  Most people need to experience something before they really understand that, and that is especially true in schools.  With that being said, many can get frustrated that change does not happen fast enough and they tend to push people further away from the vision, then closer.  The persistence comes in that you will take opportunities to help people get a step closer often when they are ready, not just giving up on them after the first try.  I have said continuously that schools have to move people from their point ‘A’ to their point ‘B’not have everyone move at the same pace. Every step forward is a step closer to a goal; change agents just help to make sure that people are moving ahead.

3. Asks tough questions – It would be easy for someone to come in and tell you how things should be, but again that is someone else’s solution.  When that solution is someone else’s, there is no accountability to see it through.  It is when people feel an emotional connection to something is when they will truly move ahead.  Asking questions focusing on, “What is best for kids?”, and helping people come to their own conclusions based on their experience is when you will see people have ownership in what they are doing.  Keep asking questions to help people think, don’t alleviate that by telling them what to do.

4.  Knowledgeable and leads by example – Stephen Covey talked about the notion that leaders have “character and credibility”; they are not just seen as good people but that they are also knowledgeable in what they are speaking about.  Too many times, educators feel like their administrators have “lost touch” with what is happening in the classroom, and many times they are right.  Someone who stays active in not necessarily teaching, but active in learning and working with learners and can show by example what learning can look like now will have much more credibility with others.  If you want to create “change”, you have to not only be able to articulate what that looks like, but show it to others. I have sat frustrated often listening to many talk about “how kids learn today” but upon closer look, the same speakers do not put themselves in the situation where they are actually immersing themselves in that type of learning.  How can you really know how “kids learn” or if something works if you have never experienced it?

5. Strong relationships built on trust – All of the above, means nothing if you do not have solid relationships with the people that you serve.  People will not want to grow if they do not trust the person that is pushing the change.  The change agents I have seen are extremely approachable and reliable.  You should never be afraid to approach that individual based on their “authority” and usually  they will go out of their way to connect with you.

That doesn’t mean that they aren’t willing to have tough conversations though; that also builds trust.  Trust is also built when you know someone will deal with things and not be afraid to do what is right, even if it is uncomfortable.  Sometimes trust is built when you choose to do what is right for your community or organization, as long as it is always done in a respectful way.

Should every school/district administrator have these qualities?  Probably.  But with that being said, positive change is not reserved to be the responsibility of any position.  The best leaders may have all of these qualities but also empower others to be those “change agents” as well to build a culture of leadership and learning.  I can think of many people that I have encountered who have helped pushed their organizations ahead that have no formal “authority” over any individual.  That being said, some of them do it in spite of their principal or superintendent and often feel that they are in constant conflict.  Things would obviously move a lot quicker if they had the support of their leader.  With that support, change can happen in an organization quickly, but if the leader does not “clear the path”, improvement will take a lot longer than it should.

What is important to note is that being a “charismatic leader” is not something that is essential.  Often, charismatic leaders lack many of these qualities that I have listed above and although they can seemingly lead change, it is not sustainable and does not permeate throughout the school or organization; it becomes too dependent upon one person.  For example, was

Steve Jobs a change agent, or a charismatic leader?  Apple is not doing as well since he has passed away and their innovation has seem to slow down.  Steve Jobs was known for being notoriously tough to deal with and the trust that is essential to building a strong culture was probably lacking to some degree.  I believe that change agents will help to create more leaders, not more followers.

What qualities from this list did I miss?  Do you think that there has to be at least one person or group to help permeate change and growth in an organization?


39 comments for “5 Characteristics of a Change Agent

  1. March 3, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    Great post, George.

    The reason I like it so much relates to what I would like to see added to the list. Point #2, patient yet persistent, is key. However, this characteristic can also drag a person down. The brick walls, at times, seem to hard to climb, and the “in spite of” nature of the work can be deflating and discouraging.

    Having a positive, supportive PLN is critical, and that can be both online and f2f.

    Change Leaders can keep going when they have people in their lives sending them quotes like this:

    “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”
    ― Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/287960.Randy_Pausch

    Change Leaders need to know that:

    You can keep going when you have an innovative classroom do disappear into when you need a lift.
    You can keep going when you can read the blogs of other Change Agents.
    You can keep going when you can read your students’ blogs and share in their learning made visible.

    Change leaders need support, and they need to know where to find that support, because it isn’t always where it should be.

    Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves talk about the burnout factor in “Professional Capital”*, and in our work with Change Agents, we need to be concerned with the sustainability of effort and the health, both mental and physical, of all of the leaders in our buildings.

    Sharing your ideas of what it means to be a Change Leader, and encouraging these discussions, is another way for leaders to find their colleagues and support each other in the work that needs to be done.

    Thank you for this.


  2. March 3, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    This is a post I will return to in the days ahead as there are so many wonderful points to consider. I believe the quality of being a “measured leader” is also important–a “measured leader” is someone who is able to sit back, listen, take in, synthesize and correlate the dynamic ideas and work of many to move a system forward with careful thought and clear intent. In my life, I have worked with several “measured leaders” who were not afraid of new ideas and were driven by ethical vision and intent. Recently as I watched the films “Ghandi” and “Lincoln,” I was struck by their determination, creativity, ethics, vision and “measured leadership.” Thanks for posting and keeping us thinking about the important matters in education.

  3. March 3, 2013 at 3:35 pm

    Donna your reply is dead on, and I thank you for taking the time to expand George’s initial point. I have come to recognize that one of my unspoken roles is to buoy up the change agents in the buildings in which I work. They are carrying a large load and they face the proverbial brick walls daily, and for the most part they are without support from their admins. However, it is my own patience that I worry about. As I am on a secondment from my teaching position, each year at this time I have to consider where do I want to be in September. I know that I am having a large impact on the system in my current role as literacy coach, but unlike the teacher change agents I work hard to support, I do not have that face-to-face support. And yet, your reply reminds me that I do have innovative classrooms to recharge in, I do have the freedom to engage teachers in inquiry and exploration, and I do have a burgeoning PLN that encourages me through their open and honest discussion of the work we are all doing.

    Thank you.

  4. July 3, 2013 at 5:06 pm


    This is an outstanding post. I just wrote something on culture change that answers your question at the end of the post. I hope you like it http://cradisch.blogspot.com/2013/07/you-dont-need-title-to-change-culture.html

    all the best for safe and happy fourth of July

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