Leadership Capacity

Linda Lambert interviewed by Linda Henke, The Santa Fe Center for Transformational Leadership

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

A Discussion with Linda Lambert, Co-author of the New Book Liberating Leadership Capacity: Pathways to Educational Wisdom
By Linda Henke

Linda and I sat on our back deck drinking our favorite beverage, bubbly glasses of prosecco, enjoying the lovely New Mexican sunset, and chatting about her latest endeavor in a long line of powerful leadership books that she has written over the years. Liberating Leadership Capacity, co-written with Diane Zimmerman and Mary Gardner, was something of a surprise to me when Linda mentioned she was returning to leadership writing a year earlier. I thought she had retired from research and non-fiction writing and moved on to creating a rich collection of fiction. I am so glad, however, she chose to return to her familiar haunts, but with some new and even richer perspectives to help us inform our practice. Linda’s work over the years has been seminal to my own leadership thinking and practice, and the ability to dive into her thinking one more time has been exciting.

Henke: You just finished the gargantuan task of writing a fictional trilogy (The Justine Trilogy)…what prompted you to return to writing about educational leadership?

Lambert : When I finished my textbook (Leadership Capacity for Lasting School Improvement), I thought I had written what I had to say. So I turned to fiction. But ten years out, I continued to hear from people all over the world who were basing their work on The Constructivist Leader and the leadership capacity books. I decided to contact many of these people and ask how their learning had advanced over the years. Many had developed rich veins of theory and practice that furthered my thinking and genuinely excited me. I was drawn to further exploration.

I learned a lot by writing fiction—Justine, my protagonist, rides with me as I revisit my mistakes, my meanderings. As she went though her arc of development, I was going through this with her. In many ways the trilogy is a memoir. I was writing the fiction as I was hearing from people about their leadership explorations—it created dissonance. So Justine’s learning, my learning, all of these colleagues’ learning contributed to something of a caldron of new learning for me. When I revisited The Constructivist Leader, I saw it as pivotal to an emerging definition of leadership. The old ideas of leadership were simply out of date with the convergence of new thinking. Things were beginning to change. I traced what was happening in many places: Australia, England, health care in Oklahoma—I saw complexity theory played an essential role in what was happening.

Most of what I have learned in life had little to do with the field of education—it came from other sources—from science, anthropology, archaeology, psychology—all pathways to understanding systems. My journey to The Constructivist Leader then, led me to the Santa Fe Institute in the early 90s. I became enamored with the idea that when things interact something new is created. The notion of the melding of disciplines, the historical place carved out by the information age….these are creating a rich soup that leads to new thinking about leadership. Now, a quarter century later, I came to further understand that evolution. Those understandings culminate in Liberating Leadership Capacity.

Henke: Your books perhaps most especially The Constructivist Leader really shaped many of us as leaders…how has your thinking evolved as you developed Liberating Leadership?

Lambert: The books on leadership capacity sold really well but I didn’t think they created enough fusion between constructivist leadership and capacity building; this is a part what propelled the writing of the new book. The Constructivist Leader definitely opened new ways of thinking. The capacity books were more about intervening—were a more elemental way of seeing the system.
In the end, it’s not just participation—but skills, understanding, world views–these all influence the work–not just who is at the table but how they are at the table.

Henke: In Liberating Leadership Capacity you suggest that a new century of leadership has dawned. What are the critical components of this new paradigm?

Lambert: I believe we are shifting away from the traditional roles of leaders—moving to a much bigger focus on culture, process, and complexity theory. We are increasingly focused on space among and between people, driven by the energy in these spaces. Space and time sensibilities all take on different meanings as we make this shift. Our work in community needs to follow the energy of relationships. Three dynamics need to be in play to start this energy flow:
One has to affect the actual relationships;
One has to affect the content—what the organization is about; and
One has to be about the place.
All three of these must be considered if this energy is to become a force; all three build capacity of the organization.

Henke: So, do you have any advice for leaders out there facing the complex challenges of education today?

Lambert: In the epilogue we write about wisdom. We are self-organizing, self-propelling individuals; and at the same time we are this insignificant blue dot. We are both powerful and insignificant—we westerners have trouble with these two concepts.

So my advice is to stay in conversation. Establish reciprocal relationships. Be patient with chaos. Know that causation is not self-evident, and most answers are multi-faceted. Relinquish punishment for restoration. Venture out rather than pulling in.

And so one of my most important mentors moves my thinking forward again. Linda Lambert’s work reminds us all of Emily Dickenson’s sage advice, “Dwell in possibility.” When I am reading Linda’s work or discussing her rich concept of leadership on the back porch, I do find myself dwelling in possibility.

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Liberating Leadership Capacity in the age of Trumpism

Saturday, November 26th, 2016

This is the opening paragraph of my next text, written with Diane Zimmerman and Mary Gardner, and entitled, Liberating Leadership Capacity: Pathways toward Educational Wisdom. How timely in the days of Trumpism. We are confident that the lessons in this text democratize schools and societies. Is there still time??
“Ask a thousand random individuals about one of the most persistent problems in schools, organizations, and countries today and you are likely to hear: leadership. Yet there is little understanding about this elusive concept. Many hold a belief that in times of distress people often look for someone to be in control, a directive leader who can tell them what to do. School boards seek out dominant superintendents who can “take charge”; schools are assigned principals to guide or push teachers into current reforms and fads. We challenge the contention that directive leadership is justified. Schools and organizations are rich with talented, thoughtful individuals who, when given the opportunity to work in open, engaging, and democratic cultures, consistently emerge as leaders and innovators. Adults learn; children learn. Creating these learning, leading schools and organizations is the mission of this text, Liberating Leadership Capacity: Pathways toward Educational Wisdom.”
With the election of Trump, our country is turning away from democracy. Frightening times. A failure of history, culture and education. An awakening of painful ramifications. Yet, this time we know to protect our neighbors and also turn to strangers.
Next: Leadership Capacity is an essential antidote in cultures where peoples feel lost, alone, forsaken.

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Liberating Leadership Capacity…Proud to Share a Great Review

Sunday, September 11th, 2016

Liberating Leadership Capacity: Pathways to Educational Wisdom
reviewed by Hollie J. Mackey — August 09, 2016
Title: Liberating Leadership Capacity: Pathways to Educational Wisdom
Author(s): Linda Lambert, Diane P. Zimmerman, & Mary E. Gardner
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807757519, Pages: 148, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com
Liberating Leadership Capacity

Linda Lambert, Diane P. Zimmerman, and Mary E. Gardner’s book Liberating Leadership Capacity: Pathways to Educational Wisdom presents a new concept of leadership based on establishing democratic interactions, engaging constructivist learning, and developing leadership capacity in school communities. The authors propose liberating leadership capacity as the foundation for effective school reform. This is the process of schools as organizations fully developing into constructivist learning organizations where: participation in professional reciprocal learning is high, healthy collaboration is a normative component of work, professional knowledge is generated from within, and school leaders develop site level strategies for systemic change that arise from practice. The authors believe leadership paradigms that structure leadership through top down models characterized by solo authoritarian type leaders are ineffective in nested sociopolitical organizations like schools where complex challenges require more than traditional forms of leadership can deliver. This volume suggests coupling constructivist leadership focusing on critical thinking and problem solving with developing leadership capacity to provide the necessary components for school leadership aligned with the goals of a democratic education system.

Lambert, Zimmerman, and Gardner neither disregard the complex challenges school leaders face nor dismiss the contributions of other leadership scholars. They instead submit that these challenges have not been thoroughly addressed through previous scholarship. As Andy Hargreaves states in the foreword:

Our school systems are not being challenged to address these more complex needs and sophisticated goals . . . More sophisticated learning requires more sophisticated teaching and leadership. Complex professional judgments cannot be prescribed, standardized, or driven by data . . . Linear top-down leadership may work for a short time for simple outcomes, but more sophisticated learning needs to be accompanied by more sophisticated leadership. (p. x)

Chapter One, “Leadership Redesigned,” provides an overview of leadership traditions in educational administration over the past 25 years and “offers a new definition of the concept” (p. 1) of leadership. The primary difference between the traditional model and the authors’ concept is that the former tends to rely on a few authoritarian figures within a building. The authors note the problems with this authoritarian style of leadership by stating, “[t]he uses of authority present a dangerous dilemma: a codependency, or dominance, sure to steer in unhelpful directions, away from a complex notion of leadership capable of more fully democratizing and building community capacities” (p. 5). The chapter outlines the evolution of thought regarding the effectiveness of authoritarian leadership and the shift to a more democratic school leadership approach. The authors conclude the chapter by building on their original work regarding constructivist leadership and redefining it as “fostering capacity through the complex, dynamic processes of purposeful, reciprocal learning” (p. 10) and claiming “how leadership is defined makes all the difference in how people participate” (p. 17).

Chapter Two, “Fostering Leadership Capacity,” introduces the social dynamic of capacity building on the premise that this type of building allows “a group of people to engage in and solve their own problems” (p. 21) and is a “function of leadership” (p. 22). The authors assess leadership capacity based on the skillfulness of leading and breadth of participation within a school resulting in four archetypes. They describe the typical skill and participation in each of these archetypes and present images depicting both the archetype matrix and authority distribution. They also discuss challenges arising with implementing interventions in each of the archetype locations and provide recommendations for overcoming them. The chapter concludes with the authors advocating for developing reciprocal and collaborative student and parent leadership capacities to work in partnership with schools.

Chapter Three, “Designing Professional Learning Cultures,” describes “designs, frameworks, and components for professional learning in high leadership capacity organizations” (p. 42). The chapter begins by advocating new professional learning designs when professional development is a reciprocal and continuous process for all members of the school community. The authors discuss the importance of including organized structural frameworks for learning cultures and stress: increasing levels of participation, developing skills, engaging in reflection, and holding meaningful dialogue. The chapter identifies specific leadership skills and actions “central to the movement from one archetype to another on the road to high leadership capacity” (p. 54) and advises leaders to look to and learn from exemplary programs.

Chapter Four, “Collaborative Dimensions of Leadership,” builds on the previous chapter by offering “four collaborative dimensions of leadership” (p. 65) and provides structure for facilitating the work of sustainable and collaborative learning communities. This includes: “(1) structuring efficient protocols for participation; (2) setting standards and working agreements for collaboration; (3) embedding the linguistics for listening into conversations; and (4) facilitating conversational flows” (p. 65). The authors discuss the importance of including this structure and note effective meetings that “create a sense of well-being and collective efficacy” (p. 82).

Chapter Five, “Democratization of Knowledge,” discusses the concept of knowledge and suggests that, “[r]econceptualizing knowledge flattens the hierarchy of knowledge production” (p. 88). The authors share three types of knowledge: knowledge-for-practice, knowledge-in-practice, and knowledge-of-practice and discuss their value as they apply to democratic learning communities. This chapter illustrates the differences in hierarchical structures between low and high leadership capacity schools where high capacity ones tend to have “flatter hierarchies [where] communities engage in systematic reflection in which knowledge is constructed, organized, and networked” (p. 100).

Chapter Six, “Creating Capacity for Systems Change,” considers why change is so difficult in schools. The authors believe that schools are nested within other systems and “[c]onstructivist change processes arise from practice, rather than being imposed on practice” (p. 103). Several U.S. examples illustrate how different schools use the concepts from Chapters Two through Five to move from low to high leadership capacity organizations. The authors also provide international examples where the same concepts are successfully applied and conclude “[a]n array of designs and principles awaits those who are committed to building democratic societies, thus liberating leadership capacity in every learner and learning community” (p. 122).


What sets Liberating Leadership Capacity apart from similar books is that it builds on constructivist leadership by adding developing leadership capacity including effective aspects of multiple leadership models such as transformational leadership, distributed leadership, sustainable leadership, and leadership for social justice. It suggests incorporating some of the most effective research based strategies for improving the learning climate at the school level and provides a strong rationale for how all of the components fit together. These two elements combined make it a relatively non-controversial book for use in leadership preparation programs. The authors’ key strength is that they write the book in easily accessible language and acknowledge a range of skills from which each school leader would start coupled with a range of participation across school sites. They also provide specific guidance for school leaders at all levels so no one would be left questioning how to begin liberating leadership capacity within their own schools once they finish reading the book.

School leaders might find the proposed strategies unrealistic given the policy constraints of unchallenged systems that are also nested within their own schools. The authors provide examples of schools that have realized success using these strategies, however these continue to be the exception and not the rule. The success stories within Liberating Leadership Capacity often involve other factors and conditions allowing for leadership to engage in an overhaul as a last step before closure.

Despite being well written, Liberating Leadership Capacity also requires more than one reading. At first glance it is a straightforward guide for improving educational organizations through developing leadership capacity. The authors also ask much deeper questions that cannot be ignored by educational scholars, policymakers, or practitioners. The epilogue speaks of pathways to educational wisdom and cues the reader to the bigger picture: scholarship does not affect organizational change that has meaningful consequence on the lived experiences of children and communities, it is instead achieved through practice. Lambert, Zimmerman, and Gardner illustrate the ways in which leadership theory might be translated into practice for the purpose of facilitating human flourishing.

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Creative Confluence…what is it?

Tuesday, April 5th, 2016

When I shifted from non-fiction to fiction 10 years ago, I was convinced that I needed to start with a clean slate; in other words, not attempt both at the same time–as though they were separate streams of consciousness. My colleague and I had not quite finished Women’s Ways of Leading at the time, but we rushed to finish. After all, in fiction there is surprise, and scenes, and tension, conflict and sex, while in non-fiction…few of the previous approaches are usually present.

When my colleague Mary recently said that my non-fiction (in a new text entitled Liberating Leadership Capacity) had benefited from the writing of The Justine Trilogy, well, I had to reexamine my assumptions. Was there more of a confluence than I imagined? I am using “confluence” here to mean the processes of merging and emerging. This is what I notice: language flows more easily, like rivers coming together; language choice is more poetic; cognitive dissonance echoes tension; touches of mystery and romance provide glimpses into wisdom.

Would I advise dappling in fiction and non-fiction at the same time? Sure–it’s a fertile playground. An adventure. Camus might call it absurdism, but writers have often created reciprocity between and among novels and essays.

We are off to Washington, D. C. for the release of the new text–then to New York to see our granddaughter and a few plays….

Posted in Book Tour, creativity, Fiction, Leadership Capacity, non-fiction, shifting genres, The Justine Trilogy, writing | No Comments » | Leave a Comment

Liberating Leadership Capacity-Released!

Sunday, April 3rd, 2016

My colleagues and I will be signing our new text at the American Educational
Research Association in Washington, D. C., Sunday, April 10. The subtitle, Pathways
to Educational Wisdom captures those notions about leadership that transcend
usual practice to answer this question: What insights and epiphanies lead us
beyond the horizon of ordinary into the realm of wisdom?

Posted in Book Tour, Constructivist Leadership, creativity, Education, imagination, Leadership, Leadership Capacity, non-fiction | No Comments » | Leave a Comment