Starting A Movement: A Book Review (Chapter 1- Wanted: Leaders at Every Level)

Starting A Movement: Building Culture from the Inside Out in Professional Learning Communities

Written by Kenneth C. Williams and Tom Hierck


This book is an excellent resource for any leaders (formal or inforaml) looking for ways to create a Professional Learning Community in their school, or looking to get people to buy into a school-wide vision. The process is clearly laid out, easy to follow and comes with templates to help guide you along the way. All templates are available here.

This book also comes with a study guide which can be accessed by creating an account with solution tree. I recommend doing that, especially if you have other solution tree books you plan on reading, as the resources and study guides are really helpful in terms of organizing your thoughts.

I will create a separate post for each chapter to allow for easy reading. You can access all posts on my main page under “previous posts”.

If at any time, you decide you must have this book, you can buy it by clicking on the cover image!

The Breakdown:  Chapter 1- Wanted: Leaders at Every Level

Leaders strike the match for schoolwide cultural change; staff fan the flames.

-Kenneth C. Williams

This chapter starts out by talking about the importance of having a guiding coalition. The guiding coalition should be made up of a wide range of staff (one from every collaborative teacher team, administration, support staff and specialists when possible) and is responsible for motivating the rest of the staff to get on board with a common vision or mission and to develop a collective responsibility among all staff.

A guiding coalition is an alliance of key members of an organization who are specifically charged to lead a change process through the predictable turmoil

-DuFour et al. (2008)

The guiding coalition can be called anything really, a leadership group, mission leaders, it isn’t the name that is important, it is how the group function that really matters.This means that the way team members are selected is extremely important. It should include staff members who are influential with other staff, but should also represent all relevant points of view and expertise. This team also needs to consist of positive relationships, all team member should trust each other and value shared leadership, ownership, and investment.

Be cautious when creating your guiding coalition that you are not making yet another working group. At my last school, we took pride in our ability to collaborate. If you read us the definition of a guiding coalition we would have said “Yep! That’s us!” and I would have agreed with them! After reading this book, however, I realized that we had a ways to go, and in fact, had created a number of working groups. I hope you are thinking “I wonder what we are doing at my school”.

On page 20, the authors present us with a table that makes it easy to quickly differentiate between working groups and leadership teams (I like this term better than guiding coalition so I will use it from now on).

Working Groups

Leadership Teams

Have a strong, clearly focused leader Have shared leadership roles
Have individual accountability Value individual and mutual accountability
Have a purpose that is the same as the broader organization mission Have specific team purpose that the team itself delivers
Produce individual work and products Produce collective work and products
Hold efficient meetings Have open-ended discussion and encourage active problem solving
Effectiveness is measured indirectly by their influence on others (such as financial performance of a business) Performance is measured directly by assessing collective work and products
Processes for accomplishing goals are discussion, decision, and delegation Processes for accomplishing goals are discussion, decision, and sharing of actual work

You can use this reproducible to assess where your team is at. It is recommended that you do this as a staff, with each member filling it out individually making statements that support their point of view and then coming together and justifying their responses (even if the entire group agrees). This will help you determine how far you need to go in creating a truly collaborative team.

In order to assess whether you are making progress, there are two paradigm shifts that need to happen:

  1. The Shift From Representative to Team Member- Instead of each representative putting their grade/subject group first, members of a true leadership team will being to think of how their work can impact all members of the school community.
  2. The Shift From Messenger to Missionary- Instead of presenting information to staff from the perspective that “we have to because the principal/district says so” members of a leadership team are presenting information based on decisions made through shared knowledge and consensus. Therefore when the time comes to share the goals, destination etc… with others members of the leadership team are invested in what they are promoting, which tends to get a lot more buy in than “Hey, I’m just the messenger”.

So how do you select the members of the leadership team? It is important to consider the strengths of each member, but you should also have something that inspires members to improve their leadership skills as they participate in the work. The authors advocate using Kirtman’s seven leadership competencies, but a lot of school district have their own set of leadership competencies, so it might be good to examine those and see how they would fit with your plan.

Here are Kirtman’s Seven Competencies for High-Performing Leaders:

  1. Challenges the status quo
  2. Builds trust through clear communication and expectations
  3. Creates a commonly owned plan for success
  4. Focuses on team over self
  5. Has a high sense of urgency for change and sustainable results
  6. Commits to continuous self-improvement
  7. Builds external networks and partnerships

You may find that these fit nicely with your district competencies, but if they don’t, you could use either (or a mix of these and the district’s) and still create a strong team.

Once you have determined what criteria you will use to identify potential members, it is time to put your team together. It is important that you don’t fill your team with “yes men” you know, the people who get excited about every new idea you come up with, even if it isn’t a good one. The rest of the staff know that this is how they react and rather than latching on to their enthusiasm, they will ignore it. The people you really want are the influencers. The people that the rest of the staff respect. These are the people that will get the rest of the staff on board, because they trust their opinion.

It might be challenging to know who these people are at first, so here are some criteria that will help you identify the influencers on your staff:

  • They are smart
  • They tend to be open to new ideas
  • They are socially connected and respected
  • When they talk, people listen
  • When they act, people follow
  • No one will adopt new practices until the opinion leader does

Once you have identified your influencers, you want to identify which competencies they have. You can use this template to help guide your assessment. Note that a person can possess many leadership competencies, but lack the social connection necessary to influence change. It could be argued that you are better off with team members who are very influential but have less competencies because the competencies can be taught/learned more quickly, while being influential is more dependent on personality traits.

Once you have narrowed down your list, it is time to make the decision. This may lead to some tough choices but you can be assured that if you used the above criteria, your decisions are based on objective measures and can be defended. Ideally you want people who are influential and possess most of the leadership competencies. If you have a small staff, or have staff that do not have a lot of leadership experience, I would recommend looking for a balance between competencies. It is also important that you remember to include members from all staff groupings.

Now that you have your leadership team, you need to create consensus for a culture of collective responsibility. The authors state that a culture of collective responsibility is based on two fundamental beliefs:

  • We, as educators, must accept responsibility to ensure high levels of learning for every student. While parental, societal, and economic forces impact student learning, the actions of educators will ultimately determine each student’s success in school.
  • We believe that all students can learn at high levels-high school plus-meaning every student will graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge required to continue to learn.

It is important that the leadership team work through the Questions for Consensus Building as developed by Austin Buffum, Mike Mattos and Chris Weber (2011, pp. 27-28) in their book Simplifying Response to Intervention (another great book, which I will review later).

For each question, team members should go through a specific 4-step process, which may be done over more than one meeting. The authors say that this should be done with the leadership team, but I think it could also be an effective practice to do with all staff. After all, if the goal is to create consensus, wouldn’t it be great to get everyone involved?

Here are the 4 steps:

  1. Reflect and record your honest and unfiltered response to each question individually.
  2. Gather in small groups and share your individual responses. Reserve your response and judgement until everyone in your group has had an opportunity to share. Make note of point that jump out at you.
  3. Discuss the responses and look for opportunities for next steps.
  4. Come bak together and share your most salient responses to each question with the entire group.

In the final paragraph of this chapter, the authors acknowledge that this is a time consuming process. Ultimately you need consensus before you can start doing the work, because without consensus, there is no commitment and without commitment, nothing really changes, which means no one will be motivated to continue.

In my next post, I will review Chapter 2: What Is Authentic Alignment? which talks about how to integrate your school’s mission, vision and collective commitments with the essential work of your Professional Learning Community.

If you would like to read along, please purchase the book here. If you have already read the book and have questions, comments, or would like to elaborate on anything I just wrote, please comment below!


Buffum, A., Mattos, M., & Webber, C. (2011). Simplifying Response to Intervention: Four essential guiding principles. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

DuFour, R., DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (2008). Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work: New insights for improving schools. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Let me know what you think, if you have book suggestions, or if you want me to elaborate on a specific topic. Feedback is always welcome!