The Groundling’s Playbook: 7 Steps for Leading Change From the Bottom Up

world_in_hands-300x300The twenty-first century is an exciting time for world changers. We have the technology, the willpower, and the cooperation to solve many challenges we face. It’s also an era of empowerment for leaders at all organizational levels.

I can’t speak to other professions, but in education, we don’t need more administrators. We have plenty of people manning the switches at Mission Control. What we need is more brave astronauts rocketing into the unknown. We need more teacher leaders, changing education from the classroom out.

If you’re someone who wants to change your world but are not in a position of “power,” this article is for you. The real solutions to most of our problems lie outside of bureaucracies, and we desperately need people like you running a strong ground game, empowered to lead “from the bottom.” Remember: Jesus Christ was one of the most influential leaders in world history, but he did not lead by commanding armies. He got down to ground, and he washed other people’s dirty feet.

If you want to change the world, good news: you absolutely can.  But get some knee pads, because real leadership starts on the ground. Here are some steps you can take in 2015 to revolutionize your world.

1. Focus on what really matters.

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” – Stephen Covey

Explore what really matters in your situation, and never lose sight of that. The change you seek may not be simply defined, but you need to think about what is most important about the work you do, and plan in a way that protects that at all costs. The road will get tough one day, and you want to give Future You the gift of motivation- reason to tough it out. Craft your change around something that gets you out of bed in the morning, and you’re set for success.  It also carries the benefit of helping you gather support- others will find it easy to help you out when your change is for a worthy cause.

For me, this part is easy: improve student learning. It’s black and white: If the change helps students learn better, it’s worthy. If it doesn’t, it’s not. Right now, I’m working on putting as much of my direct instruction online as I can- Powerpoints, lectures, explanatory videos- and eventually requiring students to access it on their own time. These changes won’t be easy, but they are aimed at both improving the learning experience of my students and improving their achievement, so when the going gets tough, I’ve got plenty of reasons to press on.

Find what makes your work worthwhile, and build your change around it.

2. Start small. Really small.

“Aim small, miss small.” – The Patriot (2000)

6849952_stdIt also helps not to get too big for your britches. No matter how much you believe in an idea, don’t peddle it anywhere else until you’ve got it working for you already. The big world will be conquered another day. Today, conquer your own little world. Try it out on your family and friends first.  If it’s something that has to be done in the work setting, experiment on the people you see every day. Once you’ve really got something special going, bosses and other colleagues will have plenty of time to be won over.

For teachers, this is the gift of the classroom door. In most cases, once you close it, you’ve got some free reign to do things your way.  If you don’t, work with your administrators to try out what you can. The changes I’m making right now aren’t earth-shattering- I’m just working on changing my own teaching practice. I believe this stuff might help other teachers in my school achieve their goals one day, but right now, I just want to figure out how I can change my classroom for the better. I’ll be able to help others make the transition later on. 

Make small changes first, and big changes will come easier later.

3. Strategize like a pro.

“Setting a goal is not the main thing. It is deciding how you will go about achieving it and staying with that plan.” – Tom Landry

Be deliberate and aggressive about how you plan your change. You should know:

  • what “victory” looks like (what you want to accomplish)
  • how you’re going to get it done
  • what needs you have to meet in order to get there

This plan should also be the kind you could pull out of your pocket and lay out for everyone to see.  This is all open-handed, transparent stuff. Everyone could benefit from your planning, so don’t hide it or hold back as if it’s a big a secret. This is one of the reasons I enjoy blogging- what I learn about “flipping my classroom” is free knowledge for all my colleagues to use, if it can help them as well.

I’m very deliberate and open with my colleagues about why I’m putting my direct instruction online. One of our biggest regrets about this year has been that we haven’t had enough time in the schedule to do experiments and other activities that we feel would enrich our students’ learning. I am very pointedly moving the “front-loading” of content in my courses, outside of classroom time so that I can use that time for other things. For my plan, victory looks like kids having fun with science in my classroom and not missing a beat when it comes to understanding the content. I also know what steps will get me there. That’s a plan that colleagues can buy into. 

Develop a winning strategy for implementing your change, and success will come in time.

4. Get a boss on board.

“The speed of the boss is the speed of the team.” – Lee Iacocca

2611ec3e37d0602845554c61080a65e3This can be a tricky step, but in order to get the change you want, you’ve eventually got to get the support of someone with authority. The easiest way to achieve this is to know the needs and goals of your superiors, and to align your strategy to meet some of them. For me, this is particularly easy because my bosses are very focused on student achievement, and almost anything I can show to benefit that will gain their support.

Some bosses have other needs and goals, or other conditions that need satisfying.

  • Some bosses may like watching new trends develop, and if successful, take the credit. Let them do so. That’s how the change game works.
  • Some bosses may really covet their free time, and may value any project that gets you out of their hair. Get their go-ahead and scurry away to work.
  • Some bosses may be very hands-on, and may not want you to move a muscle without understanding every step. That’s fine. Put on your tiptoe shoes and start explaining everything you do.

Take the time to know what your bosses need, and make the deals you have to in order to get them on board.

5. Be open and clear about your needs.

“Ye have not because ye ask not.” – James 4:3

Once your boss understands what you are doing, be open and absolutely clear about what you need in order to be successful. A lot of times we feel timid about asking for things, but bosses love solving problems for winners.

I’m really bad about not doing this, but with my current project, I stumbled into it by accident: I was talking to one of my assistant principals about classroom flipping, and she kept saying she liked the idea of flipping, but that she was just really skeptical of whether it could work. As a joke, I put on a therapist office voice, and I said, “I’m feeling a lot of combativeness coming from you right now about flipping the classroom. I think I need you to just smile and nod right now while I cleanse your aura.”  Her demeanor changed instantly. Maybe she didn’t hear the “aura” part or see me “pulling” negative energy from above her head, or maybe she just locked onto the “I need you to…” part, but she immediately began to focus on helping me.

Even if your boss isn’t the great kind who want to help you, put on that aggressive go-getter face and ask anyway. You never know what you might get, and bosses are sometimes more likely to give resources to people who are working hard.

6. Take risks even if there’s no payoff in sight.

“Never was anything great achieved without danger.” – Niccolo Machiavelli

There’s risk in any change.  It might not work.  It might not go as planned. It might have unintended consequences.  Do not let anyone take on any responsibility for the risk, unless they believe in the change as firmly as you do- unless they are partners. This is that old coaching strategy- Give credit to the players for victories; take responsibility yourself for defeats.

In some ways, this actually runs completely counter to Machiavellian politics, so it’s kind of ironic I quoted him above. The cynical power-seekers make sure they get credit for the wins, and when they lose, they dish out the blame to everyone who helped them out. That’s worldly politics. It’s not for those of us who seek long term change. You want to be a team player.  You want to value trust in your relationships.

You cannot be a leader if you’re uncomfortable with putting yourself out there.If-you-re-good-at-something-never-do-it-for-free-the-joker-9213244-597-450

One other thing: If you’re in the world changing business, get ready to work hard with no payoff, for longer than you believe you should have to. In The Dark Knight, when the Joker said, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free,” it sounded so logical it became a mantra for much of America. That kind of thinking is all well and good if your forte is organized crime.  Terrorists probably should make sure they get paid in advance. In most other endeavors though, it’s terrible advice. It’s the scarcity mindset. It communicates that you’re a one-trick pony- a one-hit wonder who had better make sure she gets paid for the precious few cool ideas she’ll ever have.

Transcend that, sister. Exude for those around you the abundance mindset- the idea that you are a fountain overflowing with creativity. It doesn’t matter how many great ideas you give away- you’ll always have even better stuff to pay the bills with tomorrow. Plus, it’s not just good for the salesman. It also makes good business sense for the product.  Drug dealers call it a “taste.” Sam’s Club calls it “samples.” Software companies call it a “trial period.” Only those with nothing to offer wait to be paid to perform at a high level.  The truly great perform at a high level habitually.

It’ll pay off one day, don’t worry. Remember Joseph was a slave before he was Potiphar’s right-hand man.  It was his established track record of creativity and high productivity that got him noticed, not stinginess to show his skills.

7. Retool, retool, retool.

You’re going to experience setbacks. Things might not go as planned. Don’t make the mistake of being “done” with the planning once it’s set into motion. That packages up your ideas into a nice, clean box so that someone else can take them from you and decide their fate based on how well they think the process went. In plain English: People can’t say your plan failed if you’re not done with it yet.

Instead, reflect and reevaluate constantly. Be the expert about what went wrong, why it went wrong, and how to fix it.  This is not negative thinking- it’s managing your own improvement plan.  Somebody’s going to point out the chinks in your armor.  It might as well be you.  That way, you’ll not only know what the next step is, but you’ll make sure improvements are being made.

These steps are by no means all there is to know about leading change where you are, but they’re a good start.

I hope you found some helpful nuggets to get out there and start improving things!

Let me know how I can help you.  I like to help people improve their lives.  What changes do you need to make in your classroom or office?  Let’s have a discussion in the comments below!


  1. Jenni

    As a parent of one of your students, I think your idea of requiring frontend work to be completed outside of classroom time has pros and cons. Pro – I can help my child and see what he’s learning. Pro – he really likes searching through your lessons online to find HW answers instead of boring class lectures. (Sorry, he is 13. Everything is boring!). Pro – in-class experiments and fun learning experiences help him learn so much better than vocabulary memorization or reading nonfiction books.

    Now, the biggest challenge for me: as a working mom, I want to spend as much evening time with my child that he’ll allow. And I’d really prefer not to have to spend our quality time doing homework. Adding to his homework load is a definite con, especially if his other classes decide to employ the same strategy!

    You’re on to something good, though. I applaud your desire to make the system better! Great blog, BTW.

  2. jacomans (Post author)

    Thank you so much for leaving a comment, Jenni!

    You’re right- the idea of “more” homework doesn’t sound too appealing, but in an ideal classroom situation, I would make homework 100% optional and “ungraded,” though he would get feedback on his mistakes. There’s a type of grading I’m interested in researching more called “Standards-Based Grading” that is 100% focused on the learning, not on the effort, and optional, ungraded homework is a big part of that system.

    However, I do work for my principals and the district, so you won’t have to worry about any of that as long as I teach your child. 😉


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