Most educational administration graduate students can tell you about Bolman & Deal’s leadership frameworks. The frames help change agents conceptualize different approaches to an issue. Depending on the circumstances, one approach may be more appropriate than another. Or, most likely, several approaches in combination will be most successful. Bolman & Deal’s four frames are as follows:

  1. Structural. Leaders who make change using this approach focus on structural elements within the organization as well as strategy, implementation, and adaptation. Changing institutional structures works well when goals are clear, when cause-and-effect relationships are well understood, and when there is little conflict, uncertainty, or ambiguity.
  2. Human resource. Leaders who approach change from a human resource frame focus on people. This approach emphasizes support, empowerment (perhaps through distributed leadership mechanisms), staff development, and responsiveness to employee needs. A focus on people works well when employee morale is a consideration and when there is relatively little conflict.
  3. Political. Leaders who use a political approach to facilitate change focus on the political realities that exist within and outside organizations. This approach emphasizes dealing with interest groups (and their varying agendas), building power bases, coalition-building, negotiating conflicts over limited resources, and creating compromises. The political approach is appropriate when resources are scarce or diminishing as well as when goals or values are in conflict.
  4. Symbolic. Leaders who make change using a symbolic approach focus on vision and inspiration. Symbolic leaders feel that people need to believe that their personal work, and the work of the organization, is important and meaningful. Traditions, ceremonies, and rituals are very important to the symbolic approach, which is most appropriate when goals and/or cause-and-effect relationships are unclear.

Bolman & Deal’s frames can be used at the planning stage of a change initiative to help diagnose organizational needs, to identify institutional challenges and contexts, and to devise appopriate actions (e.g., ‘For this initiative, we need to be sure to address the political aspects because…’). The frames also can be used to rethink and reframe unsuccessful change initiatives (e.g., ‘This initiative failed because we didn’t appropriately address the human resource frame.’).

A combination of the four perspectives is nearly always warranted when implementing a change initiative. Unfortunately, I think most educators would agree that the structural aspects of change initiatives tend to be emphasized quite strongly (e.g., ‘We’ll create a new program’ or ‘we’ll reorganize ourselves’ or ‘we’ll buy some technology to help’) with a concurrent neglect of the other three frames. Because school leaders often may be strong in one or two of these frames but not all four, it is important to get others on board to adequately conceptualize and address all needed aspects of the change initiative.

I’m sure most of you can identify a situation where an emphasis, or lack of emphasis, on one of these frames led to a change initiative’s success or failure.