Chris Dede

Chris Dede

Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Almost two decades ago, I wrote a book chapter called Leadership without Followers (Dede, 1993). This chapter discussed four dimensions of leadership that still apply today. People often see leadership as a combination of meticulous management, adept political maneuvering, and responsive facilitation of others' activities. While each of these is important, I believe the true nature of leadership is exemplified by the four attributes below.


Leadership requires envisioning opportunities.

One of the most important attributes that distinguishes leaders from managers is "vision": the ability to communicate desirable, achievable futures quite different from where the present is drifting. Leaders create and convey compelling images of how our reach is much less than our potential grasp; they redefine people's paradigms about what is possible. In contrast, competent managers are adept at organizing operations so that an institution's efficiency in accomplishing plans is optimized. This is a vital task often neglected by leaders who do not understand management, to their later regret, for good administration involves both envisioning and operationalizing.

Developing motivating images that capture the essence of needed changes is important, but insufficient to drive accomplish major improvements in education. Leadership also involves creating steppingstones that bridge from a desired future to the current gridlock typical of many American schools. In evolving from its present state to a distant objective, an educational institution must progress stage by stage. Each step of evolution requires a critical mass of resources and must create a stable, desirable situation.


Leadership requires displacing cherished misconceptions.

An important attribute of leaders is their ability to displace deeply held, cherished misconceptions with alternative visions that more accurately depict reality. Mistaken beliefs most people hold about teaching and learning form a barrier that blocks improving American education. For example, many in our culture have a subconscious image of the secondary school that is based on the following assumptions:

  • Despite coming from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds and going through puberty, just below the surface teenagers have a strong work ethic and a fascination with intellectual pursuits
  • Regularly attending PTA meetings and sports events, paying taxes, and electing dedicated school board members provides sufficient parental support for quality education
  • Because they are deeply fulfilled by their impact on learners' lives, highly qualified teachers will enter and stay in the profession despite low salaries, marginal working conditions, and little respect from the community
  • Schools should be settings isolated from the real world in which learners are grouped by age and taught the academic disciplines as formal subjects
  • Students are graduating into a future workplace in which mastery of the skills multiple-choice tests can measure will guarantee them a fulfilling, prosperous career
  • Technology's utility in education lies in automating routine activities that underlie this model of schooling and in motivating learners via instructional formats analogous to videogames and television

Unfortunately, all these assumptions that underlie this image of the secondary school are fundamentally inaccurate. As a result, intensively applying technology to improve this model of education (e.g. integrated-learning-systems, multimedia-based teacher presentations, more elaborate testing) results in only small improvements in outcomes.

Shifting communities to alternative visions for education that are based on more realistic, but less comfortable assumptions is a major leadership challenge. In abandoning the old model of secondary education, parents and businesses and teachers and students must confront some unpleasant truths about our culture's current weaknesses. For schools to succeed, parents must provide time and effort as well as money; an excellent teaching staff may cost more than most communities are willing to pay; many students do not enter high school with the values and aspirations necessary for success; and the skills needed for a global, knowledge-based, innovation-centered economy are quite different from what can be conveyed by test-oriented, subject-centered group instruction in classrooms remote from real-world settings.


Leadership requires inspiring others to act on faith.

Inspiring a group to work toward a shared vision necessitates building trust: faith that this team of people can overcome all the obstacles that block creating a future quite different from the present. We often speak of visions as "dreams" because we do not believe they are possible; we doubt that they can be made real. Actualizing a plan for the future involves harnessing people's emotions as well as their minds, developing both understanding and belief.

The psychological stability of the present impedes our ability to emotionally invest in a future divergent from established trends and traditions. We know that earthquakes or assassinations, winning the lottery or scoring a sensational come-from-behind victory are statistically inevitable—but we are surprised when they happen because the commonplace nature of most events undercuts our belief in discontinuities. When someone can prove that a desired future is logical, rational, and inevitable, then any competent manager can persuade an institution to act. The challenge of leadership is to inspire individual and organizational faith in the seemingly impossible, developing a collective affective commitment that can move mountains of impediments.

By evolving so rapidly that each new development seems almost magical, information technology provides a fertile medium for nurturing trust that educational transformation is achievable. The availability and affordability of tools powerful enough to reshape learners and schools can help create the emotional motivation to risk innovation. Leaders build on the enthusiasm that sophisticated technologies induce to encourage an affective climate that rewards risk-taking and accepts occasional failures as an inevitable byproduct of developing new approaches.

Two closing thoughts on this aspect of leadership: First, if everyone in your organization likes you, you are not fostering enough change. Second, if you never fail, you are not taking enough risks.


Leadership requires discouraging followers.

A destructive myth about leadership is that a visionary person gives directions to followers who execute this plan. Real leaders discourage followers, instead encouraging use of their visions as a foundation for other, better insights. True solutions to problems are always based on ideas from multiple perspectives; no individual, however capable, can incorporate the full range of knowledge and experience needed to invent an educational system that fulfills the needs of a diverse community.

When leaders who surround themselves with followers fall from grace or move on, the innovations they have inspired collapse or wither. Sustainable transformations require stakeholders who fully understand the what and how of the vision and who act together—top-down, middle-out, bottom-up—to evolve dreams into realities. Technologists have often erred in setting themselves up as wizards who understand the magic in the black box. Instead, a leader in educational technology should inculcate others' visions, knowledge, and commitment to the point that all are jointly leading. This requires moving beyond the role of team facilitator or coordinator, acting as an exemplar by deliberately following others instead of always leading.

Emotionally, shedding the power and rewards of authority is very difficult. We all secretly long to be the superstar in front of the worshipping audience, to inspire awe and reverence. Like any other social movement, educational technology has generated some leaders who degenerated into gurus. Worse, many potential leaders have abdicated their responsibilities to instead assume the comfortable mantle of discipleship, blindly following someone else's vision. Condemning leaders seduced by power is easy and fun; recognizing the times each of us has avoided the difficult path of leadership to become a follower is hard and painful. Educational reform can achieve genuine, lasting success only when each stakeholder accepts the responsibility of leading.

In conclusion, leadership is a role fraught with difficulties, requiring both wisdom and maturity. Yet my goal in articulating what I have learned about leadership is to encourage everyone to lead, always. If each of us were to act in the ways described above—every day, however imperfectly—we could rapidly develop new models for restructuring education and shaping a bright future for our society.

The views expressed on this site are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pearson Foundation.


Chris Dede is the Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His fundamental interest is the expanded human capabilities for knowledge creation, sharing, and mastery that emerging technologies enable. His teaching models the use of information technology to distribute and orchestrate learning across space, time, and multiple interactive media. Chris Dede’s research spans emerging technologies for learning, infusing technology into large-scale educational improvement initiatives, policy formulation and analysis, and leadership in educational innovation.

Dede also is active in policy initiatives, including creating a widely used State Policy Framework for Assessing Educational Technology Implementation and studying the potential of developing a scalability index for educational innovations. From 2001 to 2004, he served as chair of the Learning & Teaching area at HGSE.