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Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms

for Changing Times

A scholarly book review for the Master of Education (Knowledge
Networks and Digital Innovation) at Charles Sturt University

April, 2014

- Matt Ives -

There is no denying the impact new digital technologies are having on our society. In Digital
Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times published by Corwin Press (2014) the
author, Eric Sheninger, advocates a rethought school leadership model for these changing
times. Sheninger believes the 21st century’s enhanced ability to connect, communicate, and
collaborate is an underutilized tool for modern leadership which if successfully harnessed can
lead to improved relationships and a stronger school culture.

The intention of the book is to provide principals, school leaders and teachers the tools and
knowledge to put into place what Sheninger calls ‘The Pillars of Digital Leadership’. These are
seven areas (ranging from specific to general) that can be enhanced via the opportunities new
digital technologies, in particular social media, enable. The book is not a thorough investigation
into leadership - Sheninger states that much of that knowledge, for example the ‘Six Secrets of
Change’ framework (Fullan, 2008, as cited in Sheninger, 2014, p54), currently exists - but rather
a reimagining of the principles of effective leadership set amongst the connected, changing
world of today (Aungst, 2014).

The ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of this leadership model comprises the contents and forms to structure
the book. Roughly the first third provides context: the post-industrial world now, explaining why
change is complicated but essential. This is proceeded with the bulk of the book, the ‘how’ -
‘The Seven Pillars of Digital Leadership’, each pillar allocated a chapter.

As a self-confessed techno-sceptic turned social media expert (Welborn, 2014), Sheninger’s
journey (along with the school he is currently principal of - New Milford High School in Bergen
County, New Jersey) provides much of the evidence for the efficacy of his leadership framework.
Indeed, this is a strength of the book - it is written by an author ‘in the trenches’, a practising
principal who has led change successfully, navigating the pitfalls and finding out what works
(Johansen, 2014). It also comprises a range of personal vignettes from teachers and principals
across the United States, and as such, Digital Leadership rings with an air of (US-centric)
authenticity, rather than that of a by-the-numbers, heavily analytical approach.

This review will critically analyse two core issues related to author intention: does the author
provide compelling reasons why change leadership is necessary? And, through the lense of
social media, are the practical steps the author suggests valid and useful in regards to
addressing what therefore needs to occur?

The Why

The premise for Sheninger’s assertion that we need to rethink leadership in our changing times,
is that, in fact, we do actually live in rapidly changing times (Sheninger, 2014, p17). This is a
difficult statement to dispute, and one which Sheninger provides evidence for through Pew
Internet and American Life Project (2010), Childwise (2013), and mobiThinking (2012) research.
As to the veracity of this data, The Pew Internet research Sheninger draws heavily from was
compiled from surveys of approximately 800 adolescents and 2 250 adults in late 2009, and is
considered an accurate, nonpartisan source of statistical data (Keeter, 2010).

Sheninger posits that of greater importance is that fact these shifts in society have not been
mirrored in schools (Sheninger, 2014, p5) - views which a range of reputable educational
thinkers confirm. The actual issue then is the fundamental disconnect between students and
the schools they attend (Kelly, McCain & Jukes, 2009, p9). This disconnect is an often heard
lament, with many suggesting that schools are stuck in an industrial age education paradigm
(Robinson, 2006). A further exacerbation is the education ‘reform’ movement focused on mass
standardisation and high-stakes testing. Together, these forces act as deep-rooted
complicators, generating negative side-effects such as the narrowing of curriculum and
reducing of achievement (Berliner, 2011, p288).

The opposition of this industrial age education and standardisation to what we understand as
required learning for current times is striking (Moravec, 2013, p44). It is a tension explored by
Andy Hargreaves who believes teachers are amidst a “crisis of disturbing proportions” - being
expected to be catalysts of learning in a world filled with opportunity, counterpoints for the
perceived threats of this same open world, as well as a casualties in the tug-of-war between
increasing educational expectations and mass-standardisation (Hargreaves, 2003, p10).

Sheninger’s claims as to the state of education, and why change is necessary, are not new -
they are well documented and can be seen in schools and heard in staff rooms the world over.
In tying all this together, he has been able to ‘hit a nerve’ with the first section of the book - the
‘why’. It provides an effective, widely understood raison d'etre for the existence of his ‘Pillars of
Digital Leadership’.

The How

The scene is set - so how then do school leaders begin to set in motion the change that needs
to occur? Sheninger offers ‘The Seven Pillars of Digital Leadership’ (communication, public
relations, branding, professional growth and development, increasing student engagement and
enhancing learning, rethinking learning environments and spaces, and discovering opportunity)
as the answer, based on his experiences and research.

Sheninger’s pillars are wide ranging, and to investigate every pillar thoroughly is outside the
scope of this review. A possible avenue with which to evaluate the framework is via a theme
evident throughout many of the pillars - the effective use of social media. This is also a current
issue of professional interest for my own school context therefore investigating the evidence
Sheninger uses to back his claims and where it aligns with current theory enables a meaningful
porthole into the success (or not) of the author’s intentions.

To begin with the successes, it is clear Sheninger values the smart use of social media
(Sheninger, 2014, p69). This is a core strength of his pillars for two reasons: social networking is
free and readily available, making participation in such networks practical for time and cash
strapped leaders, and secondly utilising social networking propagates the kind of polyphonic
connections (Niels, 2012) which amplify learning, knowledge and understanding in the 21st
century (Siemens, 2004) for both teachers and students. This is evident throughout Sheninger’s
pillars of ‘Communication’, ‘Public Relations’ and ‘Professional Growth and Development’.

Sheninger sees social networking as integral to fostering real, multi-directional communication
between home, school, and community - a central tenent of his ‘Communication’ and ‘Public
Relations’ pillars. Strengthening these ties in an ongoing, two-way manner is associated with
academic success (Bouffard, 2008) and leveraging social networks in pursuit of this is a logical
step. Considering the assertion made previously, that home and school life is growing further
and further apart, taking steps to bring these two closer together can become a central
component of communication efforts. In addition, with the knowledge that 73% of online adults
use social networking sites (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2013) Sheninger’s
assertion that school leaders should become active on these networks is a valid one. In doing
so, leaders and teachers can deepen the relationship with their community and increase their
ability to connect students with learning agents. By spreading positive stories, social
networking can also precipitate a refocus on what a truly quality education for today’s students
in tomorrow’s world entails.

A further area that leverages the power of the social network as its evidential basis is the
‘Professional Growth and Development’ pillar, which focuses on the development of a PLN
(Personal Learning Network). PLNs are not new - we have always relied on a network of friends,
family, coworkers and acquaintances to enlarge our knowledge of the world (Warlick, 2009,
p13). What is new is that digital technologies are giving us the opportunity to extend and
organise these connections on a massive scale. As leaders, teachers, and indeed students
begin to collaborate and construct knowledge together they enter a ‘community of practice’
(Alderton, Brunsell & Bariexca, 2011, p354) where “people who share a concern or a passion for
something they do ... learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (Wenger, 2011, p1).
Knowledge, in these environments is fostered and maintained and allows participants to stay up
to date in their particular fields (Siemens, 2004). Sheninger asserts that this type of
connectedness should be the standard, not just an option.

In the assessment of the pillars above in terms of the related literature, it is clear that they hold
some veracity, as when social networks are used to propagate and enhance connections
between parents, stakeholders, and professionals they can generate powerful learning and
powerful change. In contrast to this, Sheninger’s chapter on ‘Branding’ seems to differ from this
theme. It espouses an almost advertorial, one-way approach to establishing a school’s brand
presence in order to publicise its culture. It is a concept based upon Sheninger’s own original
ideas, not referenced or backed by any particular educational research. It is a business-based
notion (Sheninger, 2014, p106), and one which could be interrogated as to its purpose - to
encourage the links and openness that Tim Berners-Lee (2009) suggests is required for the
growth of this connected world, or to encourage siloing and protection of the elements that
define a school’s brand? An interesting concept amidst an otherwise well thought-out


Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times sets out to provide leaders with a
toolkit for effective leadership in the digital world of today. The strength of the book lies in
Sheninger’s ability to cross-reference our relatively new ability to connect and share and
collaborate on a massive scale via social networking with tried and true models of leadership.
Sheninger offers a model of school leadership that is practical, and for the most part, well
researched. When looked at in terms of a particular context - a particular school in a particular
part of the world - and when used as a guide, not a rulebook, Digital Leadership offers much to
contribute to a leadership strategy for effective school communication, relationship building
and professional learning.
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