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Transforming Higher Education through an Ecosystem Model of Systemic Change Leadership

Leadership and Management

Transforming Higher Education through an Ecosystem Model of Systemic Change Leadership

Higher education leaders are struggling to manage the complex challenges of the moment and identify the right approaches for creating meaningful, transformative, lasting change. The aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing racial reckonings, and right-wing attacks on higher education point to a dire need for guidance on how to enact systemic change across America’s colleges and universities. We define “systemic change” as change that affects multiple courses, departments, programs, or divisions and results in alterations to policies, procedures, norms, cultures, or structures. While there is a need for such change, surprisingly there are few practical resources to help academic leaders with executing it.

To support leaders in conceptualizing and enacting systemic change, we developed the Change Leadership Toolkit (CLT). The CLT is a step-by-step guidebook for leaders embarking on systemic change projects. It is both grounded in research and full of practical, hands-on tools that leaders can put to use at their campuses right away. This article provides a brief overview of the CLT and some key information on leadership for systemic change.

To enact systemic change, leaders must employ an array of strategies (which we call “change leader moves”) that target various elements of their leadership ecosystem. For example, leaders must think about their vision for change, specific strategies to bring that vision to life, and how to assemble the right group of colleagues to carry out those strategies. Additionally, systemic change requires an understanding of leadership context, such as institutional type or mission, and the ways that elements of context can either be leveraged to promote change or navigated to overcome barriers to change. For example, leaders at a large, decentralized research university might take an approach that involves developing communication vehicles at multiple levels for communicating a project’s goals and generating buy-in, whereas leaders at a small liberal arts college might take a more relational and personal approach. In the next sections, we provide a brief overview of the conceptual model underpinning the CLT as well as a bit more information about its key components. This information can help academic leaders think more intentionally about how to accomplish transformative change on their campuses.

Ecosystem Model of Systemic Change Leadership

The CLT is grounded by what we term the Ecosystem Model of Systemic Change Leadership (Figure 1), which conceptualizes systemic change as a process encompassing multiple parts and numerous different campus actors. This model emerged through collaborative research with leaders in various roles and at different types of institutions across the nation. There are three main components of the model: (1) change leader moves, which are the actions leaders can take that support their desired outcomes; (2) leadership context, the unique set of internal and external influences shaping any change process; and (3) levers, or opportunities to amplify the moves that leaders make to achieve their overall change goals. The model also aims to show that the change process is not static but rather a dynamic set of actions informed by contextual factors that can either be barriers or serve as opportunities to leverage. This model focuses on the process of change to remind readers that leadership is a complex endeavor that goes beyond individual actions or traits (Holcombe et al., 2021).

Diagram showing a see-saw labeled "lever" perched atop a triangle labeled "leadership context." On one side of the  lever weigh a wheel of eight "leader moves" (discussed in next section of article). The leader moves are shown operating within a feedback/evaluation loop with systemic change outcomes.
Figure 1. Ecosystem Model of Systemic Change Leadership

Change leader moves

These form the heart of the systemic change process. Our research identified eight categories of moves that leaders can make to drive change. Below we provide a quick snippet of each:

  1. Create vision, expectations, and pacing. Create a shared vision that draws from a wide array of campus stakeholders and establishes clear goals and timing for the change initiative.
  2. Develop strategy and resources. Develop specific plans to advance the vision for change and identify the revenue, infrastructure, and human resources necessary for success.
  3. Foster diversity, equity, and inclusion. Include a variety of diverse voices in the change process to ensure that actions and outcomes are equity minded.
  4. Lead people and teams. Create and develop diverse teams with the appropriate set of expertise and skills to lead the change project.
  5. Engage in advocacy and navigate politics. Understand and navigate dynamics of power and influence on campus and advocate for change to various audiences.
  6. Communicate effectively. Craft appropriate messages for different groups of stakeholders, solicit and respond to feedback, and provide regular updates on progress.
  7. Sense-make and learn. Use data and information to understand the change landscape, raise consciousness, and bridge gaps in understanding to ensure strong organizational learning and development.
  8. Prepare for success over the long term. Establish mechanisms for measuring success and maintaining momentum, identify infrastructure required to scale and sustain the change, and consider next steps beyond the current change project.

The eight leader moves also have associated “submoves,” which help translate these actions into concrete steps toward systemic change. Moves can be made individually or in combination with one another. For example, leaders might consider how to foster diversity (Move 3) as they build and develop their change leadership team (Move 4). Or a team might use data to learn about current conditions on campus (Move 7) as they develop their change strategy (Move 2). Not every move may be necessary for every systemic change project, but awareness of the moves can help leaders navigate challenges and obstacles and make progress toward change.

Leadership context

Leadership context is the set of internal and external influences that shape a leader’s change landscape. Aspects of context include institutional type, leadership and governance structures, culture, politics, human capital and capacity, physical and financial resources, and external pressures. Every leadership context is unique and influences the moves that leaders make. To ensure that leaders are successful in accomplishing their change goals, they must consider their context when making moves or pulling levers (see below) to understand what opportunities and barriers they may need to anticipate or plan to address.


A change lever is an opportunity that can be leveraged or manipulated to advance or accelerate the desired change. For example, a change leadership team pursuing an overhaul of student advising systems to better support minoritized students may find a lever in the implementation of a new campus data dashboard technology platform. The platform could illuminate key gaps in student success by race or ethnicity that can be leveraged to gain support for the new advising system. Our research identified 11 potential levers for change, which can be found in detail in the CLT.

Conclusions and reflection

Thinking about systemic change as a complex ecosystem can help leaders better prepare and plan for the change process. The CLT offers frameworks, resources, and examples to build leaders’ capacity to engage in systemic change. For example, we have a resource library with an array of resources that are specific to each leader move category and case studies with different examples of systemic change projects, across institutions, implemented by varying leadership levels. A full set of resources and worksheets can be found here.


Elrod, S., Kezar, A., & Gonzalez, A. D. J., (2023). Change Leadership Toolkit: A guide for advancing systemic change in higher education. University of Southern California, Pullias Center for Higher Education. https://pullias.usc.edu/change-leadership-toolkit

Holcombe, E., Kezar, A., Elrod, S., & Ramaley, J. (Eds.). (2021). Shared leadership in higher education: A framework and models for responding to a changing world. Stylus.

Kezar, A. (2018). How colleges change: Understanding, leading, and enacting change. Routledge.

Ángel de Jesus González, EdD, is a postdoctoral research associate in the University of Southern California’s Pullias Center for Higher Education.

Elizabeth Holcombe, PhD, is a senior postdoctoral research associate in the University of Southern California’s Pullias Center for Higher Education.

Susan Elrod, PhD, is the chancellor at the Indiana University South Bend.

Adrianna Kezar, PhD, is the Dean’s Professor of Leadership and Wilbur-Keiffer Endowed Chair at the University of Southern California and director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education.


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