Over the years, I have witnessed many intelligent leaders stumble while leading change. A few because of external challenges or outright hostility; most because they did not recognize what being a leader means nowadays in the fast-moving economy of the 21st century. Without trying to be exhaustive, I want to address how organizational change often becomes a personal dilemma for leaders.
Truth is that by the time leaders consider the need for drastic change, they have already experienced loss of control and stress:
- something is not going as they had hoped,
- worse, it has gone completely awry,
- often, they are in conflict with others about what to do next.
The specters of poor performance and failure haunt the leader’s thoughts. Self-protection rather than change is more the mood of the moment.
The old way got you in hot water
The first step is to acknowledge that whatever contributed to the present challenge, it will not be resolved by doing more of the same. Remember Einstein’s wisdom: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” This is the time for daring. When confronted by a vexing challenge, the wise leader must leave the beaten path and venture into unknown territories, however uncomfortable that may be.
Finding a new way
And here the leader sets off on a new journey. In this phase, many leaders realize that finding the new path requires a new approach. Things must change, and quickly. Different conversations need to happen where people openly share to what they know, think and feel about the situation, and are willing to step into creating a new future. At that moment, they are eager to consider unfamiliar ways and to seek the help of others, often external consultants.
During the ensuing first meeting with the new resources that have been called in, the leader embraces a new vision and, more often than not, requests a proposal; something tangible they can act on. A mere formality. They want to start “yesterday.” A proposal is therefore sent summarizing the highlights discussed during the exploratory meeting. There is momentum.
Losing control on purpose?
After the phase of expansion comes that of doubt and withdrawal. A phase that consultants know well. They do not hear back from the leader within the committed timeframe. This is when the leader often delegates, or tries to, further communications to a subordinate, whose awkward unease indicates that the “boss” has gone into hiding. Days go by, no answer, not even requests for clarification. The excuse, of course, is “too busy” to make a decision. In the meantime, whatever issue started the ball rolling is out there festering visibly unaddressed.
Frozen into inaction
What unfolds next follows a predictable script, that of the fearful leader who has realized that the process itself, as well as how people will react, are complete unknowns. The fear of losing control during unrehearsed conversations with their staff is paralyzing. The thought of beginning a meeting that somehow acknowledges a kind of breakdown could expose the leader to attacks. Asking for help is equated to an admission of failure. Leading a meeting without a pre-set agenda that can “guide” people into acceptable conclusions feels like high trapeze without a safety net.
Leading change or picking the familiar road
After having first embraced the concept of open approach, the leader now wants to change the agenda, bring speakers, shorten the event, shrink the amount of time available for exploration—in short, pound the new process for change into a familiar structure. Make it look like something that has been done in the past, even if those past efforts never brought about meaningful results. In her book, Fierce Leadership, Susan Scott recounts similar instances with clients who want to her drop the word Fierce from her process when the word is her trademark actually holding the whole concept of her work and the foundation of her reputation.
Playing mind games
Confronted with their own fears, leaders will often use pseudo rational escape hatches. Two of the more common ones being: “it’s too expensive” or “what is the ROI?” At this point, there is little room for further conversation. It is increasingly clear the leader is choosing to ignore the devastating costs of dysfunction in the organization they lead. The decision, whether conscious or unconscious, is to maintain the things as they are. This is a tragic moment. By selecting the path of NO change, he or she has often sealed their fate. A few months later, the leader suddenly reaches the end of the “runway” without getting the organization to “take off”. They are fired. This often happens without warning. As global change accelerates, organizational patience plummets.
Claiming victory too soon
Sometime a leader begins to let go and embrace the unknown only to disengage from the process, suddenly reporting that “Things are going much better”. Even when there is no evidence to support the statement. The leader is no longer willing to consider further changes. Master coach, Ann Cheng, calls this phenomenon the “race to health.” As she explains, asking for help is excruciatingly painful for leaders. It is experienced as weakness and vulnerability, and few of us are good at the practice of staying open and vulnerable. Having experienced new potentials with their team, leaders feel relief and want to declare the good news: the job is done.
Dropping the prey for the shadow
Even when the leader engages the new practices, there are pitfalls. New practices derived from engaging the whole organization can deliver the first positive impacts surprisingly soon with more initiative, and better collaboration. It is tempting to call off deeper more sustained change and reduce action to those few limited areas that have improved. The danger is to want to subsume any new insights generated in an open process into the old operating model with a banner like “The problem has been diagnosed, the solution is identified. Further conversation is unnecessary”. Leaders often lose their commitment to sustained effort, forgetting that the “biggest improvements are systemic” as David Allen wrote in Getting Things Done, and require systems-thinking. Superficial change is no change.
Change is an inner journey first
Leading change demands that the leaders explore their own fear of the unknown, their discomfort with unknown processes, and anything that appears to challenge their sense of control. They need to find in themselves the clarity of purpose that will give them the courage to initiate change and stay the course. Working with the unknown has become the key tenet of contemporary leadership.